Horse Camping, Part 3
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Spring is here and so is a new beginning for horse riders. Days are longer, the weather more pleasant, and we put into action those horse activities that we have envisioned, planned, and prepared for during the long winter season. The cycle of horse related challenges, successes, and failures begins again. Both seasoned and novice riders learn early in the game that horse related plans rarely unfold as expected.
Enter trail riding. Rediscover the feel of the horse, its power, and its ability to go places — special places. It’s all about losing stress, not adding stress. It’s about contentment, happiness, and appreciation of good company and the beauty of the great outdoors. Rediscover your horse and yourself through trail riding and horse camping.
This is the last of three articles about horse camping. Let’s have a look at riding the trail, wrangling, and camping.
You’re ready to go! You have taken care of business and you are about to leave your cell phone and civilization behind. You have calm, friendly horses, have packed simple and light, and your hitches are tight. You have checked the rigging on your riding saddle, your axe and saddle bags are secure, and you carry some essentials on your horse like a warm coat and rain gear rolled up behind your cantle. In your saddle bags will likely be some food, drink, camera, binoculars, extra gloves and hat, and fire starter and matches. Be sure that there are no loosely tied objects on your saddle like jackets. These items can spook a horse, especially upon leaving. Avoid having unnecessary objects hanging from you or things in your hands. If you are taking a small day pack be sure that it is light and not too large. I prefer to hang my day pack on the saddle horn on the off (right) side.
Match your trails to your ability. When in doubt, get off and walk; walking is safer and gives you the time to figure things out rather than leading people and horses into dangerous situations.
Coordinate leaving at the trailhead. Someone needs to take control. Be sure that everyone is ready to go before anyone mounts up. Be sure that there will be no immediate delays like looking for lost objects or needing to relieve oneself. Look for the trailhead before mounting up so you know exactly where you ride into the woods.
Be sure to match your ability with the difficulty of the trail. Do not head into difficult wilderness until you get many miles under your belt; and do not force yourself into long days to get to where you need to be. Four to eight hours a day is enough, particularly early in the season when horses are not in shape. Long, ten hour days should be saved for late in the season, and preferably for the last day coming out. Galls, cinch sores, and wither sores usually occur on these long days. Sores can also happen from packs rolling on fat, soft horses. If you can, ride an out-of-shape horse until it slims down and toughens up somewhat before you pack it.
Never secure the lead rope of the horse that you are leading to your saddle horn. Simply dally it once or hold onto it.
If you are leading a packhorse the lead rope should be ten to twelve feet long. Never tie the lead rope of the horse you are leading to your saddle horn; simply hold it. Things happen on the trail and if you need to get off in a hurry, or get dumped off in a hurry, you do not want to get caught up between horses and a fixed lead rope.
Your saddle horse should be completely “post broke,” meaning it stands still when you mount and when you get off to perform chores or get out of tight spots. Having your saddle horse turn circles as you hold the lead rope of another horse is dangerous. If the rope gets under your horse’s tail it could buck. When riding with others in a line, do not worry too much about who is up front, but it is a good idea to have calm and dominant horses ahead along with someone who is capable and knows the trail.
For large trail groups with several packhorses, outfitters will often prefer to keep riders and packhorses in separate groups some distance apart; but with a few riders and a few pack horses you should stay within communication range. The lead rider and the last rider need to be able to talk about unexpected stops, trail conditions, slipped packs, or anything else that comes up. The rear rider generally has the job of pushing ahead to keep the outfit tight.
Generally, you are better off leading packhorses than allowing them to follow loose. Loose horses can cause trouble. However, in difficult terrain, thick forest, and uncertain trails, horses led in tandem will get wrapped around trees and brush so we often lead a few individually and let a few reliable horses follow loose. If a horse is tied to the horse you are leading, it should be tied with a breakaway string. If you get in a bind you want the horses to break apart rather than be wrapped up in a chaotic wreck. Bailer twine is about the strength of the breakaway string that we use.
As you are riding along as part of a group always be a proactive rider. This means that although all of the horses are turning or stopping in a line, including yours, you need to signal those cues to the horse before the event. Only then are you in control of the horse’s mind, which is important if you expect control later when you want to take the horse away from the herd and go for a ride.
Wrangling is simply caring for and managing horses while on the trail. It means making sure horses do not get lost, seeing that they get food and water at regular intervals, and managing their movement to and from camp.
