By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Mother Nature is called “Mother” for a good reason. She nurtures our body with food, water, and air. She reminds us by life itself, the vagaries of living — goodness, sickness, and death — that we are connected with others and with nature. And, as each day is born so is our spirit renewed, if we let it, with her gifts of sun, scenery, and the wonders of life and living. It should not be a surprise that more than 60 percent of horse owners enjoy nature through trail riding. It does not matter what discipline you intended when you bought your horse, what your financial standing is, or what the economy is doing, trail riding keeps us connected with our horses and with nature. In 40 years of joy, hardship, love come and gone, and finances gained or lost, trail riding and a connection with nature, my other Mother, is the one constant in life that has kept me grounded.
Are you ready for the wild side? Horse camping can get you into gorgeous country less travelled. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Horse camping is simply trail riding with enough gear to stay overnight. It adds meaning to your adventure: new country, new scenery, new trails, new challenges, and learning more about yourself and more about horses. Whether you love camping or would rather stick a needle in your eye than spend one night in a tent, trail riding with pack horses can be a rewarding experience. Take your adventure in little bites or in a big chunk. You can match your abilities, horses, gear, and trail conditions to your trip, be it a day trip or a few weeks. It is difficult to predict how you and horse camping will get along until you try it. Through the years of helping literally hundreds of riders take horse camping trips, it still comes as a surprise who thrives on the experience and who does not; but even the few who give it up are usually glad for the experience.
The purpose of the next three articles ("Horse Camping, Part 2" and "Horse Camping, Part 3") is to provide a framework for your horse camping trip. Information on horse camping and trail riding can fill a big book, and it has, several times. Consider these articles a recipe for your coming trip, with food for thought and tips for good planning.
There are many unknowns on camping trips — that is why it is called adventure — but do not get caught up in fear. Some would have you believe that a new horror lies around every tree, be it bugs, bears, hurricanes, or getting lost. Nonsense! Pack trips are much safer than the drive to get there, or the ride along your road at home. Horse camping is all about freedom. When we pack that last horse and say “giddy-up!” it is like a big weight lifted from our shoulders; the stress melts away with the first few steps. Let’s go horse camping!
This first article is about getting ready to go. You need to prepare yourself, your horse, your gear, and your transportation, and make choices about where to go.
Match your skill level and experience to the difficulty of the trail. Always avoid dangerous trails or river crossings.
Be practical about where you are going and how you are going to get there. If it is your first horse camping experience or if some riders lack ability, plan a shorter, less difficult trip rather than a huge adventure. Pick trails that are traveled and easier to follow. Avoid deep or dangerous water crossings or terrain that is too steep or too rugged. Make calls and read maps before deciding where to go. Get input from riders who have taken the trip before and from the riders who will be traveling with you.
Horse trailers spend the off season thinking of ways to sabotage your next trip. They are famous for problems with lights, electric brakes, and wheel bearings. Check the trailer floor for rotten planks and double check that doors and latches close properly. Check things over well in advance; it’s too late after you load horses in the trailer. Your buddies won’t be impressed with their horse stuffed in your crippled trailer.
Check over saddles and bridles for loose screws, and worn and weathered latigo, billets, straps, stirrups, fenders, or other pieces that should be repaired or replaced. Check the rigging to see that it is securely attached to the tree. Serious accidents can happen if faulty rigging lets go on the trail. See that saddle bags are securely attached and that axe and gun scabbards are ready to go. Axe scabbards should have some bright tape on them as they are easy to lose in the grass. For those of you particular about the condition of your saddle, it is advisable to treat your saddle with a quality conditioner and repellant as poor weather and a tough, long trail can turn a new looking saddle into an old looking one in a few short days.
What to Bring
Travel light. Lighter loads reduce the likelihood of saddle sores, cinch sores, foot and leg problems, and cumbersome bulk. You do not need to waste time and effort packing unnecessary items. If you have a 900 to 1200 pound packhorse, you should aim for about a 150 pound load.
Limit the weight on your packhorse to 150 pounds or less. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Dead weight is harder on a horse than the live weight of a rider. Reduced weight is less likely to sore a horse during use on long days and rough trails or to cause problems if a load slips. One pack horse is minimum for two people on a one week camping trip but two pack horses is better. It will allow for less weight per horse and more gear and food to enjoy.
