Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Beach Ride--Avoiding a Disaster

by Laura Crum

We rode on the beach the other day. It was a lovely day—I started out taking photos. Here I am following my son down the trail to the ocean.

Sunny and I look at the view toward Santa Cruz.

My son and Wally ride off toward Monterey. Wally is going wading with Twister.

Wally and Twister coming out of the ocean.

At a certain point I realized that all my beach ride photos look like the beach ride photos I’ve posted before and I put the camera back in my pocket and just rode. But later I got to thinking about this, and I realized there’s a reason for this sameness. I like to ride on the beach on sunny winter days, mid-day, when the tide is low. So my photos reflect more or less the same scene every time. For the last four or five years, every beach ride has been with my son and our friend Wally. Wally rides his gray horse, Twister, my son rides sorrel Henry and I ride palomino Sunny. So the characters are always the same. I’m the only one who likes to take photos these days, so all you see of Sunny are his ears. Thus my beach photos are pretty repetitive.

On top of this, we ride on the same stretch of beach most of the time. The ride takes a little less than two hours, like most of my rides. And its mostly quite uneventful (my favorite sort of ride). We walk a lot, sometimes we trot or lope along on the hard sand. Sometimes some of us wade in the surf. Sometimes we ride back down the trail through the sand dunes. Its good exercise for the horses and pleasant for us. We’ve only had a few “exciting” moments in many years of riding there (my recent post titled “A Near Wreck,” in which Twister lay down, was one of these times).

Anyway, I was thinking about this, and I realized that the sameness of my photos and the uneventful nature of our rides are linked in a fundamental way, and today I wanted to talk about this. Because I have heard from so many of you who really want to try riding on the beach (kel and Mrs Mom, I’m thinking of you). And it is (or can be) a lovely experience. And yet, so many people have disasters when they try it. So today I’m going to talk about how to ride on the beach sans disaster.

First off, I have been riding on the beach for over twenty years. I’ve ridden several different horses there in that time. Most of my “horse friends” around here also ride on the beach. Between us all, I’ve heard a good many stories, above and beyond my own personal experiences. And then, there’s what I’ve heard from my blogging friends. The first thing I want to talk about was brought up in the comments on my last beach ride post by Aarene of “Haiku Farm” (listed on sidebar). And this experience has happened to many others I know—besides Aarene’s friend whom she mentioned. Listen carefully here, cause this is important. Very steady, reliable horses will sometimes freak out at the sight of the ocean. And if that alone doesn’t do it, being ridden in the surf often will. Aarene’s friend had a steady horse flip over backwards with him. when he rode the horse in the water.

So, tip number one is to try to make your first ride on the beach in the company of experienced “beach horses” ridden by folks who have been there often. Pay close attention to your horse. There is a difference between being excited and “up” and being truly frightened. If your horse is truly frightened, just let him follow a steady horse along. Don’t force him in the water. Or if you do choose to force him in the water, be prepared for a violent reaction.

Wading in the surf, though it looks very fun, is problematic in a lot of ways. Many horses don’t care for the waves. All three of our horses will go in the water if we insist-none of them love it. I never take my horse in very deep because I’ve had the experience of a horse getting dizzy in the surf and almost falling down. This is very common. If you wade in the waves, be aware if your horse starts to get dizzy and staggers. They do fall down—its not a myth.

Some folks are absolutely determined to get their horse in the water. (Wally is one of these.) And some horses really don’t want to do this. My recommendation is not to fight this battle—but if you choose to do it, the easiest way is to back the horse in. OK, don’t say I didn’t warn you that it can be a real wreck. The commonest problem occurs when a person rides a horse in as the wave goes out and the horse is “trapped” by the next incoming wave—he can’t get away from it. Some horses find this WAY too scary and really do panic. So be careful.

Now I know not everyone will be able to find a friend on an experienced beach horse to give them a lead. But whether you can do this or not, there are a few other important things you can do to improve your chances of having a positive experience on your beach ride. First off, choose a nice day, weatherwise. As I say, I like to ride mid-day in the winter on a sunny, peaceful day mid-week. But certainly, just as in a trail ride in any new place, don’t pick a windy day for your first time. That’s just asking for trouble.