When your group stops for a break or at camp, everyone needs to lend a hand. Do not let one person catch loose packhorses as you enjoy the scenery, and do not expect loose packhorses to hang around as you enjoy the scenery. You will cause yourself mountains of grief if you leave horses loose; they always need to be under control while in the wilderness. When you get to camp unpack the packhorses before unsaddling the riding horses as packhorses are under load and the empty saddle horses are not.
Try to camp in an area with plenty of strong trees for tying horses. Tie horses short at nose or eye level. Do not allow them to feed unless on a proper picket line or hobbled. Keep the rope length to two feet when tied to avoid creating unnecessary movement, getting all the horses stirred up, or having a pulling frenzy.
Always secure your reins when you take a break. Ignoring little things like this can make big problems.
When you stop for a break be sure that you place your reins over the saddle horn. Better yet, give them a few twists first or tie them with a saddle string. Horses are good at shaking off reins, stepping on them, breaking the reins, and hurting their mouth. It is a sad moment when you find your reins in pieces during a trip.
Good wrangling begins by choosing a good campsite. Be sure that water is accessible. There needs to be access to a stream, lake, pond, or other fresh water source. Choose campsites in an area with good forage so that the horses do not have to leave the area to search for feed. People often wonder why their horses take off when often they were just looking for better food. If you must stop at a site with poor feed, make sure it is only for one night.
Horse stomachs are not particularly large and they are designed for multiple, lengthy feeding times during the day. It is not acceptable to ride a horse all day, let it feed for one hour, and tie it up for the night. We consider two hours in both the morning and night the absolute minimum, and on my trips horses are out to graze all night.
We believe that turning out horses with hobbles is the best for the horse and the best for the environment. Tying horses to trees for lengthy periods, high lines on soft ground, and picket lines are more destructive to vegetation than free grazing. Horses should be broke to hobble before you leave home. Use a hobble that allows a short step, say eight to twelve inches between the collars, as opposed to a narrow standing hobble.
While in hobbles horses can still run faster than you can, so if you do not trust your horse, try using a sideline as well, which is a hobble from the front to the back foot, about 36 inches between feet.
There are many hobble designs out there and most work well. Most hobbles have a protective sleeve around each foot but you will see many experienced outfitting horses with chain link hobbles. If the horse is well broke and puts no pressure on the hobbles, chain can be better as it does not hold moisture and is easy to work with in freezing weather. We prefer to avoid wide strap leather models as they are often difficult when wet or frozen.
If I am concerned about hobbled horses hopping off I may choose to picket a horse or two, being sure they are on good grass and being watched so that they do not get tangled.
Horses on a picket line should be on a rope with a swivel to minimize tangles. The rope should be soft, three quarters of an inch or larger in diameter, and attached to a foot rather than the halter. Most riders use the front foot but we find the rear foot safer provided the horse is trained to accept the rope on its rear foot. Always walk the horse to the end of the picket line before turning it loose.
There are also compact electric fencing systems that fit nicely into a pack box. We have used them at times and they work for a few horses. Be sure that horses are trained to respect the hot wire at home before you leave and be sure horses are hobbled inside of the hot wire as they can, and do, break out at times.
This campsite has what it takes: good grass to keep horses close, accessible water for horses and people, firewood, a flat spot for tents, and trees and space for saddling and packing horses.
Make your camp between where the horses are grazing and the trail you came in on as they will generally want to leave by going back the way they came, and you can hear them go past your tent at night. We have bells on all our horses. Many times I have heard the single “tink” of a horse bell, walked through the woods or over a hill, and there they were.
Finding, controlling, and leading horses back to camp is an art in itself. Remember, no loose horses. Unless you are a seasoned wrangler and know your horses very well you should always tie your horses to trees or to each other before you remove hobbles and lead horses back to camp. We will often tie a few of the dominant horses neck to neck, or tail tie them, and let hobbled horses make their way back to camp as we head in. Then, we return to get the hobbled horses. Avoid leading in two or more horses on separate lead ropes. You can easily get into a tangle, get stepped on, and have loose horses disappear.
For those moments when your horse is standing on something it should not be, like the lead rope, take your foot and firmly slide it down the horse’s leg, from the knee to the fetlock. It will quickly lift its foot.
Brush your horse daily as a habit, checking for rubs, bug bites, and dirt build up, especially in the girth area. Bugs in the woods can chew up your horse and create open sores. A good quality bug dope is a must for trips when bugs are out. We carry a medical kit with bug dope, wound salve and spray, bandages, and, on longer trips, penicillin.
