Monday, March 30, 2009

On fear and confidence and learning

Up until last year, I thought I knew all about foaling. I had 14 healthy foals throughout the years grow up under my care, had read and studied everything I could find on the subject, and thought I knew it all. Then my ego turned upside down. Or perhaps, right side up.

First, my favorite mare surprised me by not foaling when I expected. She was two weeks early, and dropped down in front of the herd at 10 am to push the baby out.

I used to believe the birthing process was the big concern, and would scrutinize every movement of the mare and the presentation of the foal. Once the baby was on the ground and his or her navel dipped, life was a done deal. My worries were over. I could finally sleep through the night again, and enjoy doing imprinting work with the foals in the nice sunny daylight hours. Life was good.

At four days old, this foal died. We had an autopsy done on the baby and learned that the killer was a bacterium in our soil. Clostridium Perfringens. A bacterium that could have been brought to the ranch in the hay, by a rabbit or deer, or by the nearby range cattle. A bacterium that once established in your soil will always be there. There is nothing known to successfully get rid of it. There is no known cure, no vaccination, nothing you can do except hope it doesn’t get the foals. Some years it will. Some years it won’t. I had two more foals due. The next one got it. The vet said she had only seen one other foal survive. Miraculously, this foal did survive, after quite a courageous battle. The last foal of the season was completely spared.

And so I go into foaling season this year, with five mares due, filled with apprehension, completely uncertain. The first mare of the season is in the foaling shed now. I expect she will birth tonight. I will not sleep much, and be there for her. But in reality, what good can I do?

Likewise, up until a couple years ago, I thought I knew how to ride. Then I took on some new challenges that forced me to question my knowledge, like training a little Arabian stallion. And attending a horse clinic that did more to crush my false sense of ego than to teach me good skills with horses. Confidence shattered, the fear began to solidify. Without the false confidence and safety, and driven by fear to question every move I or my horses made, I could see more clearly now how little I really did know.

The roller coaster ride became all too common: coming in from working with my horses one day elated with the progress made, and coming in the next day in tears of frustration due to my lack of knowledge.

Somewhere along the way, we reach a stage in learning where the bottom drops out. I somehow preferred the false sense of confidence I had in my ignorance. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, if that makes sense. And you know the expression: ignorance is bliss. When we don’t see how much we don’t know, we feel fine about our little world. All is well. Once we begin to open the doors and start to see how much is really out there, it’s a scary place at times. Like going through life with our feet firmly planted in the air.

I imagine I’ll get one day to a place of solid foundation. And I suppose then it will be a real foundation. The one I had before was false, or at least, feeble. Now I am working toward a base of knowledge. It’s slow to come. Very frustrating, but I’m stubborn and will continue to work at it, despite the challenges and disappointments.

At times, I think perhaps it is because of these challenges and disappointments that we are forced to re-evaluate our knowledge base, to reconsider the basis of what we used to believe was true, what used to work for us. Then, we can finally, solidly build upon it. I just wonder why it can’t be easier?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Leave No Trace: A basic introduction to Wilderness travel and camping for the Horseman

Riding and horse camping in the Wilderness may seem overwhelming at times, with a long list of rules and regulations to follow in order to “leave no trace.” But it’s actually remarkably simple. In fact, one of the best parts about the Leave No Trace principles is its simplicity. Stay simple! It makes riding and camping with horses easy and doable. And the experience of being in the Wilderness where folks have and do treat the wilds with deserving respect is incomparable.

The basic principles of Leave No Trace for the horseman are the same as for the hiker or backpacker, with just a few additional considerations. I’ll go over the general points today, and in the future, we can show you each one in greater detail, through recounts of our hands-on experiences.

I understand that each Wilderness Area may have specific concerns and considerations, so please take an extra few minutes to look up any additional recommended guidelines for the area you intend to be travelling in. Most of this information can be found on line today.

The basic principles for LNT travel and camping are:
Plan Ahead and Prepare
Travel and Camp On Durable Surfaces
Dispose of Waste Properly
Leave What You Find
Minimize Campfire Impacts
Respect Wildlife
Be Considerate of Other Visitors
You can sum this up even more simply by just remembering to be thoughtful and considerate of the land, the trail, wildlife and other people. I figure this is a big, beautiful world. Respecting that basic principle is easy.

We do it both for a living and for the love of it. When it’s just the three of us, we travel as light as possible, everything thing we need for the three of us packed on one horse. And yes, we seriously limit our weight and bulk on our packstock because of the high elevation and challenging mountain terrain.

When we take a group into the Wilderness, our impact is slightly greater, with a larger number of persons and stock, sleeping tents for our guests, and a portable camp kitchen which really helps me in order to prepare good meals for a larger group.

In any case, when we leave a camp, we do our best to see that signs of our ever having been there are minimal. You’d have to search for clues.

