Horseback riding can be a fun way to spice up a vacation. There’s nothing like viewing the countryside from the vantage point of the saddle. While trail horses are bred to be well-behaved, though, they’re still 1,200-pound animals that aren’t entirely predictable.

Whether you’re planning a visit to a dude ranch or signing up for a single trail ride during your travels, here are five ways to stay safe in the saddle while horseback riding.

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1. Think about your head first

If you’ve never ridden a horse before, forget the cowboy fantasies. Don’t swap the safety of wearing a helmet for the swagger of slipping on a Stetson. Many ranches don’t require riders over 18 to wear a helmet, but there are very good reasons why you should. For example, a 2008 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that horseback riding resulted in nearly 12 percent of all sports-related traumatic brain injuries, the highest of any activity.

For a helmet to protect your noggin it has to fit right and tight. “You should be able to flip your head upside down and have the helmet stay in place without the harness,” says Debbie Stanitski, MD, president of the Equestrian Medical Safety Association.

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2. Don’t oversell your abilities

Even if you’ve trotted a time or two, don’t overestimate your equine abilities. Otherwise you could end up on an advanced horse that’s a real handful, says Aubrie Lorona of Swan Lake Outfitters in Glacier National Park, Montana. Use horse sense when you’re asked how much experience you have: Be honest.

Don’t be tempted to pick a pretty pony either, says Lorona, who helps to supervise 15,000 trail rides each summer. Let the stable play matchmaker. The staff will know individual characteristics of the horses — which ones will stay calm with a novice, say, and which have the backbone (literally) for a heavier rider.

Be realistic about the length of the outing. A full day trip on horseback sounds like a dream, but it’s typically too exhausting for someone who doesn’t saddle up much (or at all). “Riding a horse isn’t like just sitting in a chair,” says Lorona. She recommends that first-timers limit rides to an hour or two.

3. Dress the part

Short shorts, a flowy top and sandals might make a cute Instagram post, but if you’re going to hit the trail you need to trade trendy for safe. Most riding centers require guests to wear long pants, says Lorona, as ticks and low, scratchy branches are often prevalent on a trail.

Closed-toe shoes are the footwear of choice — ideally boots with a short heel to keep the foot securely in the stirrup. While many trail guides allow hiking boots, sneakers are a no-no. “A gym shoe can slip right through the stirrup,” Stanitski points out.

4. Keep calm and ride on

Sometimes horses can stumble or shake on rocky terrain, which can make riders quake in the saddle. To handle these missteps, “make sure your heels are pointing down and you’re putting at least sixty percent of your weight in the stirrups,” advises Lorona.

Beyond that, don’t fret, says Dr. Stanitski. Most places will instruct you how to turn — and stop — a horse before you even hop on. Trail horses are trained to walk nose-to-tail in a line, but if for some reason your mount decides to gallop off (a rare occurrence, says Lorona), pulling straight back on the reins should bring him to a stop.

5. Vet the ranch

Unless you plan to vacation locally, you won’t be able to scope out a dude ranch or corral in person before you book your trip. If you can, make sure the horses look healthy and happy in their enclosures — ears perked up, no visible ribs.

Otherwise, read online reviews. Scroll through the website of any ranch you’re considering. Better yet, get word-of-mouth recommendations from folks who’ve been there. Who knows? You may have so much fun on your equine excursion that you’ll find yourself saddling up at a paddock closer to home.

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Jane Carlton is an equine journalist working out of Massachusetts. She enjoys poetry, poodles and especially ponies.