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.back countryhorse.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.
Now, too, is the time to expose your horse to things you can expect on the trail. Do you ride in the West, or plan to? Teach your horse to interact calmly with cattle. Will you be riding on multiuse trails? Have a friend ride a bicycle toward you under controlled conditions.
I fear a fast-moving bicycle catapulting toward me on the trail even more than I do a motorcycle or an all-terrain vehicle. Horses, in our machine age, associate engine noise with movement, but something that’s swift and nearly silent is particularly frightening.
3-Practice Trail Skills
I’m a believer in trying everything first at home. If you’ll be hobbling or picketing, go through the procedure in the comfort of familiar surroundings.
Don’t assume! If you’ve decided to leave your stock trailer behind and travel instead with your friend and her two-horse trailer, don’t wait until the morning of departure to see whether your horse will load into it. Precious vacation time could be lost with unexpected difficulties in loading.
Have you purchased new gear for the trail? Does that set of saddlebags look and smell new? Introduce them to your horse, whose senses are so much sharper than your own. Give him a chance to experience everything he’ll be expected to carry in advance.
If your horse has gained or lost weight during the winter, check to make sure the saddle and pad you’re using are still appropriate.
And, of course, don’t take a brand-new saddle on an extensive equine adventure until you’ve thoroughly wrung it out on rides closer to home. Doing so is the equivalent of buying yourself a pair of stiff new hiking boots, then setting off on a multiday backpacking trip.
Nor should you arrange your farrier’s visit only days before departure. Just as your feet and new shoes require a break-in time, new shoes on a horse must be tested for a week or so. Even the best farriers make mistakes. If a shoe must be re-set or a nail pulled for your horse’s comfort and safety, you’ll want to know this before you take off.
4-Pack the Essentials
Sometimes it’s the most obvious that we forget. We tuck important considerations into a corner of the brain because we’re certain we’d never forget that.
As I’ve aged, I’ve learned that if it can be forgotten, it will be forgotten. A couple of years ago, I rode from camp back to the trailhead in the dark to borrow a lantern mantle. I’d forgotten one of my most guarded pieces of gear, a little ditty bag that contained extra mantles and a host of tiny essential items, something I was sure I’d never leave behind.
As you’re packing up, remember these essentials:
• First-aid kits. Pack a first-aid kit for both human and horse. Consult with your veterinarian on any prescription medication you might want to include, such as phenylbutazone (“bute”) or flunixin meglumine (brand name, Banamine). Ask your vet to thoroughly brief you in their use.
• Personal items. As you pack your tent and cooking utensils, remember to also pack the items you’ll carry on your person during your rides. These include raingear, a water bottle, a small first-aid kit, fire-starting gear, a map, a compass, a global positioning system, and a cellphone. (Note that some of the newer cellphones act as full-fledged GPS units, even out of cell range, as long as maps are loaded in advance.)
• Layers of clothing. Include many options and layers of clothing. Spring weather at high altitude can quickly turn from summer-like sun to winter snow.
5-Prepare for Travel
Are your vehicle and trailer ready to go? Get your tow vehicle serviced a week or so before departure. You want any kinks to reveal themselves before hitting the freeway. Do the wheel bearings on your trailer need packing? Tires checked?
Take your trailer out of winter storage and get it cleaned, serviced, and ready for your trip.
Thoroughly research your destination. Don’t rely solely on online mapping via your GPS unit.
I frequently give directions to confused travelers near our ranch whose GPS units point to a gravel road simply because it saves a mere mile of travel compared to a quality paved route. Whoever programmed the computer had obviously never traveled this muddy, somewhat dangerous shortcut. The old adage about inquiring locally applies.
Websites, even those of major companies and government agencies, sometimes go too long without update. Call ahead to regional offices of the United States Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, or whatever agency administers the land on which you’ll be riding. And when you get there, talk to people who’ve used the trail.
As I write this, winter snow still clings to our pastures, and Chaucer’s April is more than a month away. But I’m planning and preparing for the fine spring days to come.
See you on the trail!