Here are some specific principles and practices to keep in mind with the LNT ethics:

Planning ahead first means limiting your group size. For foot traffic only, group size is limited to 15 people. For those of us travelling with stock, we are limited to no more than 25 heartbeats, persons and stock (riding and pack) combined. Plan accordingly: limit your gear, repackage food for minimal waste, pack well and wisely, and be prepared (I’ll share our packing suggestion list in the future).
In choosing a camp site, find a durable surface, 200 feet from any water source, and use what’s there. Good sites are found, not made. Don’t alter the landscape. Choose an area that won’t be impacted by your horses, gear and tent. For horse travelers, get well off the beaten trail. You don’t want to be in the way with your stock. Allow for stock grazing where you won’t disturb trail traffic. Tuck you high lines in the trees. Use a downed tree to store saddles and tack. I’m big on privacy. I don’t like to see anyone else from my camp, nor disturb anyone else. I’m out here for a reason, and it’s not the social life.
Limit campfires. Don’t burn if you don’t have to. Cook on a campstove. Use a lantern or candle for light. We have a fancy double burner aluminum pannier set we pack for cooking for groups. I can prepare a good three course meal for a crowd, and never have to burn a stick. But I admit, a campfire is magical and special and warm (and it’s pretty cold up here), so when we camp during times that fires are not permitted (it is your responsibility to know if a fire ban is in effect), I miss a camp fire. When you are permitted and do choose to have a campfire, keep fires small, use only small sticks and twigs on the ground. Burn fire completely to fine ash, and be sure the fire is dead out before leaving camp. We dump water in the hole, stir it up with a stick or shovel, and then put our hand in. That will tell you if it’s out! In some locations, there may be designated fire pits. In our part of the Wilderness, there are not. If we see “rings” folks left behind, we scatter them. I guess some people don’t realize that a fire ring is not only completely unnecessary, but it’s leaving a mighty big trace. I don’t want to know you were there before me. That’s the point of the Wilderness. Instead, we dig out our top soil, the top 6-8 inches, stash it under a nearby tree, and build our fire in this hole about 15x15 inches. When we are leaving the campsite, we make certain the fire is dead out, then replace the topsoil. I’ve heard about fire blankets – small squares of fireproof materials that you can pack with you and place right on top of the ground, build your fire on it, and be certain that you’re leaving no trace when you carefully clean up from this. This would be a good thing to pack in many areas.
As for some horse specific considerations to keep in mind: feed must be certified weed free, but I’d say this is a consideration for folks camping at the trailhead or at the few Wilderness locations that are so close to urban centers that use is heavy. In the majority of the back country, at least where ever I have been so lucky to camp, there’s more than enough horse feed already there. Don’t pack in feed. Let you horses graze. In our elevations covering trails between 10,000 and 13,000 feet, and riding/working an average of six or seven hours a day, our horses are in excellent condition on high mountain grass alone, and without fear of colic from packing in rich or unnatural horse feeds. Just like we’re trying to limit our impact, allowing your horses to graze will be far less of an impact over keeping them tied up and eating feed you hauled in.
Don’t cut switchbacks. Horses will leave a greater footprint than two human feet, especially in wet, muddy areas. Keep this in mind and use thoughtful consideration. Our goal is to leave only footprints, but even minimize these. If going off trail to stop or set camp, spread out, don’t leave a new trail behind.
As for horse manure – I haven’t figured out how to clean up on the trail behind us as we travel, so my apologies to the foot traffic that does have to step over the occasional pile. But at camp, there is no excuse not to take the time to kick or spread with shovel or stick the manure your horses leave behind. A broken up pile of horse poop will be all but impossible to see after a day drying in the sun, or an afternoon of rain. A pile left intact can remain visible for a full season.
Then there is the issue of human waste. Again, this is simple, so please keep it simple. There is nothing worse than finding a camp where someone had set up (and left) a big hole for a latrine. Think small and simple. When you need to “go to the woods,” find a private location in the woods or brush, and dig a cat hole 6-8 inches deep, at least 200 feet from water source. When you are done, cover and disguise the cat hole. Don’t forget to pack your shovel! We use one of those good sized folding ones that fits easily into either a pannier or large saddle bag. We have a bright yellow one, and lean it up on a tree with a roll of TP hanging from the tree in a ziplock bag. If the bag and shovel are gone, you know the woods are “occupied.” TP is supposed to be packed out, though in an area of minimal use like where we camp, I will use biodegradable paper and bury it with my humanure. Back in the day, people thought you should leave TP out on a rock or something. No. I don’t want to see your TP, and you don’t want to see mine, right? Leave no trace! Handy-wipe type products are great for personal hygiene, but be sure to pack these out.
Respect nature in everything you do. There no need to be out there if you don’t. Enjoy looking at the wild flowers, the grasses, the trees, but don’t damage, pick, or cut anything alive. For the horseman, this also means limiting time stock is tied to trees; rotating location of stock staked out to graze, and using tree-savers when putting up a high line.
Respect wildlife. Observe only from a distance. Bottom line, leave them alone. Control pets or leave them at home. Store food and trash securely.
Respect others on the trail and in the Wilderness. Be courteous, yield to others on the trail. People, on foot or horse, should step to the downhill side off the trail to allow for packstock to safely pass. Being nice goes a long way! Make a good name for horsemen. If you have to encounter anyone else on the trail, have it be your goal to make the encounter be a positive one for you, your stock, and the folks you meet.
If you packed it in, you can pack it out. Take out all your trash. Everything. Don’t bury or burn it. Plan on bringing trash bags if need be.
You know what they say: Take nothing from the wilderness except photos and memories. Leave nothing but footprints, and as a horseman, take extra precaution to limit these. Damage nothing during your stay.
Double check that you have in fact left no trace. Do a final sweep around your camp area – check for trash, scatter horse poop (with boots and branches), if there was any pawing around trees, cover this back up. Take the time to clean up. Check and double check. Even if, on the unfortunate chance, you find litter or signs of an obvious camp left behind by someone else, clean up after them. I’ll jump off my horse any time I see a piece of trash on the trail and stuff it in my saddle bag. I’ll spend time bagging and packing up someone else’s trash if I find it left behind at camp. I don’t appreciate it, but I sure am not going to leave it for someone else to see. Leave the campsite and the Wilderness as you wish you found it.