Having to travel light was forced upon me. At the time it was a genuine revelation but has since become a habit. Some guides and I were about to head out on a 15 day adventure in the remote Mackenzie Mountains of the North West Territories. I stood beside my pile of gear that had been ferried in with a Beaver airplane. It was as tall as me and about as wide as the smile on my face, both of which would be drastically reduced in the coming seconds. The guide walked by, tossed me a canvas bed roll cover and told me that we were leaving shortly. I dutifully rolled my sleeping bag in the bedroll. The guide reappeared and asked where my stuff was. I pointed to the mountain of things, which included piles of clothes, boots, camera gear, optics, and other things from the outfitter store. He said, “No, I gave you your gear.” To make a long story compact, we headed out and my entire load consisted of one bedroll. In it was my sleeping bag, extra pants, shirt, socks, undies, and a toothbrush. The camera, optics, warm coat, and munchies were on the saddle horse. You know what? I did not miss a thing.
Keep your gear and pack equipment simple. A gear bag, bedroll, and a sturdy set of pack boxes to carry food and cookware is all you need. If you do not have pack boxes, two duffle or hockey bags will work. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Examine your personal gear with an eye toward warmth and comfort. Is your sleeping bag warm and comfortable? You do not need a large arctic type bag but it should be rated for colder weather than you expect. Is your footgear well fitting and warm and will it keep you feet dry and protected? Cowboy and riding type boots are adequate for day rides but a heeled, light hiking boot that fits easily in a large stirrup is more practical for trail conditions and poor weather. You will likely do more walking during a horse camping trip than a day ride. Take plenty of extra socks. A vest that covers low on your backside is nice. A treated, quality cowboy hat is practical as it keeps off the rain, regulates body temperature in fluctuating weather, and protects your head and eyes when riding through brush. A tie string to keep it on your head is a good idea. A riding helmet is safer but it should be weatherproof.
Weatherproof yourself. Good rain gear, warm gloves, and a toque are a must on most camping trips. You can wear a toque for sleeping during cold nights. A couple pairs of cheap Thinsulate™ lined ski gloves make excellent camping and riding gloves — better than lined leather gloves, as they are warm, dry in wet weather, and dry out well.
Trips are always more enjoyable when you leave unnecessary gear behind. You only need one knife, camera, pot, pan, set of cutlery, lantern, stove, etc. Simplify your pack system. Your bedroll, a gear bag (better yet, share one gear bag), a set of pack boxes, a day pack, and you’re off! Plan your food to the meal and do not take large size condiments. Using freeze dried backpackers food is great but not necessary as there are many light meal ideas at your supermarket. Using horses does mean you can spoil yourself somewhat and take a steak, fresh fruit, peanut butter, and jam, but weight adds up quickly so be careful. Tape a waterproof list of what is in each box on the lid.
Have your personal gear bag, bedroll, and pack boxes packed and ready to go at home. Be sure that opposing boxes, bedrolls and gear bags are weighed to be the same weight. Within one pound is okay but more than one pound difference is not okay. Keep your boxes at less than 50 pounds each, and your gear bags/bed rolls at less than 20 pounds each.
Choosing a Horse
Likely the biggest mistake you can make is heading off on your camping trip with horses that are not suited to the endeavour. The best way to ensure that you are going to have an enjoyable horse camping experience is to use a friendly, sturdy, forgiving, and easy to catch horse. Ignoring this advice is the best way to shoot yourself in the foot, and maybe get hurt in the bargain. I do not have the time or space to relate to you the countless stories about people and horses hurt, horses lost, and great hardship because the wrong horses were taken on trail rides and camping trips.
How do you know your horse is the right horse? Go back to basics. Basic, foundation training is everything in a trail or pack horse. He needs to be soft, easy to control, respectful of your commands, and easy to catch. He must not spook at noisy objects, items hung from the saddle, or trail surprises. I will take a good, calm, friendly, green horse every time over a nervous, spooky, contrary horse even if he has lots of training and use. Training means nothing when you get into a tight spot, caught between a rock and a hard place, and your riding or pack horse overreacts rather than acting calmly. Please note that friendly does not mean spoiled; a horse that is spoiled and friendly does not respect the rider. He will put his face into or away from you when being tied up or bridled, crowd you when you walk, step on your toes, move when being packed or mounted, and refuse to listen when being reined through rugged or confusing terrain. All these are serious maladies in a trail partner.
If you are not sure about your horse then put in lots of riding hours close to home until you have a sense of whether or not you feel good about your horse. Remember that trail riding, like horse training, requires a hands-on attitude and, at times, appropriate correction. In truth, some riders who may do well in short, planned, day rides may have too gentle a spirit to handle horses under horse camping conditions. Camping trips require horses standing tied for hours at a time while packing and saddling, hobbles for unfenced grazing, and possibly struggling through tangled forest, mud holes, and bog. If it’s not your cup of tea, don’t drink it.
