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The Group Trail Checklist

If you appreciate compelling stories about improving performance at complex tasks, I highly recommend the book The Checklist Manifesto. While much of the book addresses the fields of surgery, aviation, and skyscraper construction, I found it very relevant to horse training.



Among other cogent points, author Atul Gawande presents studies that show human error can be greatly reduced when clearly stated protocol exists. Interestingly, one of the key steps of successful aviation and surgery checklists, he believes, is each team member introducing himself or herself at the start of a task. This seems to have the effect of better working together as a team rather than a group of individual specialists operating on their own. Especially during mishaps and emergencies, this becomes important.

I got to thinking about how checklists might improve the safety or outcomes of horse training/riding, if at all. I’m not entirely sure how they would apply in all scenarios, but I could think immediately of one where they could assuredly reduce accidents: trail rides. Many wrecks that riders have on trail rides could be prevented by 1.) more conversation pre-ride about expectations and goals for the ride, 2.) checking gear, and 3.) making sure their horses are mentally in the right space. I propose the following checklist for riders to use at the start of a trail ride with friends or barnmates, regardless how well you might or might not know each other. I recommend going through the following steps before proceeding with the ride:

  1. Riders introduce themselves and horses, voice any concerns, and state goals for the ride (ex.: “This is my five-year old gelding; he has trail experience but mostly only in open grasslands, not on narrow paths; he can be excitable when encountering other horses on trail. I’m hoping to do a walk-only ride”).
  2. Check to ensure that your girth is tight.
  3. Confirm that you can keep your horse’s attention on you for at least 10 sustained seconds.
  4. State the designated route, potential hazards (i.e. a spooky herd of goats at mile two).

These steps might sound too simple for seasoned riders to implement. But pause for a moment and think about how many mishaps you’ve heard about on trail that could have been avoided by riders operating together more as a team.

Getting riders who plan to ride together talking to each other is a big piece of this. It sets a tone, prevents timid riders from “saving face” and not speaking up, and clues all riders in to potentially challenging dynamics. The simple steps above also allow any rider to note when perhaps someone else in the group is not able to keep her horse’s attention and to say something. Maybe the group can hold up and wait while this rider does some groundwork or takes a moment to settle her horse down. If nobody says anything, the likelihood that this horse acts up and causes trouble for the group increases. You might have your own step or two that you want to add to my proposed checklist, which is fine. I would argue that consistent practice of this kind of tool will help out many horses and riders.

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