Its very important to ride on the beach at low tide, or close to it. We do not plan a beach ride unless the weather is good and the tide is low at mid-day. If you go at high tide there will be no firm sand to ride on, and I can assure you that plowing through the deep sand the whole ride will not be enjoyable for either you or your horse. It is very dangerous to trot or lope for any length of time in deep sand—horses can easily injure themselves. So, go at low tide.

Another factor is how high the surf is. This is different to the tide. The tide can be low but if the swell is up, the high swell produces big breakers. This makes the “energy” down on the beach much more exciting. The breakers boom and crash, and if a horse is going to get over-stimulated, this will do it. We do not mind riding our experienced horses on the beach when the surf is high (at low tide, of course), but the “feeling” is very different from calm days when there is little swell. I highly recommend going for your first beach ride when the swell is down.

OK—you pick a calm, sunny day at low tide and with not much swell. What else can you do to make for a good experience? Pick the right beach.

In my part of the world, horses are not allowed on most of the beaches near town. But even if they were allowed, those beaches would be no fun. First off, you need a good, safe place to park your rig—roomy enough and away from traffic. Second, you want the beach to be reasonably empty. If you look back at the photos I posted, you will see that there is not a soul on the beach. This is the way I like it. Most rides we meet a few other people, and that’s no big deal. But let me tell you what can be a big deal.

One November weekend it was seventy degrees and we were free to go and the tide was right. It happened to be a Sunday afternoon, but we went anyway. Big mistake. The parking lot was packed and we had to park the rig on the road. The entrance to the beach was crowded with people, including many running, yelling children. There were kites in the air, and surfers running toward the waves carrying surfboards over their heads, and flapping tents, and boom boxes blaring and beach balls flying through the air. Our steady horses marched right through this zoo (thank God) and once we got a ways down the beach it was reasonably quiet, but I learned a big lesson. I don’t go to the beach on the weekend any more.

So my suggestion is to be sure you choose a beach where horses are allowed, and go check the place out first, sans horse. Try to go at about the same time/day of the week that you plan to take your horse. Check out the situation. Is there room to park in a safe place? What does the access to the beach look like? Is it horse friendly? Are horses allowed? (In any case, be sure they are not prohibited.) How crowded is it? Try to imagine if your horse will be OK with what you find.

Long, flat beaches are the best to ride on. Steeper beaches don’t produce the hard packed sand that flatter beaches do, even at low tide. And a short beach just leaves you going back and forth.

Now on to the unpredictable. We all know that stuff happens you can’t predict. It happens on trail rides and beach rides; it can happen in an arena, too. But trail rides, including beach rides, make you most vulnerable to the unpredictable. A few years ago we had one of these unpredictable scary events and it really taught me a lesson. We were riding down the beach on a pleasant day at low tide and everything we could predict was in our favor. We were having our usual relaxing time. And then….

Two helicopters came flying down the beach, flying exactly above the shoreline, side by side, very low. We could see them coming, but there wasn’t much we could do to get out of the way. Of the three horses, my son’s horse, Henry, reacted the most. His head came up and his eyes got big. I rode my horse up next to Henry and—this is key—I grabbed the halter he always wears under his bridle. Wally rode up on the other side and stood next to Henry. We really didn’t have time to get my son off safely, or I might have done that. I said whoa to Henry and held him (this might backfire if you are holding a horse by the bridle—this is why the halter is important) and fortunately Sunny and Twister never flinched. The helicopters flew right overhead in a huge storm of noise and wind and Henry took a nervous step backwards, but heeded my tug and “Whoa.” We got through it just fine.

So, always keep the halter on under the bridle when trail riding. It can help you in so many ways. Ever since the helicopter incident I also carry a leadrope wrapped around my saddle horn. If you need to tie a horse up, lead a horse from another horse or from the ground, pull a horse out of the mud…etc. that leadrope will come in very handy. If I had had it the day the helicopters came by, I could have clipped it on Henry’s halter and I would have felt much more confident that I could hold him. Having the halter on under the bridle does no harm (yes, it looks ugly) and it can really help you in a bind.

