Most of the riders who go on trail rides while on vacation tend not to be horse people, or “real riders.” To me, real riders are those who ride regularly, either owning their own horses or taking lessons frequently, in some cases ride professionally or competitively, and in all cases know how not to behave like an idiot when around horses.

These “real riders” are pretty infrequent on trails like this, but sometimes we get lucky. I say lucky because when a whole group of riders fit into this category, it makes the guides’ lives REALLY easy, and the riding experience so much more fun for everyone, ourselves included. But you would be surprised how many people insist immediately upon arrival that they are “real riders,” even though we can tell one way or the other from the moment they set foot at the barn. These are some of the biggest giveaways one way or the other.

1. Walk the Walk. If your boots were made for walking, and I mean on the fashion runway, they don’t make you a cowgirl. Cowgirl boots are such a fashion statement these days, they’re a dime a dozen (except not, because boots are terribly expensive) but everyone has some whether they really ride or not. If your boots are scuffed and beaten, with remnants of dirt, mud, and manure, you’re probably a rider. If your boots are proper riding boots, you bring your own half chaps, even better.
Bonus—if you show up with your own helmet, and it’s a proper riding helmet and not a bike/skateboard/ski helmet, you’re definitely a real rider!

2. Talk the Talk. Riding really has its own language. Asking intelligent questions using the right terminology, (like why some of our Western saddles have a single rigging, and some a double rigging, or do I neck rein or direct rein) or identifying a particular horse by breed (and not an obvious one, like a Paint, but something subtle like the difference between a Mustang and a Canadian Mustang), color me impressed. You just might be a real rider.

3. Know when to STOP Talking the Talk. There’s a fine line between asking intelligent questions, and using the right terminology to ask unintelligent questions. There’s a difference between demonstrating your knowledge, and demonstrating that you think you are more knowledgeable than we are. Knowledge itself does not equal wisdom. True, sometimes trail guides in places like this are not necessarily high-level riders, because they don’t have to be. Our job is to keep you safe and manage the horses, not to train them to top level. However, many of us do come from riding backgrounds, and have more extensive experience than we actually put to use in this particular setting. If you spend the ride questioning the guides, telling us how to do our jobs, or telling your friends/family members on the ride to do things we specifically told them NOT to do, (telling little Jimmy to stop his horse and wait, and then kick it to go faster to catch up so he’ll get to trot, after we’ve told everyone to please keep it at a walk and keep the horses moving) it rubs us wrong like a bad saddle sore.

4. Mounting at the Block. Even for someone who used to ride long ago and remembers how to properly mount, it can be difficult if you haven’t done it in a while. We even make it easy: there’s a mounting block, someone holds the horse, and someone holds the opposite stirrup. Those who make it look easy, they know what they’re doing. The ones who need a push from behind while telling me what an expert they are—not so much.
Bonus—if you drop something while on the trail, and get off to fetch it and get back on before I get the chance to have to do so for you, that’s super helpful and really wins you points!

5. The Bounce. So someone says they’ve done a fair amount of riding and they haven’t failed the above tests. The real test is how they actually ride. Our terrain, beautiful though it is, is generally quite rocky with lots of switchbacks and not very conducive to anything other than walking, even for experienced riders, but there are a few grassy meadows where we can pick up a little speed. If we pick up a nice, slow jog and I see riders bouncing helter-skelter, hanging on to the saddle horn for dear life, or looking like they’re getting motion sickness, that’s the end of that, you’re not a real rider. If I glance over my shoulder and see the telltale head-bobs of the posting trot, all hands on the reins and not the horn, we’re on the right track.

6. Photo Op. There’s a point on our trail loop that overlooks all of Dillon Valley and the lake, with the mountains and several ski resorts visible in the distance. It is absolutely the perfect photo op, but when we tell people to line their horses up together for a group shot, it’s like herding cats. Most riders don’t care if their horses are eating grass while being photographed, or even if it’s their horse’s face or their ass that’s in the photo, as long as the rider looks good it’s Instagram-worthy. When I get a group who, when asked to line up, do so in a show-ring-perfect manner, I know they’ve done this before.

7. Après-ride. Most clients wait for assistance to dismount, and then hand off the horse and walk away. Real riders require no assistance, and often can properly tie up their own horses.
Bonus—if you start untacking and brushing all on your own—it’s certainly not required but we always appreciate it!

Best Comment of the Season

8. The award for this one goes to self-proclaimed “expert cowgirl” who specifically requested our “feistiest stallion.” No horseman or horsewoman worth their salt wants to ride someone else’s stallion to go out on a pleasure jaunt, and no rider of merit wants a horse with an attitude for a leisurely trail ride. What really sealed the deal on this one was, since our horses are by-design not feisty and we definitely don’t have any stallions, we put her on our most “majestic” (her words, not ours) nag. Leroy was an old, gray, grizzled and swaybacked conformational disaster of a mustang, severely lacking the motivation to be feisty or the equipment to be a stallion. How I knew this woman was no expert? She couldn’t tell the difference.