Riding along a windswept, sandy beach on a summer's evening; what a beautiful image. But wonderful though the experience is there can be dangers lurking. Recently in the UK, a horse drowned in the sea when its rider became unseated and dogs harried it into the water. Here's how you and your horse can enjoy the seaside safely.
Riding on the beach is exhilarating and great for fittening your horse, but common sense should always prevail. First of all, check that you are allowed to ride your horse on the beach. Some councils ban horses and dogs from popular beaches during the summer months for reasons of safety and hygiene. If you are boxing your horse to the beach, make sure there is a suitable car park where you can leave your lorry and unload your horse and do remove any droppings, spilt hay etc before you go.
Always check the tide times for the specific area of beach on which you're intending to ride. You must be aware of the tides especially if you're riding along a narrow spit of sand with coves. It's very easy to become cut off and some tides can come in extremely quickly. Tide timetables are available from local shops, the council or on-line. Also check the weather forecast and if it looks like being rough, take a rain check. There is precious little shelter to be had on the beach and struggling along in the pouring rain whilst being sandblasted is not fun for either you or your horse!
Remember that sand quality can vary from day to day and some beaches also have areas of deep, sinking mud. Always ride along the beach in walk and trot first to check the conditions underfoot then turn around and canter or gallop back along the route you've checked. Very soft or overly hard sand can cause injury so always check that it's safe first.
It is sensible to ride in company and for at least one person to have a mobile phone with them in case of emergencies. Horses who are not familiar with the beach environment may become overexcited by the wide open space and strange sights and smells. Take it slowly until your horse settles and always be on the lookout for hazards; small children playing, dogs running around, kite surfers etc. Ride parallel with the sea, not straight towards it. This will give your horse chance to get used to paddling and if he does decide to spook at the breaking waves he'll shy away from them rather than shooting into reverse or rearing. Don't be tempted to ride too far out into the water; some beaches shelve steeply away suddenly and some have rocky outcrops hidden under the water which could cause injury.
Swimming with your horse is not really a sensible idea. Horses are not able to manoeuvre easily in water and can be caught out by strong currents in deep water. A horse's natural instinct is to move in a straight line and this may be out to sea rather than back to shore as horses do not have the same geographical instincts that we do. Galloping, or even trotting, through large pools of deeper water on the beach is not a good idea either unless you've walked them first. The water may conceal holes, debris, rocks or sinking sand.
If you decide to venture up off the beach and into sand dunes, always follow marked paths and trails. If you go 'off piste' you may be damaging wildlife habitat or disturbing nesting seabirds. Be considerate to others on the beach. If it's busy, stick to walking quietly and always give way to those on foot.
If you don't have your own horse, there are plenty of riding centres around the country which offer beach rides. Always do your homework before you book. The organisers should ask you for details of your riding experience and assess you before partnering you with a suitable horse. Rides should be split into groups of similar abilities and requirements both for safety reasons and to make sure that everyone enjoys themselves. There should be two guides accompanying the ride; one to lead and the other as a back-marker to keep an eye on the group and make sure that no-one gets left behind.
So, enjoy the summer and the beach with your horse but use your common sense and stay safe.