Let’s see, check out my recent post “A Near Wreck” for the description of how Twister lay down at the beach. Be aware. Horses will sometimes try to lie down in sand or water. If your horse stops for no reason, make him go on. Especially if he paws the ground (though Twister gave no particular warning—he just stopped for a minute and then lay down).

Wearing a helmet is always a good idea—says I, who just got one a month ago (but I’m wearing it). Riding a steady, reliable horse in the double digits that has lots of experience “outside” will go the farthest towards keeping you safe. Even if the horse has never been to the beach, the odds are in your favor that he’ll behave himself. Especially if you follow the tips I’ve listed. We took Henry and Twister for their first ever beach rides, and they did great.

That about covers my beach ride insights. I’m sure there’s something I’ve forgotten. Please fell free to add your own tips in the comments, or ask any questions you may have. Riding on the beach IS really fun, and I hope you all get to do it—sans disasters.

PS--I have been pretty sick the last couple of days and not on the computer much, so have not kept up with email or comments. But hopefully I'm better now, and will catch up.


Jaye Robin Brown said...

Wow, that helicopter story is frightening. One of the trails I ride on involves going under an Interstate overpass and it always freaks me out a little bit. I've ridden on the beach once, in Mexico on a little rental pony. It was fun.

Funder said...

Good advice!

Most endurance riders will only walk or canter in deep sand. They say the canter gets the horse up out of the sand - but they only canter a fully conditioned horse in the sand. If you want an idea of how hard it is, just get off and walk or jog in deep sand - it's like running in molasses.

When I switched to clip-on reins, I quit carrying a lead rope. I ride with a snap-on halter bridle combo, so I always have a halter on the horse, and I can unsnap the reins and have a 7' lead rope in just a couple seconds. It looks really pretty to have a horse properly tacked up in just a clean leather bridle with nice reins, but it's impractical for trail riding.

The helicopters sound terrifying!

Laura Crum said...

Funder--You are so right. I have walked the trail through the dunes that we ride on and it is really hard to do. The horses get a workout when we go that way. We are careful not to overdo it. I did not know that cantering was easier on a horse than trotting in deep sand--but we only trot or canter down on the hard sand.

Your rein/bridle system makes sense. I'd only add that I have clip on reins too, and it would take me a minute to unclip them and fasten them to a halter as a lead. My main thought is to be able to get my son's horse safely on the lead at a moment's notice--in case of scary stuff like low flying helicopters--and the lead rope I carry wrapped around the horn would be the quickest for that, and I wouldn't have to dismount to do it. But everybody's needs are gonna be different. I can't imagine you'd want to do an endurance ride with a leadrope wrapped around the saddle horn (!)

Our horses aren't scared of helicopters in general. They've flown over us (at a reasonable height) on the beach and trails before. But for some reason, this day, two army helicopters were flying really low, right along the water line. And there was just no way to avoid them. I thought later that if a horseman had been seriously hurt, the army should have been held responsible. Its known that horsemen use that beach--and it ought to have been completely obvious that what they were doing would freak most horses out. Not to mention that flying that low they must have seen us (!)

Jaye Robin Brown--I don't like going under the those busy roads either. One trail I used to ride in another place went under the highway--through a great big culvert. Once the horses got used to it they were all right, but it was scary the first time. Thanks for your comment.

whitehorsepilgrim said...

Curiously a friend was telling me last week that we should go and find a beach to ride on. The point was that "there will be lots of open space and we'll be able to go fast for a long way". That is the crux of the issue with some riders - the beach as a place to open the taps and be a bit crazy. That's an invitation for a mishap.

I would also be concerned about debris such as glass on certain beaches. Maybe yours are cleaner.

I remember from river crossings how easy it can be for a rider to become disorientated by looking down at the water. I used to look into the distance and keep a nice open rein in case of need to make a big course correction.

I'm with you and Funder on a lead rope or clip-on reins. I use the latter - nice plaited webbing reins. They are really useful. I prefer a lead rope tied around my horse's neck. However there is a convenient way to coil up a lead rope that is clipped onto a D-ring, and one that can be undone in a moment. I should post a photo of that.