I hope this doesn’t sound complicated. It’s not. It’s so simple. But if we choose to use the Wilderness, we need to accept and abide by these principles. Remember, it’s our choice. Choose to use it wisely.

For more information, and more specific details, check out these web sites:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Riding all the time

I try to ride all the time. All the time I am in the saddle or on a horse, that is.

In the last post, “riding all the time” was mentioned as one of the key points to stress for a rider. I don’t know about you, but this is a big challenge for me, but one that has been key to improving my knowledge of my horses, my riding ability, and my safety.

I’ll start by explaining this a little more. By saying “riding all the time,” I mean paying attention to you and your horse the entire time you are in the saddle (even more so when on a horse bareback). As you can imagine, running dude string rides, more often than not, we used to see folks get on the horse and expect to sit. And they figured they’d be safe. They weren’t. Wrecks were all too common. At the very least, horses would “behave badly” because of miscommunication from the rider, lack of direction from the rider’s focus, seat, legs, hands, weight, balance and voice.

We started reminded folks that riding is a sport, and they are a participant, not a passenger. This seemed to be one of those “Ah ha!” points, as you could see the rider suddenly sit up and look around more intently. I don’t know how to explain it, but I could see the difference. The rider was paying more attention. That’s the first step.

For me, striving to ride all the time, means paying attention to my self, my horse, and my surrounding (which often includes a string of dude horses or packs behind me) as much as I can. I say that somewhat loosely, because my “job” (hard to call this work when I love it so much) entails being on the trail for hours at a time, often 2, or 6 or 10 hours a day. I’m not mentally capable of paying attention for that long. But I do try. I’ll let myself get lost in the rhythm of the horse walking up the trail, and then POW! I wake up, notice where I am and what I’m doing. I take a minute to make certain I am moving with my horse, working with him. I’ll focus on my seat, check my reins, adjust my shoulders, see what feels good to me and what I can tell works for the horse. I watch his ears. They give me a good clue if he likes what I’m doing or is getting annoyed with me. I’ll even play games, like seeing if I can lead him in a certain direction, around a bush or rock, just with my focus. Or speed him up or slow him down just with the movement in my pelvis.

And then, chances are, something will distract me, usually some trivial thought, and my mind wanders away from my horse.

Quattro has been a terrific teacher to keep me focused on my riding, to keep me riding all the time. Even after hours and hours on the trail, he will not give me five minutes of my mind wandering off before he says, “Oh, there she goes, not paying attention. Let’s try THIS!” And he’ll jog, or veer off the trail, or take a bite (of grass or of the horse closest to him). He’s got a big bag of tricks, and he loves to try them all. I’ve been guiding on him for three years now. I love it. For all the hours we’re on the trail, I can never say I’m bored. Usually, if anything, I’m exhausted. Paying attention as much as he requires of me wears me out.

My sweet, gentle broodmare, Tres, has been a surprisingly good teacher for helping me learn to ride all the time. But in a very different way. You see, with Tres, I figured I didn’t have to ride all the time. I could sit back and enjoy the ride. Slack off, you know. What’s she going to do? Right? Wrong. She’s a horse. Horses are all capable of spooking, shying, bucking, rearing, biting, running off, etc… though we teach most not to behave this way, most of the time. But we should never kid ourselves that they can’t or they won’t. Because that’s when they will.

