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The Essentials of Backcountry Horseback Riding

When Mary Radford set out from her home in Angels Camp, California last June for a day in the Sierras with her son, Peter, and their two horses, she envisioned a bucolic eight hours of riding. At that time, the mountains were still tipped with toupees of snow, and the meadows were tall with early summer grass and brilliant wildflowers. Breathlessly describing the wonders of the backcountry, Radford swears there is no riding experience quite like it.

“I had always had this dream of riding in the Sierras with my son. The weather was perfect, the horses were ready to go…I couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” she said.

But visions of a fabulous backcountry experience quickly ground to a halt after the pair stopped for a lunch break.
“We originally had the horses tied up,” explained Radford, adding in a somewhat sheepish tone, “but I felt sorry for them, that they couldn’t enjoy all that wonderful green grass.”

Although Peter, a sophomore at the prestigious Thacher School in Southern California, where horsemanship is a required element of the curriculum, questioned the wisdom of untying the horses to let them graze freely, Mary insisted that all would be fine.

“What could go wrong? I couldn’t think of a thing,” she recalled.

Within minutes of leaving the horses unsecured, a group of hikers appeared from the woods that fringed the meadow, and both horses spooked and then panicked, bolting towards higher elevations and into obscurity. Along with them went saddles, bridles, prized saddle bags, food, water, car keys and house keys

“We were stuck in the middle of absolutely nowhere and it took us hours of crossing rivers and deep ground cover to hike back to the car. Which, of course, I couldn’t start because the keys were in my saddle bags,” said Radford, who can, one year later, almost laugh when reflecting on what became a week-long search for the horses involving ranchers, hikers and park personnel from three different counties.

“We had every horseman and hiker within a hundred miles looking for those horses and when they were found five days later (only a mile and a half from where they had disapperared), both were severally dehydrated and suffering from saddle sores and other abrasions,” said Radford. “They had definitely had an adventure, and they looked it.”

While Radford’s story had a happy ending, she is the first to agree on two points: 1) that the situation could have been avoided with a little careful thought and 2) whether riding on nearby trails or trekking into the backcountry, horsemen would be well advised to embrace the motto of the Boy Scouts of America and “Be Prepared.”

“I’ve heard similar stories, some with better outcomes, some a lot worse,” said Toby Horst, who currently heads the California chapter of Backcountry Horsemen (BCHC), a nationwide organization that is devoted to educating equestrians on the ins and outs of riding and camping in wilderness regions, with a particular eye toward safety and an environmentally-friendly “leave no trace” policy. In addition, members frequently donate their own resources, including tools, time, and money, toward preserving the mountain trails they use. Last year, under Horst’s guidance, many of the 4400 members of the California Backcountry Horsemen donated approximately $400,000 in time, materials and labor towards the construction and upkeep of wilderness stock trails.

If the idea of sharing a true “back to nature” experience with your horse appeals to your sense of adventure, Toby Horst and other savvy riders have a list of certain things they won’t leave home without. Asked what item is uppermost on his list, Horst said it was more of an attitude than a tangible article.

“The most important thing you need to know about riding the backcountry, even if it’s just for a day, is that you’ve got to be prepared for anything, ” he said.

Rule One—Make sure both you and your horse are trained and conditioned correctly.

“The horse has to be prepared and trained for the conditions on the trails,” said Horst, who teaches a class through BCHA on backcountry camping and packing. “Having a nice trail horse is not enough. You may think your horse is ready for the backcountry because you ride him on trails in the flatlands all the time and he behaves perfectly. But you don’t know what you’re getting into.”

Part of the training process is getting your mount familiarized with narrow paths with rocky surfaces, especially those horses that are accustomed to the comparative luxury of wide fire roads and dirt footing picked clean of rocks. Horst also cautions that the change in altitude can cause serious illness to a horse used to lower altitudes, and that like any runner or hiker who must negotiate terrain at higher levels, the horse must be in training.
Springville rancher Horace Wells, who regularly heads up to the Sierras for days on end, cautions that, even for day rides, horses must be trained to cross a variety of obstacles, ranging from fallen trees to suspension bridges.

“Many of the bridges are built low to the ground, such as you’d find on the flatlands, and don’t propose a big threat to the horse. But some of the bridges you come across are suspension bridges, very narrow, very swingy,” advised Wells, who added that training a horse to cross such obstacles is a process and riders shouldn’t expect their horses to just “get it” the first time around.

And while you might not see yourself heading into deepest Yosemite where suspension bridges and narrow, cliffside trails are the rule, Wells counsels that even a day ride can present problems for which one needs to train in advance.

“You need to be prepared to see deer, elk, bear and backpackers,” he said. “You can terrify a horse who’s never seen a human walking around with a big hiking backpack on. You have to get your horse conditioned to such sights.”

Both Wells and Horst recommend enrolling in a class such as the type offered through BCHA, in which you and your mount gain confidence through exposure to the kinds of situations you are likely to encounter on the trail.

