May 2016 - Surf’s Up!

Conditioning, courage and tons of fun are among the many benefits of beach riding.

by Kim F. Miller

From Border Field State Park near the Mexican border to Pt. Reyes National Sea Shore near San Francisco and points north, the California coast still has many places to get out and gallop on the beach. Or piaffe, passage or leisurely stroll, depending on the horse and rider involved. Or a guided group ride for those unable to or uninterested in taking their own horses on the sand.

(top photo) San Diego Beach Rides at Border Field State Park. Photo: San Diego Beach Rides

“It’s like taking a month’s vacation in one hour,” says show jumper Kristin Hardin, who regularly takes horses and students for sometimes rambunctious rides on Pismo State Beach in San Luis Obispo County.

Olympic gold medal eventer Gina Miles incorporates beach canters, and occasional sprints, as a regular part of conditioning routines for her horses, also at Pismo. And accomplished dressage rider and trainer Barbi Breen-Gurley routinely works her Grand Prix and other horses on the ample hard sand at low tide on Montana del Oro and Morro Strand State Beach, which are just minutes from her Sea Horse Ranch in San Luis Obispo County’s Los Osos.

As Jessica Winne at San Diego Beach Rides acknowledges, most horse owners and enthusiasts have a romantic fantasy about galloping their horse, in and out of the waves, down an endless beach. If the sun is sinking in the background, all the better!

That scenario is certainly an option, but one that should be tempered with the advice of experienced beach riders to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for horse and rider.

Beach Basics

Low tide is the best time to ride on the beach. There’s a wider swath of firm wet sand that creates good footing and gives horses and riders more room to maneuver amongst themselves. Some California beaches, most notably Pismo, also allow motorized vehicles, so that extra room to maneuver can be especially important.

Kristin Hardin and her daughter. Photo: Anne Amundson Hoover

Low tide also typically means the waves are farther out and smaller, lessening their fear factor for horses. “A lot of people think their horses are going to just climb right into the ocean and they wind up having a big fight about that,” says Jessica. It’s be

tter to introduce a horse to the beach by riding them parallel to the water and letting them tip their toes in gradually.

San Diego Beach Ride’s guided treks on rental horses include a Swim Adventure option in which horses wade up to their chests, but these are done on veteran ocean-going mounts.

“Don’t aim them at the water,” advises Kristin Hardin. “When the waves go out they can get disoriented and get really dizzy. If the horse is really brave and goes in, they can get completely unbalanced and fall over.”
“Yes,” she adds. “I learned that the hard way.”

Look for a low tide moment when there’s no waves or white water to let the horse dip their hooves into the water and don’t force it.

“Pay attention to the footing!” Jessica urges. Even when it looks like it could be smooth running, patches of soft sand can be hard to see and pose a tripping and injury risk. If you are riding in the water at any depth, seaweed can wrap around a hoof or leg and create an unsettling sensation. “You need to know your horse and know the footing, because it can change.”

Anticipating crowds and following standard trail etiquette are important. An off-season weekday is better than a summer holiday to introduce a newbie to the sand. Fourth of July weekend, for example, can be a little crazy with both rental outfit rides and lots of individuals and groups sharing the strand. Common sense courtesies, like not whizzing past another horse, are key.  Just as in any setting, horses often don’t like the feeling of getting left behind.

Walk in deep dry sand. It’s a much less stable surface than sand at the water and prime for overstraining muscles and tendons at higher gaits.

Bountiful Benefits

Weekly beach rides are ideally part of the training routine for Kristin Hardin and many students at her A circuit hunter/jumper barn in Santa Barbara County’s New Cuyama. This includes most of the show horses.

“It’s really good for their minds and helps them to be brave,” the trainer and rider says. It’s not for every horse, though. Her Grand Prix jumper Firestone, for example, doesn’t get to go. “He has a tendency to buck a lot and I don’t want to get bucked off and lose him down the beach,” she laughs.

Kristin considers it equally good for people, but doesn’t force it on anyone. “Some riders are not accustomed to riding without fences and they might be afraid of being run away with. I don’t push it because I don’t want anyone in a situation where they are not comfortable.”

Runaways are actually rare in Kristin’s experience. “We stay together and I’ve never had one that was so brave that he would run away on the beach.”

Pismo State Beach is an hour haul over the Santa Barbara Mountains from Kristin’s place. From the Park’s main staging area, they ride south at all gaits, depending on the experience and comfort level of the horses and riders on each excursion. Walking and trotting are the main paces, but some gallops and the occasional race happen with appropriate players and conditions.