So it is that I’ve fallen off Tres more than any other horse we own or have owned. Simply because I stop riding when I’m still in the saddle. I forget where I am, what I’m doing and allow my mind to wander off, far away. I have complete trust in this mare. And I still do, even though I’ve found myself on the ground beside her a time or two. The fault is not hers. The fault is mine. Every time, I was lost in thought, and just going along for the ride, and suddenly, she’d act a like a horse and spook. What a surprise!

Last year I finally figured it out. I tried to pay attention when riding Tres, to be as aware of myself and her and the trail as I am when I ride Quattro. It was harder with Tres, because she’d so rarely “act like a horse.” But when she did, and of course she did, I was actually ready. And rather than finding myself on the ground looking up at her like “what is wrong with YOU?” I found myself solidly in the saddle, and could pat her shoulder, and say, “good Lady, you saw that before I did!”

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Trail Etiquette and Safety Information

Over the years in my infinite attempts at organizing our horse business (can a horse business be organized?), I have amassed several forms, lists, and records to share with our guests and to at least try to keep ourselves in line. I’d like to share this one with you. For anyone who currently rides the trail, it may be just a list of reminders. I personally re-read this and update it yearly. I don’t know how, but I do forget some of these things. For anyone with a horse related business, perhaps some of these points can help you in working with your guests and clients. And for anyone who is interested in trail riding but hasn’t been out there yet, or at least not much, perhaps some of these points will be helpful. In any case, it’s long, but hopefully you’ll find at least a tidbit or two in here that might work for you. I have this printed out on the back side of our Release of Liability form and ask all our guests to read it over. (If anyone out there would like a copy of our Release, please let me know.) I don’t know if they do, but I feel I’m doing the right thing. Many of these points I then cover verbally and through actual physical instruction, which we take the time to do for every rider, every time. Our horses are quite grateful for that time well spent.

Ranch Trail Etiquette and Safety Information, Requirements and Conditions

Riding is a sport, just like tennis or skiing. It is a high adventure activity; not a spectator sport! You are a participant, not a passenger, so when you ride, be riding all the time. Be aware of your horse and what you are doing. Your horse has a mind; it will use it. Learn to guide it safely.

As an animal of flight, the horse is startled by sudden movements, loud noises and unfamiliar objects. Don’t throw things (hats, camera, water bottle, etc.) to or from a horse. Please ask our guide to stop to put a jacket or slicker on; you may need to dismount for this process. If you would like to take pictures, ask our guide to stop.

Don’t let your horse eat or graze on the trail when riding. Just one mouthful leads to many more. A good trail horse knows the difference between having a rider on his back, and having a pack strapped on. Don’t act like a pack. During breaks, eating is permitted. Our horses work hard. During water crossings, allowing the horse to drink is permitted, and often times, encouraged.

Following the instructions of our guide is essential for the safety of each and every rider in the entire group, as well as for the safety and well being of our horses. All participants will be expected to follow the guides instructions from before approaching the horse, until after safely dismounting. Safety is our first concern.

Likewise, don’t pass your guide. There is a reason he or she is guiding, and by your choosing to participate, you agree to accept his or her guidance.

If your horse fails to keep up with others, has tricks you don’t like, or acts lazy, before you blame him, figure out how much you really know about riding. Riding is a lifelong study, and a good rider always looks to himself first.

Keep a safe distance between your horse and the horse in front of you – approximately one full horse length. A horse finds tailgating about as annoying as you do – and horses have been known to kick and bite when annoyed.

A nice pleasant walk is not only suitable, but required for riding here at Lost Trail Ranch. This is due to the high elevation and the difficult nature of our terrain, and is based upon our concern for the safety of our horses, not to mention our riders. If we trot or lope our horses, it is will full consideration of the safety of ALL riders and horses, and with respect to the trail and the terrain.

No smoking is allowed around the barn area or during a trail ride.

Sorry, guests dogs may not join us on the trail ride. Our guides, our horses and our trail dogs are not familiar with them, and leaving your dog “home” is the easiest way to prevent any possible related problems.

These facts, requirements and conditions are written with your safety in mind.

All riders are expected to safely mount, dismount unassisted if need be.
All riders must be able to safely control their horse both on the ground and in the saddle.
A brief riding review/lesson may be provided before each ride. If you feel you need a riding lesson or refresher session before embarking on a trail ride, lessons and instructions may be scheduled accordingly.
A riding evaluation may be necessary to ensure the ability of the rider before leaving the barn/corral area. This is essential not only for the safety and enjoyment of that rider, but for the safety and enjoyment of ALL participants in the ride. Any person(s) unable to safely complete the evaluation may not be allowed to participate at that time. Please be aware of our No Refund Policy as well as our saddling fee/minimum service fee. Lessons may be arranged here at Lost Trail Ranch. Please feel free to speak with us about them. We enjoy the opportunity to help teach our guests to become more knowledgeable, confident, and safe in the saddle.

