Over the last few years, I have made it my lifetime goal to see at least 10 U.S. National parks on the back of my own horse. The thought of riding through faraway lands with my horse, my survival gear and my riding group with their horses is what my lottery dreams are made of. I can almost smell the fresh mountain air, feel the heat of the southwestern sun or hear the ocean waves crashing as I gallop these unfamiliar trails. I realize this is a tangible goal and I don’t need to win the lottery to accomplish it. However, I also recognize that camping with horses is no easy endeavor and takes a lot of research and planning. I have been doing just that, and with it I have created a list of five steps to get ready for your first horse camping trip.
1. Work Your Horse at Home First
Before I can even start to think about camping with horses, I need to think about my horse’s abilities and limitations. My horse has been on many trails and he’s fairly well trained, but I don’t think he is quite ready to be tied out for the night in an unfamiliar landscape. He and I both need to practice forms of overnight containment so that we are comfortable and have a sense of security when we are out on the trail.
Some horse friendly campgrounds do offer shelter and cabins, but if you’re looking to camp under the stars with your horse, it’s a completely different approach. Since many parks have different rules and regulations, one may allow a portable corral, while other require picket lines. If I don’t wish to limit our options, I will start with one and work until he is comfortable, then move onto the next.
Remember that on most horse camping trips you are going to allow your horse to graze, as packing hay out on the trail would be a difficult task. Your horse will need to be acclimated to grass so they can graze on breaks and throughout the night. Be sure to check the park trail maps to see if sufficient grass will be available.
Other aspects you may need to work on could include emergency mounting and dismounting, water and bridge crossing, refining cues for safety, working well on ungroomed trails and longer hours of riding all together. It’s not a bad idea to go through the motions of what a camping trip would entail. Setting up an at home horse camp will give you scenarios to work though. Is your horse going to spook while you attempt to setup a tent? Will they become fearful at the scent of a campfire? Consider putting your horse in your containment of choice and go through all the different situations, once you’ve worked out all the kinks you’re ready to move onto step two.
2. Pick a Local Park to Test Ride
Now that you and your horse are comfortable going through the motions of camping, you’re ready to ride your first trial run. You want to research your local area first, depending on where you live this may mean a park is right down the road, or it might be 200 miles away. Start searching your local park websites, local or state trail riding chapters or if you’re near a national park, see if they offer horse campsites. Even a horse friendly campground would be a good start to keep it more relaxed.
Going local will give you the chance to prepare with ample time and replicate what you’ve been practicing at home. Find out all the small details to make sure you can properly prepare. Is there access to water? Do they have picket line set? What are the cleanup procedures? Who has right of way on what trails? Make sure you read the rules and regulations to remain incident free. If you’re able to, drive to the park solo and walk the trails. The more prepared you are, the more relaxing of a time you will have.
3. Make a Checklist
Once you have chosen a park, it’s time to start preparing. It can be overwhelming to think of all the things you need, so take a couple hours to brainstorm your list and research what you might need. This list will need to cover everything from horse camping gear, to trailering necessities to all your personal camping needs. Are you bringing food to cook? What will you carry water in? Saddle bags are a must, but their size depends on how much you plan to pack. Make sure you can fit everything comfortably on your horses during one of your home practice sessions.
4. Check your Equipment
Before any long trip, you need to check all your equipment, both tack and trailer. This should include trailer lights, tires, trailer hitch, ramps/door hinges, flooring and roof. Take the proactive steps to prevent any malfunctions that could arise with your hauling equipment. Have your vehicle looked over and if anything needs worked on, have it taken care of before you leave.
Make sure your tack is in good shape, consider replacing any pieces that are worn especially thin or seem weak. A girth snapping or reins busting is not how you want to experience your trail ride. Make sure you test any replacements or new pieces of equipment before you go on your ride. A new pad that the horse finds uncomfortable or an ill fitted bit will stop your ride in its tracks.
This look over should also include your horse. If your horse wears shoes are they secure? If your horse is barefoot or wears boots, are they in good condition? Do they have any health issues that may need to be considered? There is no harm in being extra thorough when it comes to the safety of your horse.
5. Get Out and Ride!
All this work leaves many thinking this might be a more stressful endeavor than planned, but remember that this is all about you and your horse! The trails are waiting, new adventures are just ahead of you. It’s just you, your horse and nature, get excited and let the memories of a lifetime begin!
Have you camped with your horse? Share your stories and advice in the comments below. And if you’re ready to start packing, visit www.sstack.com/trail to get started.