Planning a horse-camping adventure? Start conditioning your horse early. Too many riders simply assume their horses will be up to trail-riding tasks, then get in trouble because their aspirations expand when they hit the trail. Shown is Emily Aadland aboard Redstar above the Little Missouri River in North Dakota.
According to Chaucer, 26 men and women once saddled up for an April trail ride. This group included a knight on his charger, a high-ranking lady of the church on her ambler, and a poor parson mounted on a plow horse.
Although their avowed purpose for this multiday ride was a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury, Chaucer makes it clear that they were champing at the bit, tired of the short days of winter, ready to celebrate spring in the best possible way — horseback on a cross-country trip. For many of us today, little has changed. A day ride isn’t enough. We want to spend more time than that with our horses, experience some adventure, see some new country. Horse camping fills the bill. But the term has many meanings. For some, camping with horses means staying in a living-quarters trailer with all the amenities of a luxury hotel room, then riding out on perfectly maintained trails. For others, a tent at the trailhead may be accommodation enough. For still others (like me), horse camping means leaving civilization completely behind, going into the wilderness leading pack animals that carry on their backs everything needed to set up a comfortable camp in a place of wild solitude. But whatever your preferred approach, a trip can be ruined by a sore-footed horse, by the lack of gear you inadvertently left behind, by a body that doesn’t hold up to the rigors of riding, or by a horse that’s not trained or conditioned to perform as required. Attention in advance to the points below can help assure a trip that’s as fulfilling as that in your mid-winter dreams.
1-Prepare for the Trip Start conditioning your horse early. Too many riders simply assume their horses will be up to trail-riding tasks, then get in trouble because their aspirations expand when they hit the trail. A late-spring mountain snowstorm or a trail closed by flooding can cause strenuous riding or a long detour, tough on a poorly conditioned horse. No creature of flesh and blood conditions overnight or with just a few rides. Young horses haven’t yet built full muscle mass. They need a longer conditioning program than their fully mature partners. But all horses need something more than a few turns around the arena. You’re fortunate if you have a trailhead nearby that leads immediately up a steep grade. Climbing at a brisk walk, but watching your horse for signs of overexertion, is excellent trail preparation and probably more to the point than loping figure-eights in an arena. While almost any riding helps to a degree, you must keep your horse working, not sauntering. If there’s no sign of sweat when you pull off the saddle, you probably haven’t stressed his muscles and respiratory system enough to harden him for the trails ahead. You’re not really conditioning him. Start conditioning yourself, too. You’ll need to shape up, unless you’ve ridden frequently all winter. Riding stresses knees, rubs thighs, challenges your back. Luckily, the same conditioning program you assign your horse will tend to harden your own riding muscles.
2-Learn and Teach We’re lucky to live in an age when a plethora of horse-handling and horse-training information is readily available. But beware of two things. First, it’s not always good information. Anyone can post something on the Internet and claim expertise. Secondly, it’s limited. Round-pen training doesn’t teach you essential backcountry skills, such as tying a horse properly, restraining a horse in a medical emergency by tying up a hind foot, and even proper bridling. I began teaching my clinic, “Beyond the Round Pen: Training your Horse for the Backcountry,” to address this void, and there are many other avenues for acquiring such knowledge. Some chapters of the Back Country Horsemen of America, Inc. (www.backcountryhorse.com), offer packing clinics, as do some private ranches and outfitters. If you can afford to book an outfitter for a full-fledged wilderness trip, then pitch in to help whenever possible, you’ll be amazed at the many small skills and techniques you’ll pick up. Every contact you make with your horse involves training, because horses, like their riders, can always improve. But it’s helpful to focus on particular skills and work to achieve them before departing on your trip. Does your horse still require plow reining, direct reining with a rein in each hand? Leading a pack horse is difficult on a horse that doesn’t neck rein. Make teaching the neck rein your next goal. You’ll be surprised how rapidly your horse will learn, and the reward will be a sweet handling animal that requires only one light hand holding slim reins needing only a subtle touch to signal his next move.