Please ask questions before leaving if you have any doubt about reining and controlling your horse. And do speak up during the ride if you have any questions. We would like to do all we can to make your trail ride a safe, knowledgeable, and fun experience.

Remember, horses are not machines. They will look to you for guidance and leadership. Be sure you communicate clearly, calmly and well to your horse with your focus, your balance, your positioning, your reining, and your voice.

Remember too that there are hidden dangers on the trail. The rider needs to be alert at all times and in control of his/her horse. As long as you are on a horse, you are riding. Be riding all the time.

With all of this in mind, we sincerely hope you enjoy your ride, and that you have many pleasant memories on horseback!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quiet trails

We rarely say a word when riding.

Perhaps it’s because we’re getting hard of hearing, or perhaps because there is often a string of pack horses between us. No matter. We don’t need to speak. We can spend 2, 6 or 10 hours on the trail, and find there is little that has to be said, few things that can’t wait until we are done for the day and can sit down together and enjoy the conversation.

From time to time on the trail, I’ll take a look back and smile, and get a warm smile in reply. What else do I need? There are no hand signals, no pointing. Our hands are tied up with reins in one and the lead rope of the pack string in the other. If there is something special worth sharing, all it takes is a tip up of the head to point something out, and a nod down to acknowledge. We’ve done this long enough, spent enough time together, we can figure the rest out.

When we return to the ranch or to camp at the end of the day, unsaddle the horses, put them out to graze and then sit down to dinner ourselves, then we can talk. By that time, we have had time to consider what is worth talking about, what thoughts we’d like to share.

“Did you see…?”
“What did you think about …?”
“We need to plan a day working on that section of trail…”
“My horse…”
“I was cold.”

I think of our son, now almost 16, who has been raised this way, as comfortable in the saddle as he is in the silence, without need for or understanding of small talk. Blessed with time to think.

I suppose it’s quite different for a kid to be raised this way now a days. But you ask yourself, what would you rather teach your kids or your grandkids? How many of us have taught our children to be quiet? To listen? To be comfortable in silence, and contented in stillness? To observe nature, to reflect on the beauty around them, and to sense what is inside?

On the back of a horse, on a day on the trail, this is natural, it is easy. There is time to think, to see, to feel. These things a child can learn without you working to teach. The lesson can be taught subtly and simply. Just take them out on the trail, again and again…

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The one that got away

I’d guess that after the fear of camping, one of the most common fears about horse packing is the fear that your horses are going to take off on you. At least, that was always one my fears. Though I don’t know if it was before it happened to me.

But I don’t feel too badly now. It has happened, it can happen, it probably will happen to me again… and you know what? It’s not the end of the world, or the end of your trip. In fact, we try to look at it as “adding to adventure.” Guess I don’t know many folks who camp with their horse who don’t have a tale or two to tell about the one that got away…

Want to hear my story? Sit back, this could take a while. There are a few that got away. No, I won’t bore with you with details of them all. Just one. My first time.

It was one of my first pack trips, and I was leading a bunch of young teens in a part of the Wilderness me and horses had not been to before. After a few adventures to even find our camp (I would not recommend guiding a trip following directions of “ok, follow the trail for a ways, and at a big old snag on the top of the highest part of the hill, head into the thick timber…), I quickly took care of the horses so that I could get dinner going for the tired and hunger kids. I put half the horses on the high line, and half I hobbled and put out to graze. When supper was on, I went to check on the horses and switch halves, but the hobbled ones were gone. No where to be seen. I didn’t know then how far and how fast a hobbled horse can head home (or at least to the trail head), so I jumped on one of the remaining horses, didn’t bother taking time to saddle, and ran up the hill to look down the other side. Nothing. Not even dust. They were gone. I had a choice – either take off and try to find my horses in the dark, or take care of the kids. I picked the kids. Didn’t sleep much that night, and at first light the next morning, me and my son, Forrest, who was then about 7 years old, doubled up on his old mare and headed off in search of the run aways. 11 miles later, right before the trail head, there they were. Guess they couldn’t figure out how to load up in that trailer and get themselves all the way home.

I learned a great deal from this experience. (Though not so much that this has not happened again.) But I’ll tell you what, Forrest spent years afterwards when we’d go to camp, checking and double checking the horses, making sure no one ran away. We would tell him to relax, don’t worry, they won’t run off… He wouldn’t listen. He didn’t want to have to double up on the back of the bony old mare ever again.

