Now that we're well into Summer and the busiest trail riding season of the year, it's time to discuss proper preparation, safety tips and riding smarts. This time around I am going to go over the aspects of trail riding and give some of my basic tenets of good horsemanship plus my own personal guidelines.
To all you who love climbing aboard your beloved equine friends for a relaxing, refreshing trail ride without the hassles of Winter, rejoice! Summer is here! Months of dreaming about galloping across the majestic mountains minus that cold white stuff are over, but beware -- dangers which have been dormant through the colder months are awakening. Rattlesnakes, for instance. Make sure you plan your rides well in advance if they entail more than just a jaunt around the block, and whatever you do, be careful.
When you’re simply choosing to ride out of your backyard and down the local streets or trails, not much preparation is needed, but when you’re heading out into the wilderness for an equestrian adventure, you’ll want to do some basic legwork first. That’s what I am covering here. Being prepared includes a whole lot more than just knowing what to pack for your trip and, of course, what you bring depends on where you are heading and for how long. In addition to making sure that your horse is healthy and adequately fit (which is covered more in depth later on), be sure he is up to date on his deworming and all of his vaccinations. I recommend the whole enchilada: Various strains of Flu, Tetanus, Strangles, Rhino, Potomac Horse Fever, EEE/WEE/VEE and West Nile Virus -- and they should be given every six months, or as directed by your vet. Your horse also needs to have been shod within the last two weeks before you leave. Although you can trail ride on an unshod horse, I don’t recommend it, especially if the terrain is going to be rough or rocky. Another recommendation I heartily suggest is that you familiarize yourself with poisonous plants. You already know to stay away from wild animals, right?
Make sure you thoroughly check over your tow vehicle, towing equipment and trailer, including having your regular engine and transmission service done. For Summertime trips it is also a good idea to service and flush the radiator/cooling system as well as look into having your air conditioning system checked out and recharged, if necessary. Be certain to completely go over your tires and brakes (both truck and trailer), check out your trailer’s electrical system and inspect your hitch on both ends.
You should always be familiar with the area in which you plan to ride, and know exactly how to get there by mapping out a route before you leave. This helps avoid driving around looking for your turn and making your horses stand in that hot trailer for longer than they should have to. Be sure you know how to get to the staging areas and trailheads where horse trailer parking is available and easily accessible (especially if you have difficulty maneuvering your rig!). There are a number of public and private agencies which can provide you with that information. Also, always let someone know where you are going, for how long and in what general vicinity you plan to ride. That way, should you become lost or injured it will be a whole lot easier for rescuers to decide where to start looking for you, and give them a better chance of locating your party.
The supplies necessary for a day trip are somewhat fewer than for an overnight camping excursion, but not much different. A comprehensive list of most of the items you’ll need or should have is included at the end of this article, along with a brief explanation of each item’s purpose.
One of the most important things to remember -- and I cannot stress this enough -- is never, EVER ride alone when you're going further than your own neighborhood! In the event of an emergency, such as your horse spooks and you become hurt during a fall, not being alone out there can mean the difference between life and death. Having a trail companion certainly won’t ensure that you aren’t going to have any problems at all, but in certain instances it can save your life and can be reassuring in the event a problem does occur. There’s sure no reason to go looking for trouble. When you are riding somewhere you’ve never been before it can be easy to get lost, especially in the mountains and upper desert elevations where temperatures can drop quickly, and when nightfall approaches it’s nearly impossible to find your way in the dark. The best advice if you do get lost is to stay put and don’t wander around getting more lost. You can just sit it out if nothing else, and wait for daylight.
Whenever you ride, always remember to be considerate of others and don’t do things to deliberately upset or spook anyone else’s horse. Don’t let your horse gallop off ahead and don’t ride up on the tail of another rider’s horse (whether he’s got a red ribbon in his tail -- which traditionally means he’s a kicker -- or not). Something else I personally suggest, and INSIST on when I’m on the trail is DO NOT DRINK ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES OR SMOKE. First, I have seen too many cases of abuse toward horses ridden by inebriated people “just out for a good time”. The fact is, just as when driving a motor vehicle, judgment becomes seriously impaired while drinking. If you want to have a beer or two back at camp to cool off after a hot day, fine, but that’s about all I’ll tolerate.
