Horses require a lot of time to train. When you add up tack, feed, and pasture fees as well as vet bills, the cost of ownership can be startling. They can be stubborn or even a bit ornery, too, pushing even the most patient person to a breaking point.
People get hurt while riding, and the horse usually gets blamed even though the causes are usually worn tack, inexperienced (or distracted) riders, or the weather.
All of these negatives aside, riding deep into the wilderness in search of your favorite game or hitting the trail to take in the scenery takes on a different meaning when mounted atop your favorite horse.
Miserable weather conditions and scarce game are tough on morale but just climbing into that saddle puts a smile on my face. Riding a horse is good for the mind, body, and soul — whether taking in the beautiful scenery of my favorite backcountry areas or riding the same beaten path people have used for hundreds of years.
Using horses to get around in the backcountry minimizes wear and tear on your body and allows for a more comfortable camp than you are willing to carry on your back. Horses’ different personalities and attitudes even provide for some entertainment on the trail and around camp.
🐴 Basic horsemanship
Older than the “Ford vs. Chevrolet” debate and possibly more complicated than “the chicken or the egg” discussion are the different methods of horse care, proper saddling, and packing.
There are definitely “do’s and don’ts” when it comes to riding and pack strings, but the fundamental ideas are the same. The best way to learn is by watching an experienced wrangler and spending time learning hands-on.
Horses need proper feed to get going in the morning, which requires you to wake up at least an hour earlier than normal to allow them enough time to digest prior to saddling. They also need to be taken to water at least a couple of times a day, and even if you are tired after a long ride, they need a hearty evening feeding to ensure they are ready to go the next morning.
The proper way to saddle depends on which horseman you ask, but it always begins with a good brush down, then a saddle blanket paired with a good pad. The saddle should be located a couple of finger widths behind the front shoulder, and the cinch should be tight enough to keep the saddle from rolling without limiting the horse’s breathing.
Your horse will usually let you know if it is too tight by whinnying or even biting – I have scars to prove it. Saddle sores are avoidable with proper saddling and tack but occasionally happen – be sure to properly treat these with topical treatments and rest.
It’s easy to become distracted while riding in the backcountry but always be aware of your horse and the surroundings, especially around water, rocks, and downed trees. Make sure to work with your horse moving your body with the horse’s motion; lean forward in the saddle during strenuous climbs and lean back while descending steep slopes.
Guide and control your horse using the reins but avoid yanking on them, as it can injure the horse’s mouth and cause them to act out. Be firm in your commands, making sure the horse knows what you are asking of them and that you are in control.
Often, less experienced riders allow the horse too much freedom, and in turn, the horse will take full advantage. Regardless of how frustrated you get with your horse, punching, kicking, or whipping will not help. You are picking a fight with a 1000-plus pound animal, and when push comes to shove, it will win.
Arguably, the best part about using horses is letting them do the heavy lifting for you. There are a variety of pack saddles available to the backcountry horseman, including sawbuck or decker saddles, hard or soft panniers, and mantie tarps or over-the-saddle bags.
Again, having someone with pack string experience teach you the basics will be the best way to decide on a setup that will work for you. Start by laying out all your gear and separate into individual loads for each packhorse. Invest in a hanging scale and ensure weight is equally distributed on either side.
Make sure not to overload your top load – a good rule of thumb is the top load should weigh less than a third of the total weight of both sides. Be sure that anything fragile you put on a horse is protected because inevitably, that horse will bump into every tree and rock along the trail.
The best loads are packed tight, balanced, and don’t clank and tattle like a toddler rummaging through the kitchen pots and pans.
When it comes to weapons, rifles are best protected in a saddle-mounted scabbard, but in my experience, the best way to transport a bow is attached to a backpack on a rider’s back.
Packing out your trophies is fairly simple, especially if you keep the quarters on the bones, as it makes for equal weight distribution. Your trophy’s antlers can be difficult to get cinched to the saddle and tend to get loose easily, so take your time and use plenty of cam straps.
💰 Own, rent, or hire?
Owning your horses allows you to train them the way that best fits your style. You can adapt to their personalities, attitudes, and quirks and use them, however, and whenever you see fit.
After the initial purchase of your horses comes the responsibility of any veterinarian bills, feed and pasture costs, and daily care, along with acquiring and maintaining all your tack.
Renting appears as a promising option to reduce cost, as the tack is generally included in the rental, but I would caution that you take time for extensive research if you plan to rent horses for a backcountry excursion. There are plenty of horror stories of renting stock that are lame, inexperienced in the backcountry, and even blood-shy.
Unless you have established a relationship with someone or a company, be very leery of borrowing someone else’s horses without them present. Should something go awry, you will be responsible for fixing or replacing any damaged goods and ultimately have a higher safety risk during your trip.
Hiring an outfitter who offers pack-in or guided trips is a good option and will simplify your trip, as all you need to do is show up at the trailhead with your gear.
Aside from the horses, they will provide all the required tack and get it to the trailhead; handle feeding and saddling during your trip, and you do not have to worry about off-season care. There is also the benefit of having a professional who is familiar with each horse’s personality and can provide you with the information you need to have a successful and safe trip. The downside to this is cost since you are not only renting the animal but hiring experience as well.
This may be the best compromise for someone who only makes a couple of trips each year and is a great way to learn the ropes, so to speak, if you want to eventually have a pack string of your own.
⚖️ Laws, Ethics, and Courtesy
When using public lands, know the local laws regarding registration, feed and grazing requirements, and water restrictions.
Minimize damage to the natural resources by sticking to established trails when possible, use tree-saving straps, and certified weed-free hay or feed if packing in feed.
If you meet a group of riders on the trail, make yourself known early — lust a simple hello will do. Quietly stepping off the trail and waiting in the shadows while the other group passes may seem like the right thing to do, but this often ends up startling the horses, resulting in a rodeo.
Riding horses through the backcountry is as much a part of the wilderness as the trees and mountains that brought me there in the first place. There have been some good quotes muttered at the trailhead over the years, like “this isn’t my fust rodeo, but it’s still a rodeo’” or “if your horse goes to bucking – hold the hell on,” and there is some truth to both.
Any trip to the hills with horses is bound to have some challenges, but experience combined with preparedness and common sense will minimize these struggles. In the end, using horses in the backcountry not only gets you where you want to go but provides some companionship along the way. I believe Winston Churchill said it best, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
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