“It’s relaxing and beautiful and something that not that many people get to do,” Kristin says. “We sometimes see dolphins out in the waves and they try to keep up with us as we ride along.”

Barbi Breen-Gurley and Bienenta in their dressage arena with Morro Bay and Morro Strand Beach in the background.

Serious conditioning, some cold-water therapy and big time fun are the beauties of beach riding for 2008 Olympic gold medal eventer Gina Miles. Based at Cypress Hills Farms in San Luis Obispo, she also adores Pismo for its wide and seemingly endless stretch of solid, hard sand. It’s perfect for interval training that combines long distances at a relatively slow hand gallop, typically three sets of six minutes, with rests in between. Her super fit horses, often the Thoroughbreds, add sprint work to that.

Pismo is perfect because it’s so long. Gina estimates that they can ride five miles or so before turning back. “It’s even, level footing where it’s safe to do some sprint work.” Post-gallop, it’s into the water for those horses comfortable with it, for effective (and free) cold salt-water therapy to cool the legs down and thwart inflammation.

When it’s appropriate to urge a horse into the water, Gina advises her students to ride into it “strongly and confidently.” Gina clarifies that she’s talking about small waves, i.e., six inches in height:  “When a wave is coming toward you, you want to sit and ride at it like it’s a jump,” she explains. “That tells the horse it’s OK and let’s them know what you want them to do.”

Grand Prix dressage rider and trainer and author Barbi Breen-Gurley rides all of her horses on the beaches within easy reach of her aptly-named Sea Horse Ranch in San Luis Obispo County’s Los Osos. These include Montana del Oro State Beach and Morro Strand State Beach.

The author of Enlightened Riding, Barbi believes that correct schooling and muscular development should be a constant priority in and out of the ring. Her beach riding routines are similar to her training sessions in the arena.

Tides willing, piaffe and passage in the shallow water can be great exercises. “That can be especially good for them because they have to lift their feet up,” she notes.

Getting out of the ring, be it a trail or beach, “is important for any horse’s brain,” says Barbi. “It can help them settle and build confidence and relaxation, rhythm and balance.” Barbi has competitive trail riding and eventing in her background and has long valued the conditioning aspect of beach riding.

She also likes the fact that beach riding puts horses and their people in a shared space with other users of the natural environment.

Along with training and lessons, Sea Horse Ranch offers temporary boarding for vacationers with horses. Barbi is happy to escort those visitors, on their own horses, on various beach rides by prior arrangement. The access and expertise her program offers make it a great introduction to safe, fun, and beneficial beach riding.

Where To Ride

A little bit of Googling goes a long way toward finding places to ride horses on the beach.  The California State Parks website,, enables a park search by feature, including “beaches” and “horseback riding” -- unfortunately not both at the same time.

Gina Miles’ daughter Taylor on their favorite, Pismo State Beach.

But don’t stop at the State Parks, wonderful as they are. City and County beaches, plus the Pt Reyes National Sea Shore, offer some opportunities, too. If you or your horse are newbies at a particular beach, or to beach riding itself, contact a rental horse/guided tour operation that offers beach rides. They may be willing to guide you on your horse with their seasoned old equine salts to ease the introduction. Or find a buddy with a veteran beach horse to go with you.

Here’s just a few suggestions throughout the State:

Northern California
~ Pt. Reyes National Sea Shore
~ Poplar Beach in Half Moon Bay. Guided rides and rental horses available through Sea Horse Ranch in Half Moon Bay. (no relation to Sea Horse Ranch in Los Osos.)

Central Coast
~ Morro Strand State Beach features sand, dunes and sea stretching from the town of Morro Bay to Cayucos in San Louis Obispo County. It overlooks Estero Bay and Morro Rock.
~ Pismo State Beach features long wide swaths of flat, hard sand.
~ Oceano Dunes State Beach is three miles south of Pismo Beach, off Highway 1. This is the only State Park where vehicles can be driven on the beach, so be aware that there may be noise and traffic.  Rental horse beach rides are available on this beach through Pacific Dunes Ranch.

Southern California
~ Border Field State Park is south of Imperial Beach in San Diego County, stretching to the Mexico border. It has four equestrian staging areas and is served by several horse rental outfits that offer beach/trail rides, including San Diego Beach Rides.