If you do insist on drinking while out on the trail (while it won’t be out with me!) there are a few rules of common courtesy you should try to follow. If the group you want to ride with isn’t interested in drinking, don’t spoil their fun by tipping the bottle. Likewise, if you don’t agree with the idea of being around a bunch of tipsy travelers, don’t ride with a group who want to drink. Also, smoking should be prohibited if for no other reason than the fire danger of a carelessly discarded cigarette. Smokers should abstain for the duration of the ride, and can always light up upon returning to camp where there are ashtrays readily available. Trail riding is supposed to be fun for all participants, and to spoil someone else’s enjoyment will quickly give you a bad reputation.
Not only should the experience be a pleasant one for you, the rider, but it should also be exciting and refreshing for your horse. Sometimes is can be easy to ask too much of your mount, so you should know your horse’s limits and be aware of the danger signs of a stressed or sick horse. If you aren’t aware of what they are already, or what the signals of dehydration are, ask your veterinarian to explain them. Common sense should dictate whether or not your horse is ready to resume the ride. Get to know your animal well enough in advance of loading him in the trailer, and make sure he’s fit and in excellent health.
Try to avoid taking a young or inexperienced horse on a lengthy or difficult trail the first few times out, and always try to make certain you don’t over-exert an out of condition animal by riding for too long a period of time or over terrain that is too difficult for him. Try to stick with the easier trails until you are sure of the terrain and how your horse will handle it. Just as with arena riding (if not more so), a horse should always be in shape for what he’s being asked to do. Let your conscience be your guide in determining whether or not your horse is ready for any particular trip. Remember that you might be far away from civilization if your horse should happen to become ill.
Most of the information available from the Ranger stations regarding trails in the National Forests, on BLM lands and through State or County Parks rate them as easy, moderate or difficult, and some riding clubs and other organizations also monitor the difficulty level of trails in various areas, as well as trail closures due to weather, trail damage or other hazards. Be sure to check out the area you are traveling to, making certain the trails are open and safe.
Many horsemen begin a young trail horse’s career by ponying them along with an older, wiser mount. This I would not suggest unless you are a seriously accomplished rider and have many hours of ponying experience in an arena. Even then it can be a dangerous practice. Be careful, there are many things out there that can spook horses on the trail, and if your own mount gets startled, it can get downright impossible to control the horse you are ponying.
Although some seasoned (some of us would call them old fashioned) horse campers prefer to hobble their steeds or tie them to a picket line, I do not recommend this at all. I have seen horses literally leap away from camp while their unsuspecting owners thought they were safely grounded, and I’ve also owned a couple of real “Houdini’s” who would get themselves unfastened or untied when I thought they were safely secured. Horses wandering through camp are no fun to try and catch in the middle of the night! Preferably choose a location that has corrals set up permanently for the purposes of keeping horses in them -- there are a number of such places throughout the country. Check your local resources and you should be able to find an ideal place to go. Your two other significant options are to purchase a portable corral that either attaches to your trailer or stands separately, or to let your horse stand inside the trailer (which is a perfectly acceptable option so long as you have water available to him at all times).
Remember, also, that in order to haul your horse out of state (or out of the country) you will need the necessary paperwork, including a clean bill of health. So if you plan to take a long distance trail riding trip, be sure to call the state or country you intend to travel to (and/or through) for acceptable forms of identification and any paperwork you will need to produce in order to cross the border[s] that you need to cross.
Understandably, an awful lot of people don’t want to lug around extra stuff that takes up room on the saddle, however if you should ever find yourself in a position where you need it, you’ll never be without it again! Putting together a good first aid kit for both yourself and your horse is also an excellent idea. Nothing fancy, just some basic supplies -- more on that later. Before packing and loading can begin, you should make a thorough inspection of your tack, replacing or repairing anything that is worn or broken. The last thing you want to happen is to have a bridle break or a stirrup come apart twenty miles from your trailer.
One “supply” which can come in incredibly handy when you’re out in the middle of nowhere is a cellular telephone. Pretty much everyone has one these days, the coverage areas are better than ever, and they can be a real lifesaver if an emergency occurs out on the trail. They’re definitely the fastest way to get help, instead of having one of your party ride away from you to locate someone, which can inadvertently upset an injured horse, not to mention leave an injured rider out on the trail all alone until help arrives.
Before we get to the things you should be taking with you, always compile a list of important phone numbers, such as your vet and someone to call in case something happens to you. You will need to have someone notify family members in case of any accidents, and you’ll also need somebody to haul your horse home if you become injured and cannot drive, or if your vehicle becomes disabled. It is an unpleasant topic, but one of great importance for the safety-minded and well prepared horseman.
