For years, I’ve enjoyed attending trail rides, horse shows and clinics with a group of like-minded friends. We’ve developed a “mobile buddy system,” helping each other out, cheering each other on and just being there to offer support when needed. I long ago became accustomed to having a friend assist me with parking my trailer, loading and unloading my horse, settling in at horse shows and generally lending a hand by sharing supplies and providing moral support when I have show-ring jitters.
Then a day I dreaded finally arrived: A show I had looked forward to for several months was on the calendar and no one in my group of friends would be able to go.
I briefly considered calling the whole thing off and waiting until the next event when at least one member of our group could go with me. But I had worked hard to prepare for this show, and I wasn’t ready to simply scratch it from my schedule. As I considered my options, I realized that I knew plenty of riders who routinely trailered their horses to shows, trail outings and other destinations on their own. Why couldn’t I? After all, I wasn’t a complete novice at shipping or showing, and I knew I could put to use the collective wisdom I had accumulated over the years of traveling with my friends. So, after careful consideration, I decided that I was ready to go it alone.
I signed up for the show, trailered my mare there and had a wonderful time. In fact, the next time I’m faced with the need to go it alone, I won’t hesitate. Still, even for veteran travelers, the prospect of trailering your horse on your own can sometimes be daunting, and it’s easy to lose track of basic trip-planning imperatives, amid all the usual horse show preparations. So, I’ve compiled a list of a few measures that gave me peace of mind on my first solo outing and that I still mentally review each time I’m traveling with my horse alone.
Like most horse owners, I do my best to keep up with regular maintenance for my truck and trailer. And on the day of an event, I make sure to start out with a full tank of fuel. These are priority items for any outing, but when you’re going it alone they assume even greater importance. Before my solo trip, I took the extra time to look over my towing rig and correct anything that looked questionable. In addition, I took an inventory of my towing vehicle and trailer emergency kits, updating them and stocking them up. I made sure I had jumper cables, for example, as well as all the tools and equipment I would need to change a tire. I found that these simple tasks gave me great peace of mind because I knew that I had done all that I could to prevent a breakdown—and I was prepared if one occurred anyway.
Go over your checklist for tack and equipment well in advance. We’ve all had that sinking feeling that comes when you discover you left an important item at home. On trips with friends, most minor items were readily replaced, either because I could borrow from someone or run out to buy an item while my friends took care of my horse. But because I would be on my own, I didn’t want to worry about finding a replacement for a forgotten item. I had always made a checklist before events, but this time I reviewed it a few days earlier than I had before; this not only ensured that nothing would be left out, but also gave me time to inspect my tack and equipment and gather spares—such as an extra bridle—where possible. By the time I was ready to leave, I had the satisfaction of knowing I had carefully worked through my list and the confidence that not even broken equipment could put a damper on my day.
Become familiar with the route and alternatives. Almost as bad as having a breakdown is getting lost while traveling to your event. GPS navigation systems, whether in your vehicle or on a smartphone, are wonderful tools, but they are not infallible. I have found it a confidence booster to carry hard copies of maps. By getting to know your route ahead of time, you’ll be better able to handle any detours or traffic issues you might encounter. Simply knowing that I had a plan for navigating detours—while still arriving by check-in time—allowed me to feel more comfortable while driving.
Assemble first aid-kits for your horse and yourself. Although both of these are necessary for any outing, when you are traveling alone they become even more important. Make certain all items in both of the kits are up-to-date and ready to use should you need them. Especially important for your horse: Make certain that you can competently administer or apply any of the items in the kit on your own. For example, I wasn’t confident about my leg bandaging technique because I had always had a friend around to help, so before my trip I spent some time practicing to make sure I could do it on my own. The very act of forcing myself to make certain that I was proficient at these skills gave me confidence that I can handle most emergencies should they arise.
Bring a mobile charger for your cell phone. When traveling alone with your horse, a cell phone is more than a matter of convenience; it can mean the difference between a quick response to an emergency or being stuck on your own for hours. Before going anywhere make certain that your cell phone battery has plenty of charge. And remember that using your phone’s GPS app can be a drain on its battery. Even if you plan to be away for only a day, bring along the charger just in case. Knowing that help was only a phone call away made my trip more enjoyable.
Establish a reasonable timetable. Allow yourself plenty of time. Without the help of friends, I quickly discovered, most of the items on my to-do list took longer to accomplish. You’ll want to allow for extra time for things like setting up your stall space, grooming your horse and preparing yourself for the day ahead. If you’ll be memorizing patterns, courses or tests and you are accustomed to having a friend along to discuss options or create a plan, setting aside some additional time to quietly go over these on your own can help reduce your stress levels.
Try to anticipate driving and towing challenges. Of course you wouldn’t attempt a solo trip if you weren’t competent at towing. But there are other tasks that you may need to do when you’re on the road. Can you change a trailer tire without assistance? Do you know how to correctly apply a set of jumper cables to a dead battery? I felt confident I could handle each of these based on my experiences traveling with friends, but if I hadn’t I would have brushed up on those skills before my trip. Review your route, and perhaps talk to horsepeople who are familiar with it, and identify waypoints that would be appropriate for stopping to check on your horse, refuel or even handle emergency situations. At the very least, look for spots with parking areas and access roads spacious enough for you to comfortably maneuver and park your rig. For added peace of mind, consider signing up with a company that specializes in providing roadside-assistance for towing.
Designate a contact at your home base.
I found it helpful to share my schedule and check in with someone at my home base from time to time. If they know when you expect to arrive at your destination or return home, they’ll know something might be amiss if you fail to check in at pre-designated times. Be sure to let them know the route you plan to travel as well as your schedule. I soon determined that preparedness led to confidence.
Scale back your schedule. Given that you won’t have a friend to help, be careful not to overextend yourself. If, for example, you will be competing at a horse show, think about reducing your number of classes. At a recent show I attended, I decided to forgo the halter and equitation classes I usually entered and instead focus on the classes that I enjoyed the most and where I knew that I had the greatest chances for success. By the end of the day, considering how tired I felt and knowing that I still had the trip home to contend with, I knew that I had made the right decision. Similarly, if I were going on a trail outing, I would consider cutting back on the distance I planned to cover. I found there was an added benefit to reducing my number of classes—I had more time to be a spectator at the show. Watching other classes made my day much more relaxing and enjoyable—and it was educational, too. I got to see how the courses rode for other riders and how they tackled problems they encountered while showing. This also gave my horse a break: While I sat in the stands my mare was able to enjoy some downtime in her rented stall, munching hay.
Use the opportunity to make new friends. The socializing opportunities presented by horse shows are part of their appeal for many of us. On my first solo journey, I quickly found that there were others who were traveling alone as well. By offering to lend a hand I was offered help in return. I ended up making several new friends that I will look forward to seeing at many events in the future.
While I was a bit more tired than usual when I returned home from my first solo show, thanks to following these tips I had a safe, successful and highly enjoyable trip. I determined that although it’s definitely more fun to travel with friends I now have the confidence to go it alone when necessary.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #472, January 2017.