Perhaps it would be better if I didn’t share this story with you, so as not to worry you about worse case scenarios. Chances are very good this will not happen to you. Believe me, if mistakes can be made, I make them. Hopefully, I can share with you some of my mistakes, some advice on what not to do, as well as some things I’d recommend. But perhaps it’s a good idea to consider the worse possible things that could happen, and see if it’s really so terrible, see if it’s really enough to prevent you from heading out there on a pack trip. Hasn’t stopped me, and I promise you, I am not a glutton for punishment.

So here’s a list of some things to learn, do, or consider before heading out:
- If you have a portable electric fence, I highly recommend setting one up at camp. It is a great way to teach beginner horses how to stay at camp. In addition, I’d recommend keeping one good saddle horse, maybe one who kicks or somehow would be safer away from the group, outside of the electric fencing on a picket line, just in case the fence goes down. At least you won’t have to walk home.
- Often we’ll picket the lead mare or mares, and hobble the geldings for grazing time. Another option is putting half the horses out hobbled to graze; the other half remaining tied to the high line. Keep the buddies separated: best buds are more likely to wander off together. If one bud is on the high line, the hobbled horse bud will probably stay close.
- When the horses are done eating, we keep them on a high line in the trees at night. You’ll know when the horses have had their fill. They stop eating. After a good days ride, we figure they’ll need to graze for at least two hours each in the evening, and again for 2 hours in the morning. I’ve seen and heard of some folks who leave their horses out grazing all night. If you’re horses are seasoned enough, try it. I sleep better knowing mine are on the high line, and would rather wake at first light to let them out.
- Start slowly. Don’t expect too much from yourself or your horse at first. It takes a while to learn the routine of how to set up camp for you, doesn’t it? It takes just as long for the horse to realize their routine as well.
- Teach your horse how to hobble, picket, and stand tied to a high line before heading out to camp (I’ll share with you how we teach all our horse to do these things at a later date)
- Always have at least one good saddle horse picketed or on the high line, just in case you do have to take off in hot pursuit. And remember, if you want to stop a horse from leaving camp, don’t just run behind him or her. The run away will be thrilled to think he’s got a buddy with him, and go all the faster. Your only hope is to either cut him off, or slowly follow him, hoping he’ll stop for a nibble in a good patch of grass, or stop for a drink at a creek crossing. I never thought a single horse would leave on his own. He will. It’s rare, but it’s happened more than once. (I figured out which mare he was going home for, and now I bring her too. No more problems there.)
- Keep an eye on the horses. Chances are they won’t suddenly plot their escape and sneak off. More than likely, they will slowly drift, until they realize they are not really at camp, and closer to the trail, and maybe that would bring them back home…
- Don’t take it personally if your horse does take off. I did, and that’s silly. They aren’t running away to get gone from you. He’ll run away because there’s something drawing him back home! Maybe it’s dinner time… he doesn’t want to miss out.
- Think like your horse. Understand him. Respect his needs and work with them. Know your horse and what makes him or her tick. Why would he or she want to leave? Is there a buddy back home, a mare in heat, a foal to care for…?
- The more you do it, the more your horse will get the routine. Be patient, and be careful at first.
- Bob’s personal favorite: Putting horses out to graze and bringing them back in to the high line is a good time to practice your bareback riding skills, and to test out how well your horse rides in a halter.
- And my personal favorite: The big reward of being able to sit back and watch our horses out there grazing away in paradise…

Friday, March 20, 2009

On camping

I’m afraid one of the biggest turn offs for folks avoiding back country horse trips is camping. Not everyone likes to rough it. First, let me say, there is nothing wrong with that. Then, that said, let’s take a look at back country camping, and see if I can’t start to change your mind…

We do rough it. When it’s just my husband, my son and myself out for a family pack trip for a few nights, we’ll throw our sleeping bags onto of the horse blankets and string up the tarp that was used to cover the packs above us if there’s a chance or rain (or snow… yes, we’ve been under that tarp in snow storms). We cook over the open fire, sit on a stump of wood, listen to our horses shifting and snorting beside us all night long… and love it.

I know this way is not for everyone. In fact, I’m not sure I know anyone else who enjoys things this rough. We certainly never expect our guests to rough it this much. At the very least, we’ll give them a tent to sleep in and proper camping pads to sleep on. And three course dinners prepared on our two burner camp stove while kicking back in a Crazy Creek chair watching the sun set over the high mountains…

More often than not, back country horse camping involves sleeping on cots in wall tents, and gourmet dining in a mess tent at a table with chairs… It’s not as rustic as you might imagine. It all depends on your choices, what you are comfortable with, what your needs are. There is no right or wrong. It is all individual preference. There are so many options, but which ever way works for you and your needs, bottom line is you'll be out there, riding, enjoying the high country, and yes, camping...