Truly, wrangling is what separates future horse campers from the wannabes. Sometimes it feels like you spend more time saddling, packing, hobbling, finding, and leading horses than you do riding. Sometimes you go for a five mile walk to find horses and your day is half over before you get going. The bottom line is that you really have to like working with horses to enjoy horse camping.
Your campsite should be a good site for humans too: good access to wood and water and a flat spot for your tent. Take the time to flatten out bumps where you sleep.
The tent that you choose should match the trip. If taking a summer trip where you are frequently on the move, then a light, stand up dome tent with a fly net to cover your cooking area may be in order. If you are a late season hunter with a main camp then maybe you need a wall tent with a wood stove. There are many wonderful tent designs and it should not be difficult to find one that suits your needs and your budget. I avoid small backpacker type tents as a packhorse can handle the extra few pounds it takes to give me the room to stand up, have a lantern, and prepare food if it gets cold or wet.
There are many excellent tents on the market. Match your tent to your needs. For example, and stand up dome tent may be the best for a summer trip with daily travel, and a wall tent with a wood stove may be the ticket for a late season trip with a base camp.
There are many light synthetic tent materials and a canvas wall tent that weighs 60 pounds can be had in a synthetic material at 20 pounds. The difference will make a horse smile. I do find canvas friendlier than synthetics in wet or cold weather and even new synthetic tents often leak at the seams. Treat synthetic tents well with water repellants. We always use bedroll covers around our sleeping bags so we do not have to worry about a drip or two. In fact, here is a lesson for the worrisome: unless the water drips are getting your bag truly wet, in which case you should cover your tent with a tarp, don’t lose sleep over it. Tents are like people: rarely perfect. I have seen people worry themselves right out of enjoying a trip because a tent or gear did not work perfectly. I have been on other trips where everyone had a jolly time with nothing but a tarp for a tent and a pot and matches for gear.
Packing instructor Bob Silverthorne knows about important details including checking gear for wear and tear, outfitting a saddle properly, correct saddling and packing procedure, and being ready to ride out in an organized and safe manner.
Always take warmer clothes and sleeping bag than you expect to need. Use quality rain gear. Many riders prefer the outback style rain gear but you may find a good pant and jacket type better if you expect to do much walking.
Our kitchen includes a light, folding fire grill, a thin profile propane camp stove, a lantern, a cutlery pouch, a collapsible water bucket, and folding table tops. Again, there are so many stove and lantern types that you can choose what suits your needs the best. Always know where your lantern is so that if you get into camp late you can unpack that horse first and turn your light on.
For those late nights getting to camp and late night forays out of your tent you will find a headlamp invaluable. If you have never used one, you will wonder how you got along without it. The same goes for a quality multi-tool on your belt. There will be many times on your trip when you need to cut, grab, poke, or screw something.
Along with your three quarter length, quality trail axe you should take a good camp saw. A camp saw is safer for cutting firewood and it can cut sizable trees across the trail. We often use a compact, aggressive tooth, wood saw that cuts both ways and is readily available at the local hardware store. We keep the saw in our fire grill bag.
Camping with horses does mean that we can enjoy the luxury of a few extras, like a portable shower (use biodegradable soaps). Just remember – light, trim, and tight. The less stuff you take, the less time you waste packing and unpacking, the fewer horses are needed, and the smoother your trips will be.
One of the big differences between a recreational rider and a professional outfitter is that the outfitter has a long memory full of important details. The pro knows how little things quickly become big problems and knows how to deal with these situations before they become an issue.
Having said that, the beginner camper with calm horses, a good hands-on attitude, a limited number of horses, good gear, secure hitches, and a good trail can safely enjoy the great outdoors. In fact, you may become a horse camping addict. Just ask my friends and clients, Pierre and Christine, who take remote trips every year, and they are in their 80s!
If you want to enjoy the horse camping experience but it is not practical to purchase or keep the extra horses for packing, or you lack the experience to get going, consider taking your first trip with an outfitter or rent experienced outfitter horses. A trail riding and packing clinic is also a great way to share knowledge and a camping experience with like minded individuals. Good luck with your horse camping adventures!
All photos courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Main article photo: Some ranches and outfitters make calm, reliable trail horses available for campers. Clinics on packing and trail riding are readily available for that confidence boost.