The following supplies are my "day trip necessities", which will be followed up by a comprehensive list of multiple day/overnight camping supplies I take with me. Of foremost importance is to remember where you are: Bringing a compass to give yourself an idea of the direction in which you’re heading is a good start. You’ll need a few basics for your horse (naturally you can’t forget your saddle, pad and bridle!), including a hoof pick to remove any rocks or foreign objects that might become stuck in your horse’s feet, a strong, heavy halter and lead rope -- I do not recommend either a leather halter or a rope with brass snaps, as they can easily break if a horse pulls back when tied, and then you can lose your horse. What I suggest if you are worried about the horse hanging himself up on something while tied, is an elastic trailer tie with a quick release snap on the end AWAY from the horse’s halter. This way you still have a rope to hold onto after you have freed the horse. You will also want to bring a pair of wire cutters along (though NOT for cutting through fences!), a pocket knife and an extra pair of reins in case your horse steps on one and breaks it.
I also suggest a fleece cinch cover if your horse is sensitive and has a tendency to become rubbed in the girth area. Many horses don’t need them in the arena, but do when they’re trekking up mountains. If you want, your horse can wear leg protection on the trail, but I only use splint boots with velcro closures (and with some horses bell boots), because if you should happen to ride through heavy brush or foxtails, they are much easier to get clean. Bringing along leg wraps -- either the standing or polo type -- and quilts for wrapping an injured leg is a good idea, but I generally leave them in the trailer as opposed to using them as regular leg protection on trail rides. Another great idea is bringing along a set of Easyboots® (or a similar product), and keeping them in your saddlebags. If your horse should happen to throw one or more shoes, even though they should be newly done, they can prevent the hoof from being destroyed.
Don’t forget your shipping boots for hauling your horse (if you use them), and if you anticipate that it’s going to be cold where you plan to go, especially in the evening, you might consider taking a blanket and a cooler for him to wear before and after your ride, and you will certainly want to remember fly spray.
I usually tie the halter across the cantle of my saddle, over my saddlebags, but if you are worried about having to switch from the bridle to the halter out on the trail away from camp where you may have a problem, your easiest bet is to put the halter on under the bridle. First, though, you need to make sure your bridle fits properly this way and that it is comfortable for your horse. If your headstall uses Chicago-type screws to secure the bit in place, you also need to carry along some extra screws. This type of bridle isn’t recommended, either. Instead I suggest a headstall with snaps or buckles instead.
If you think you might need to work off a little bit of extra steam in your horse before hitting the trail in the morning, consider bringing along a longe line and longe whip, although I caution you to remember how long you may be planning to ride. Don’t wear him out unnecessarily! I also always keep a stud chain in the trailer just in case I should need one, they can be invaluable. Among other things I keep in my trailer for trail outings are -- a leather (hole) punch, electrical tape, duct tape, scissors and my tool box, loaded with everything I might need, including extra hooks and snaps, plus two pairs of pliers, regular and needle-nosed.
I also put together an equine first aid kit to go along with my own first aid supplies, one that stays in my trailer. This consists of a large roll of cotton, several rolls of Vetwrap®, a stethoscope, a thermometer, tweezers, a blue lotion spray, Betadine®, Bute paste, Azium antihistamine powder, injectable Dipyrone®, Banamine®, Acepromazine® tranquilizer (although I usually prefer a mixture of Ace and Rompun®), rubbing alcohol, several sterile needles and syringes and a humane twitch. If you cannot give an injection, you need to learn how. You never know when you may need to. Have your vet show you the proper way and the proper locations, and perhaps practice by giving your horses their regular vaccinations at home. One word of caution about shots, however -- I never, EVER, give an intravenous injection. This should only be done by a qualified veterinarian. You could kill your horse! Only give shots in the muscle areas pointed out to you by your vet.
For yourself, make sure you bring along some sort of bug off spray (especially with the recent West Nile Virus threat) to keep those pesky mosquito’s from biting you. Bactine® is also a good idea in case you should accidentally touch some poison oak, poison ivy or stinging nettles...and remember the sunscreen! I usually bring lip balm as well, as I tend to get those dry cracked lips after an hour or so. If it’s a bright, sunny day and you want to wear sunglasses, you may wish to consider getting a stretch band that wraps around your head, or at least something to attach to the sides in case they were to fall from your face while looking down, for instance. Having them get broken by your horse stepping on them is no fun either. If you can get away with only wearing a cap to shade your face, all the better. Two final personal must-haves: Band-aids® and a snake bite kit. You never know what might happen out there.