Be sure that you know a couple of necessary knots for tying your horse before heading out. A quick release knot and a bowline knot are a good duo. The quick release knot is what it says, and good for most brief stops, tying in a trailer, or horse to horse as you bring horses in. The bowline has the advantage of always being able to undo and becomes useful for tying pack horses to each other, picketing, and tying for longer periods of time. Be sure that you know your knots before you head out as fidgeting with knots at stressful moments or a jammed knot can be your undoing.
In the coming articles we will look at rigging the trail and pack saddle, packing gear, how to pack your horse, packing up, camp gear, the campsite, and managing horses on the trail. If this gets you thinking about taking a horse camping trip this coming season, then I’ve done my job! Happy Trails!
12 Safety Tips
Finally, let’s look at some safety issues. Safety is somewhat relative: what one person may consider a dangerous trail another may travel as a daily routine. Common sense tells us that we may need to decide for ourselves what we consider acceptable conditions. Experience and sound procedure increases our confidence and our parameters of safe conditions. Please consider these safety suggestions:
1. Having a horse step on your foot while on a remote trip can be a serious event. When you are dismounted and leading your horse a short distance, walk alongside the horse’s head and hold the lead as close to the halter as possible with your arm straight. It feels odd to have your arm straight at first but in time it becomes natural and automatic.
2. Use a long lead rope for trail rides, preferably ten to twelve feet long. This will allow you the length to tie around trees, to other horses, and to safely walk out in front. While leading a horse longer distances down a trail, walk well ahead of the horse and hold the rope about a foot from the end. Be careful at mud holes, water crossings, and steep banks as the horse may jump forward. Stand to the side in these situations. If the horse crowds your space, back him out quickly with a snap of the rope.
3. While leading a packhorse with your saddle horse, never tie the lead rope to the saddle horn or to your hand. Hold the packhorse’s rope or dally it around the horn a half turn.
4. You can go into your horse’s space at will, which means you can give him all of the love and affection you want, but the trail horse must only come into your space when asked. If he puts his face, the most vulnerable part of his body, into your space at will he is showing dominant behaviour and has the freedom to crowd you, step on you, push you, and generally choose when to obey you or not. This problem is magnified when working with several horses.
5. While riding the trails you may need to bail off in a hurry. Never stick your foot all of the way into your stirrup — only to the ball of your foot. Practice losing and finding your stirrup. Getting your foot back in the stirrup may be important in difficult moments.
6. While on the trail, always keep your horses close enough together that the lead rider can communicate with the back rider. Communication is a must. The lead rider slows down and the rear rider speeds up, whatever it takes. People drop things, need bathroom breaks, need to make trail decisions, and need to stay together.
7. Never allow your saddle horse to move while mounting. Moving off or turning circles can cause grief in a group of horses and can cause lead ropes to jam under tails, which can send a horse into a buck.
8. If you suspect a horse may be a kicker, tie a red ribbon on his tail, the universal sign of a kicker, to warn others. Pack horses that may be suspected of kicking should be led and others warned to stay back. Leading these horses in the front of a tandem keeps them from kicking others.
9. For trails that are shared with motorized vehicles, be sure to desensitize your horse to vehicles prior to you trip. If you see an ATV or a vehicle coming, put your hand up to ask the driver to stop, ride your horse just off of the trail if possible, stop, face your horse to the machine, and once things are calm ride around the machine or wave the machine past you.
10. Use stirrup hoods (tapaderos), to prevent sticks from jamming your foot in the stirrup or stabbing into you horse. Keep back cinches snug for the same reason. Many wrecks have been created and horses injured when sticks have been caught between a gut and a loose cinch.
11. Avoid trails that may have dangerous water crossings. If you need to cross, find crossings with sure footing, calmer water, and no big boulders. Be sure that you have a safe place to exit on the far side. Remove bulky clothing, boots, and packs. Never allow children to cross water on a small horse or a pony. Cinches should be loosened to be just snug, and martingales removed. Better yet, just don’t cross; find a better way.
12. Give horses, especially a packed horse, a voice warning as you approach them. They may not see you or they may be dozing, and touching them could startle them into a violent reaction.
Main article photo: Trail riding is good for the soul. It keeps us connected with nature, and provides an opportunity to get to know our horses better.