I forget where it is, however racehorses are taken to the beach to ride in the sea because the salt water was supposed to be good for their legs.

I know from a colleague who was an army helicopter pilot that they use riders, cyclists and walkers as practice targets. Officially they don't, of course, but reality is that they do. In Britain riders are told to wear fluorescent gear in areas known for helicopters, which has the effect that the pilots cannot allege that they hadn't seen the riders. That way they steer clear to avoid being accused of causing an accident. Just lately a pilot was court-martialled for reckless flying that caused a fatal crash and the judge said some pretty scathing things about discipline in some army helicopter units.

Laura Crum said...

whitehorsepilgrim--Great comment. I couldn't agree more--lots of folks simply consider the beach an excuse for a good long gallop. If there is no hard sand (because they didn't think to ride at low tide) they simply gallop through the deep sand--on their not-fit horses. The amount of bowed tendons and suspensory tears that have resulted from this have lined my vet's pocketbook for sure.

I really haven't seen any glass on our beaches--in many, many rides, but i am always watchful for this, wherever I ride. I knew a guy whose horse stepped on a broken bottle just wrong and cut himself to the bone beneath the fetlock. I surely wouldn't ride on any beach known to have much debris.

When we rode in the mountains we would ride with halters on under the bridles and the leadropes tied around the horse's necks as you describe. I have gotten out of the habit of that, for some reason. I have also coiled a leadrope and tied it on my saddle. The way I do it now is handy and easy to do and it doesn't bug me (and I know I could get that lead rope clipped onto Henry in a quick second), but I'd be interested to see your idea.

I did not know that the pilots might have been using us as a target. That is a bad thought. I think in my case they were simply, for whatever reason, doing this maneuver of flying side-by-side very low along the beach, and though they must have seen our three horses, they did not care if the horses panicked (or thought it might be funny). If I hadn't been so busy keeping my kid safe, I would have flipped them off as they went over--they were certainly low enough to have seen the gesture. What I ought to have done, of course, is contacted the local army base and complained loudly and harshly and mentioned lawsuits and that we had had a child with us. But its a little late for that. The incident happened about two years ago, and hasn't reoccured since.

Dreaming said...

I've never had the opportunity to ride on a beach - but it certainly is an inviting idea.
However, I did have an experience with a helicopter... and it wasn't good. We had about 8 horses - they went in 8 different directions when we were buzzed. 3 riders fell off. My friend was one of them and she ended up going to the hospital because she was dizzy and her head hurt. She ended up being fine. Oh, and yes, she wore her helmet and that, at least, saved her face from being scraped up as she landed face first!

Laura Crum said...

Dreaming--That is awful. I think we horsemen should rise up against such thoughtless behavior by helicopters. Seriously.

AareneX said...

Helicopter stories! I've got one of those:

Halter-bridles: they are all I use anymore. And the clip-on-rein is my emergency leadrope (although I do bring a proper rope if we're going to be doing trail-building and I plan to tie my horse for more than a few minutes).

Safety: Laura, I'm so delighted that you've joined the head-smart gang. Good for you!

Mrs. Mom said...

Feel better quick Laura!! Lots of creeping crud going around these days.

I've investigated a beach ride here- but it looks like it is a bucket list item that is not going to be fulfilled here. (Its OK- I think Phat Boy would have a coronary and Tater Tot is a long ways off yet from being ready for a ride like that.)

I had to giggle about taking horses in the water. I am *N-O-T* a salt water fan at all, and honestly had no intention of asking my trusty steed to put a hoof anywhere near the water. (Watched JAWS too much as a kid I suppose....HA~)

But the idea of riding along on the hard packed sand sounds neat. Have to see what the future holds!

But meantime, you get better! ;)

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--I finally had to admit that a helmet does make sense--but I will add my faithful reminder that a helmet does NOT keep you safe--most of the serious horse wrecks I knew would not have been changed by wearing a helmet, including one fatality, where the child WAS wearing a helmet. What keeps you safest overall is riding solid horses and making good choices. That said, I am forced to admit (after a lifetime of safe helmetless riding) that there is very little downside to a helmet and no real reason not to wear one--as many say, its like a safety belt. Can be uncomfortable, has never done me any good in a lifetime of wearing one, but might save my life tomorrow, and therefore worth using.