I keep going back to this idyllic picture of what camping in the back country feels like, which is this unparalleled, peaceful, serene, healing experience. It’s not just an incredible horse fix, it’s a nature fix, a personal fix, a life fix! Let’s see if I can paint the picture for you: You arrive at camp in the late afternoon after a thrilling day on the trail seeing the most magnificent country you have never been able to see before, and no other persons besides the folks in your group, because you’re so far away from the “convenient” rides and locations. Your horse knew the trail, was sure footed and well mannered, a good mountain horse. Now he’s being unsaddled, watered and let out to graze. You’re free to unwind, take a solitary walk by the creek, or go sit on the hillside and watch the setting sun while sipping at something special and listening to the incomparable silence. Later, full from the wonderful dinner and content after the good stories shared around the campfire, you turn in, and sleep a most well deserved and peaceful sleep. The following morning, you wake up to the smell of coffee on the fire, grab a steaming cup, and kick back on that hillside to quietly watch the cow and calf elk make their way across the meadow. And after a good hot and hearty breakfast, you saddle up and spend the day doing what you love best… riding!

If you talk to anyone who’s spent time out there, or if you’ve done it yourself, this isn’t too far off, is it? It is truly an extraordinary experience.

If this sounds interesting, start by considering your options – do you want a trip with just your family or friends, or do you want a professional outfitter to guide you? And if you’re considering an outfitter, again there are so many options – which one will fit your needs - from rough to luxury; 2 or 10 hours a day in the saddle, and other personal choices should be considered.

If you want to try it yourself – do! Learn the tricks of the trade. It’s not Rocket Science, believe me. If I can do it, anyone can. Coming up, I’ll do my best to share what I can to hopefully help you feel ready to give it a try. But do try. And yes, make mistakes. You'll learn from them.

Start small, simple, closer to home. Perhaps “car camp” first – camping out of your trailer and setting up a portable corral by your trailer. Then move on from there as you feel more comfortable, and as your horses learn the ropes. Yes, they too get used to camping, and learn to love it as well.

Consider what works for you, and maybe try one step further. One step at a time. Before you know it, I’ll be seeing you in the back country!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

This time of year

This is the time of year the snow begins melting off around the ranch, only to be replaced by mud. The trails are still packed with snow and ice, but I am itching to ride, I feel the season starting and anticipation swells inside me. Limited in what I can realistically and safely do with the horses, I look around the ranch and find plenty of “horse things” to fulfill me; things I finally can do, now that I can stand still outside longer than a few minutes without taking on a deep chill, and even slip off my gloves and down jacket for a while…

We groom the horses, help them rid themselves of their shaggy winter coat. Trim their feet, working on our own skills here as we are going into this coming season planning to allow them to remain barefoot for the first time in their working season. Take inventory of gear. Clean, oil, and repair tack. I always find things here that “need” fixing. I love working with saddles and bridles – I’m not a good leather worker, but I enjoy it. So everything gets taken apart and put back together, in my justification of making it work better for this coming season. Evenings I tie rope halters, splice rope for more lead ropes (“We need more?” my husband asks.), and read books on equine theory, philosophy, care, health, training.

I justify this by saying I am getting done now all the tasks we do not have time for as our main summer season is underway, and I suppose that is true. But more true is that I just enjoy these things. Anything horse related. It’s my way of mentally preparing for the season, as the excitement builds.

This is also the time of year we plan our upcoming schedule, plan our season of rides and horse trips into the Wilderness. There are not many big trips scheduled, not enough, our main business is centered around our guest ranch business and day rides now. Fewer people come up here for the long trips, the back country trips. The majority of folks hauling trailers up this way don’t have horses inside; they have ATV’s now a days.

But we’ll still be out there. We find additional jobs that require our horse power and back country skills, and find an excuse to be out there. At the very least, my family knows, we’ll have to go just because. Because for me, there is nothing as peaceful as waking up in the high country at first light and walking over to the horses on the high line, having them nicker as they see me approach and let one off at a time to head out to pasture to graze. Then sipping my hot steaming cup of coffee as I sit on the hillside with sun just coming over the mountain to warm me, watching my horses happiliy in the tall mountain grass. The high country is their back yard, too, and I believe they love the trips as well as I do.

Perhaps you too are considering, planning or preparing for a horse pack trip this summer. If it’s just a dream, you can make it a reality. Start with little steps, but make some steps, make it happen. Your horses will thank you, and you will thank yourself.

To begin with, you can do it yourself. You can plan, prepare, learn and take a trip yourself. Believe me, if I can do it, you can too. I just learned a few basics (probably not nearly enough) and headed out my first time. It was rather messy, I’m the first to admit, but we did it. And we learned, and the next trip was that much prettier.