Durable leather or canvas saddlebags or a cantlebag are the best places to keep your supplies, and you can’t forget to take water. Bring along a canteen or two for your own drinking needs, as the streams along the trail you may encounter could be contaminated. If you plan on riding for more than a few hours, you should purchase a collapsible watering bucket for your horse and bring along some extra water. Always take into consideration both the temperature and the altitude where you are riding to gauge water consumption. As a general rule, mature horses will consume six to ten gallons of water a day at home, so be sure to have plenty available back at camp.
In addition to all of the above mentioned day trip supplies, there are a number of additional things you may want to bring for overnight camping trips. For your horse, be sure to bring plenty of feed. Generally even if the horse I’ll be riding gets pellets at home, I’ll bring him hay, since munching on it can have a soothing, relaxing effect and he can’t inhale it as quickly as pellets. It gives him something to do at camp. I also NEVER put pellets in the trailer -- horses can choke on them going down the road (I have seen the ugly results of this!) and you would never even know until you arrived at your destination. Feed also includes any vitamins or other supplements and grain, plus A & M (alfalfa & molasses) an/or beet pulp. Don’t forget the electrolytes, which replenish valuable minerals lost during exertion through sweating, and your salt brick from home. You’ll also need to bring a bucket or barrel from home in which to feed your horse. I also usually bring along a few extra buckets just for good measure. If you stay at a regular horse campground which has the availability of plenty of water, you’ll need to bring a hose plus a large watering trough. I don’t like my horses using the automatic waterers sometimes provided at these facilities, nor do I like the idea of them drinking from a community trough which has been used by Heaven knows what horses. If you can, try wrapping any auto waterer to make it unusable for your horse during your stay, but don’t break it! Otherwise, get yourself one of those portable corrals. That hose can also come in handy for rinsing off a sweaty horse at the end of the day, but don’t forget your scraper. Another couple of things to bring are a muck bucket and a stall cleaning fork. Keeping your horse’s area clean and manure free, and showing courtesy to those who stay after you are important things to remember. In the case that you are not staying at a horse campground, be extra sure to bring plenty of water for your horse, I also can't stress that enough!
Naturally, you’ll want to bring your grooming box with brushes to make sure your horse is both clean and looks his best, and if the fly pest population is severe or your horse has an allergy which requires one, a fly mask is probably in order. It’s always a good idea to have a number of extra’s available in the event something breaks, too -- extra halters, lead ropes, trailer ties and bridles can save your neck if you should be in a position to need them. Also, bringing along an extra saddle pad or two, plus an extra cinch or cinch cover can mean you won’t have to put those back on your horse the next day if they should happen to get wet and not dry overnight.
The additional equipment you and your human companions should have for yourselves at camp include trail maps of the area (to be sure you get to where you want to go), flashlights, a portable radio and extra batteries, plenty of clothes, jackets, gloves, a hat with a brim to shade the sun, riding boots, some tennis shoes for comfort around camp (if you feel they’re necessary), lots of towels (which can come in handy for a myriad of purposes), rubber boots and a slicker in case of unexpected rain, sleeping bags and pillows (assuming you’re not lucky enough to have a living quarters horse trailer or a camper/motorhome!), perhaps a tent (although we usually just throw the sleeping bags in the bed of the truck on our air mattress), a table and chairs, Kleenex®, paper towels, cooking dishes, pans & utensils, eating plates, cups, a can opener, a bottle opener, a dish pan for washing dirty dishes, a dish scrubber, dish soap, food and drinks, an ice chest, trash bags, a small barbeque grill (if allowed, with charcoal and lighter fluid) or a camp stove with fuel, possibly a lantern (if you don’t want to live by firelight or drain your flashlight batteries at night, or don’t have very good lights on the outside of your horse trailer), a small first aid kit including Telfa® gauze pads, medical tape, ace bandages, aspirin (or other suitable painkillers) and antihistamines for allergy problems and your own personal toiletries.
I certainly, however, don’t recommend going horse camping without any prior camping experience, or at least without having someone along with you who has been wilderness camping before. ALWAYS remember that safety should be your first priority and DO NOT DO ANYTHING TO JEOPARDIZE YOURSELF, YOUR HORSE, YOUR NEIGHBORS IN CAMP OR THE ENVIRONMENT. ALWAYS put your fires out COMPLETELY (which is why I suggest getting a self-contained portable grill or stove upon which to do your cooking) and ALWAYS pack ALL of your trash back to where there is a dumpster or suitable trash receptacle.
Most of all, have fun, be safe and I’ll see you on the trail!