Thanks, Mrs Mom--I do feel better today. And I hope you some day get a chance to ride on the beach and have a lovely time.

Linda said...

I've never ridden on an ocean beach, but have ridden a ton on beaches alongside rivers with big boats coming down creating waves--not the same thing since the horses can easily escape the little waves. I can't even imagine how they'd feel with a big one coming up on them and no place to go. Thanks for the advice. I'll remember it if I ever get the change to ride at the ocean.

Laura Crum said...

Linda--I rode by (and across--the horse had to swim) a river in my youth. I loved it. But haven't done that in many years. My horses don't mind crossing creeks, and the horse I rode in that river did not mind swimming. It seems to be the breakers at the ocean which make the horses nervous when they wade in. And who can blame them?

horsegenes said...

When my horses are out on pasture they are surrounding by rice land. They use helicopters to apply different types of seed, fertilizer and weed control agents. These helicopters fly really low on the rice check, then raise up over the pasture, then back down over the next check. When they are seeding sometimes you can hear the seed hitting the water. The first time my big paint horse experienced a low flying helicopter he thought he was going to die. Now, he doesn't even raise his head from grazing. It has just become part of his life. I bet if he were on the beach and a helicopter flew low overhead he would be somewhat spooky all over again. You can prepare for a whole bunch of scenerios but when the scenery changes, so does the situation.

Laura Crum said...

kel--Yeah, my horses aren't usually scared of helicopters. One flew over us at the beach the other day--at a reasonable height- and none of them reacted at all. And you know, Sunny and Twister never even flinched at the low flying ones--so you just never know.

horsegenes said...

Hey Laura - here is a question...

Could it be that Twister and Sunny didn't flinch because you and Wally were so focused on keeping your son safe that your attention wasn't directed actually at the helicopters? Just thinking outloud???

Laura Crum said...

kel--I was pretty scared, actually. I could see those helicopters coming and I was afraid we might have a serious wreck. If a rider can transmit fear to a horse, then I was doing it. Sunny truly didn't seem to be afraid. And, scared or not, I'm pretty good in a crisis. I just focus on doing what needs to be done, and, as you point out, that attitude transmits to a horse, too. Wally wasn't scared--Wally is never scared--and Twister showed no fear. Henry was alarmed but not panicked. I don't know why they reacted as they did, but I am truly grateful they held it together. It was pretty upsetting. I didn't ride on the beach for almost a year. But we've ridden many times since and all has been fine.

whitehorsepilgrim said...

I've just posted pictures of coiling a rope at:

I forgot to mention the autogyro pilot. We've one of these based locally - same type as the one used in the Bond film "You Only Live Twice". It seems as if our pilot wants to emulate Bond. I've seen some seriously illegal low flying and some stunting too, luckily not close anyone riding.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you whitehorsepilgrim. I checked out your post and photos and that looks handy--and neat, too. I will have to try it (see my comment on your post).

Grey Horse Matters said...

Sorry to hear you weren't feeling well, hope you're better now.

All good tips and insights into beach riding. I would think the majority of horses have never seen the ocean so it would seem pretty frightening to them. When we lived on Long Island,N.Y. my daughter would ride her horse Lifeguard to L.I. Sound from the stables. Lifeguard loved it and would swim in it with her aboard. He even went up to boats and splashed the people in them. He was a treasure. My horse and some of the others...not so much. They were frightened even with a steady eddy along. So it's good to know your horse and be cautious.

Helicopters can be a scary experience. One day riding in the arena on a 4yr. old my daughter was training this idiot pilot thought it would be a good idea to hover low over the arena and watch the horses go, I guess. The little guy lost his mind and if it wasn't for my horse Erik actually keeping his head and standing still next to the trainee I'm afraid it could have been disastrous.

Great tips for anyone considering a ride on the beach with or without helicopters.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks Grey Horse. Lifeguard sounds like a real jewel of a horse. What fun.