If you’d prefer, hire a guide or outfitter. We do this because we love the land, our horses, and working with people. Most of us really care about our guests and making the trip as fun, comfortable and memorable for them as we possibly can.

I’ll share some thoughts and idea about both options in up-coming posts, and hopefully you’ll give it a try. Life is short, but oh-so wonderful. I can’t imagine missing out on taking a back country pack trip. It is one of the most peaceful, fulfilling, gratifying, and eye opening experiences I have done, and am lucky enough to share with others. You don’t have to miss out, and you don’t have to wait… You just have take a few chances…

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A positive approach to horsemanship

You may call it natural horsemanship, gentle handling, or honest horsemanship. You may say it is new and revolutionary, or site many examples of this philosophy of horse handling from way back in time.

Thanks to several great horsemen, clinicians and even salesmen, the word is getting out there, now more so than ever. Finally, it is not only accepted but expected to treat your horse with due respect, and still have him or her respect you back. Not just fear you. We can scour for downsides and faults, and many do, but in general, we seem to agree this is a good thing for horse and rider alike.

I am grateful for learning gentler ways of handling, training, working with and relating to my horses. I believe there is a lesson that can be learned from every person, every situation, ever day, if we are willing and able to listen, and put our ego and pride aside. I consider myself a beginner. Beginners, if we accept that is what we are, have less ego. Learning is easier, faster. Everything is new, everything is possible. Though no doubt, quite overwhelming at times. But we have to be careful: before long, we too may feel we know the answers and become blind to the real questions at hand.

As much as anything, all the books, DVDs, clinics, spectacles, etc. are opening up our eyes to think a little bit more about our horses and how we relate with them. Suddenly we are considering that just because it was done a certain way for years and it seemed to work, perhaps there is another way. Perhaps there is a better way.

Often there are no clear right or wrong answers in working with horses, likewise no black or white answers to our many questions about everything in life. Each horse is an individual, as is each one of us. Each horse is different, and each situation and circumstance is different. Many people now have been taught a positive approach to horsemanship from the get go. Others of us learned what is considered “old school.” We were taught force and domination. Somewhere along the way, we become more comfortable in the grey areas. We learn to let go of our old beliefs as we see new truths unfolding before our very eyes. We see things working! We begin to see there are other routes of training and working together with our horses besides force and brutality on one hand, or getting stepped all over and being out of control on the other.

We can take this positive approach to horsemanship, and remember that it not only makes us better horsemen, but it makes us better people. Horsemanship by the Golden Rule?

I am only just beginning. But I am so pleased with what I see.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wild Places

I was recently involved in an ongoing and open discussion with some horse people and outdoors folks about the reduction of horse traffic on back country trails. What seemed like a strange and unfortunate phenomenon around our neck of the woods apparently is an ongoing concern throughout our country. The one exception noted was on those trails closer to and more easily accessible by major urban centers. That’s certainly not us.

Anyway, the back country, and in particular, riding in the back country, is my passion and my life. It’s been my business for the past dozen years. We’re not getting rich doing this, but the richness of our life is incomparable. Sharing this knowledge, and therefore starting this blog, is my way of at least trying to preserve the experience, both simple and extraordinary, of riding the back country, be it trail riding or packing and camping.

My love of the wilds is as strong as my love for my horses. Both of which come a very close second to my love of my husband and son. Be warned, you’ll have to keep me tethered some times. I can ramble on about the wilds… I have another blog I let loose on about that stuff, so I’ll try to keep this focused more on the horse and rider.

I don’t want to lose the wild places. There is something out there that effects the inside of a person like nothing else can. We need the wilds, and we need to out there, even if just every once in while, to find that place within us that we can not find in the rush-rush of towns and traffic and TV and telephones.

I look forward to sharing what I’ve been so lucky to have learned, and am still learning, with you, in hopes that you, too, may get out there and enjoy, or share with me your experiences and knowledge, so that we don’t forget our wild places, inside and outside.


Welcome to High Mountain Horse Blog! It is a rather generic name, but as you’ll see, it's rather appropriate. We live high in the mountains at our home and guest ranch, at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. And we’re outfitters; our work is centered around our beloved equine companions. So you see, the name is simple, but it fits.

Throughout this blog, we will be sharing with you our personal stories of our experiences, recounts of our adventures, and sometimes just our thoughts and observations. Other times, we’ll share specific skills we use with our horses for training, riding, packing, camping and working in the back country. You’ll see our love of our horses and the land shining through in everything we do.

We hope you will join us, kick back and read a story, learn a new skill, or perhaps a new way of doing something you already know. We hope you will share with us – we sure don’t claim to know it all. Nor do we believe there is just one right way of doing things. We all have to do what works for each us. And likewise, we all have to learn what works best for the horse. It’s all on on-going process. Enjoy the ride!