“Probably the greatest benefit from participating in such a class is the confidence and trust that springs up between you and your horse,” said Horst. “You need to be a team when you’re out there, and these classes encourage that kind of bond.”

Important Tools to Carry

Like Horst and Wells, Marin County horseman Craig Miller agrees that the first thing you should bring along, even for a day ride, is a thoughtful attitude.

“You have to be prepared for the unintended consequences,” said Miller, who gained backcountry savvy when going through certification classes for mounted search and rescue. “There’s an interdependency between horse and rider that’s very important, but you have to take the approach that assumes the interdependency could break and you’ll be on your own.”

So Miller’s rule is simple: whatever you need for your own survival, you keep on your person. Whatever you need for your horse stays with the horse. That way, if you and your horse are separated, there’s a higher likelihood you’ll come out alive. Among the compact necessities Miller carries in a small pack around his waist are a flashlight, matches, a compass with a mirror, a whistle and a knife with a serrated edge that is capable of cutting a variety of materials, from leather to tree limbs. Along with a basic first aid kit and a map of the area in which he plans to ride (no matter how well he knows the area or how many times he’s ridden there), he also carries water.

“You can easily survive three days without food, but you cannot make it three days without water,” said Miller, who has “horse camped” in the high Sierras both on his own and with large groups of fellow search and rescue riders.
As far as his horse’s needs, Miller puts his fancy, handmade leather saddle bags away in favor of a lightweight, waterproof style. Inside, he carries a first aid kit for the horse, including an anti-bacterial agent such as Fura-Zone, a pain killer like bute and Vetwrap. He also includes a lightweight hoof pick and an easy boot to compensate for a lost shoe, an absolute must on the shale and rocks that litter many mountain trails. Miller also recommends buying a small packet of leather strips that come in various sizes and can help to piece together a broken cinch or cheek strap. These can be obtained from most saddle repair shops.

“I carry an extra bridle in my saddle bag, a fact which made a lot of my friends laugh– until we were at the 10,000-foot level and one of them ended up with a broken bridle,” Miller grinned. “That guy would never have gotten back to base camp otherwise.”

Wells further recommends carrying a lightweight rain jacket and plastic pants, such as the type he ties right behind the cantle of his saddle. “The weather up there can really surprise you,” he said. “One minute it’s sunny and gorgeous and then next it can be snowing, even in early summer.”

Wells, who is a longtime member of BCHA, never leaves home without bringing his halter, along with rope with which to tie a “picket line.” Also known as a “high line,” because it is strung between two trees high above the horse’s head, it prevents the lead rope from entwining in a grazing horse’s legs. The lead rope is attached to the high line with a swivel hook that rotates as the horse moves about, another simple method of keeping the line twist-free.

Wells says that he has his horses and mules trained to wear hobbles, which he carries in his pack whenever he rides the backcountry. Hobbles are similar to leather cuffs that encircle the horse’s legs just above the pasterns. Joined together, they prevent the animal from being able to bolt and are ideal for areas where grazing is plentiful, but trees to which a picket line could be tied are not. Although hobbles have unfairly gained a bad reputation due to inappropriate use by some horsemen, generally speaking they are an excellent alternative in situations where the horse cannot be tied by the halter. Wells says that it is the only way to secure his animals in Arizona’s Superstition Mountain, where tying to trees is against park regulations.

“If the alternative is losing my horse in the wilderness, you can bet I’m going to use hobbles,” said Wells.

Horst adds that he often ties a cowbell to a grazing horse, just in case they bolt. “When you have to go search for a horse, it’s an excellent way to find them,” he said.

Riding in the backcountry is a dream that dances in the minds of many of horse fanatic. But experts agree that there is a huge difference between riding your home trails and riding in the mountains, even if you are the lucky owner of one of those legendary “bombproof” horses. The key to it all appears to be thinking every move through carefully to prevent the worst from happening, while still being prepared to handle whatever comes your way.

Tossing hay over the fence to the Paint horses she shares with Peter, Mary Radford is beginning to look forward to trying a backcountry ride again soon. But she confesses that last summer’s debacle will inspire her to be a little more circumspect in her preparations this time around.

“If you’re asking me whether or not I learned anything from my experience, the answer is definitely ‘yes,’” she exclaimed. “At the very least, I’ll be tying up my horses this year—very securely.”

What to Carry

The following items are the recommended basics of what a rider should carry on his or her personal backpack, following the rule that what the rider needs for survival stays with the rider.

Water bottle
Basic First Aid Kit
Compass, with Mirror
Strong Knife with Serrated Edge
Energy bars or candy bars
What Your Horse Should Carry

The following items are basics to be carried in saddle bags that stay with your horse.

Equine first aid supplies, including Vetwrap, anti-bacterial agent and painkillers—KEEP IN EASILY ACCESSIBLE AREA, NOT BURIED UNDER OTHER ITEMS

Hoof pick
Easy boot
Halter and lead line
Extra bridle
Leather strips that can repair broken tack
High-line rope with swivel hooks

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The Essentials of Backcountry Horseback Riding