Saturday, June 27, 2009

Care for the horses in camp: theory in practice

After previous posts discussing the “how to” of caring for horses while at camp, I thought it might be of help to see and read about some specifics. This is theory in practice, examples of actual situations of us caring for our horses while at camp. There is no one right way; it is a lot of trial and error, of working with the number of horses you have, their personalities, and the location and situation of where you are.

Example one: 7 horses at a new camp. The horses have worked hard, bringing us and our gear to camp, but once there, most are not working. It’s time out for a few days. Therefore, they can graze during the day.

During the day, we have set up a portable electric fence which runs from one group of trees, across the meadow, to another group of trees. It is hard to find any sort of clear path through the trees, so they act as a natural boundary. At night, the horses are tied to a high line in the middle of those trees, so it’s pretty much the center point of their world up there. A creek runs through this “corral” which is pretty handy, but if there was not, the horses would be led to a water source before turning them out and again before bringing them in. Within the corral, two horses are left free to roam (the most passive, follower types) and five of the seven horses are hobbled (the more experienced hands who have learned that hobbles won’t stop them, and those who may know the way home). A “just in case” measure. Though they can move pretty far and fast with hobbles, we usually can run faster…

At last light, we lead the horses up to the trees and tie them to the high line for the night. Lead ropes are clipped back on, or untied if they’ve been safely tied up around their neck in a no-slip knot during grazing, and hobbles are removed and now buckled losely around the horses neck so that they are handy in the morning. Each horse is given a generous handful or two of horse cookies once all are tied up. They learn to settle in for the night. A newbie may paw and become anxious, but they will learn, they will settle down with time.

At first light, I go let them off the high line. They are happy to see me and nicker and paw. I put hobbles on those that will need hobbles before I untie them. They are anxious and hungry in the morning, rightfully so, yet for my personal safety, I require that they behave and stand still while I work with them. I untie the most insecure first, and the most confident last. That way no one is left panicking back on the high line alone. Since I usually work alone in the early morning, I do what it takes to make it safe and easy for myself.

Example two: 5 horses at a familiar camp. The horses are becoming familiar with camp. They recognize the location, and seem relieved to have arrived there. They will not be working hard during the day, but we know they (like us) are happier when their bellies are full, so better to let them out grazing as much as possible.

There is no need to tie them up at night now. They know their way around, and we feel confident the portable electric corral set up across the meadow will be enough to contain them. Now when their bellies are full and they are looking for a comfortable place to rest, they return to the trees where their high line is. Although we don’t tie them up, it is now their comfort zone. We bring them a pail of horse cookies to share every time they return to the trees.

Example three: 5 horses at a familiar camp. The horses know the camp and by now call it their home away from home. There are enough of them together that they will not be looking for the horses we left behind, nor anxious to run away from camp back to the trailhead or ranch.

During the day, we picket two horses, hobble two, and let one roam free. We are certain to leave enough room between the two picketed horses that they will not tangle, and do check on them frequently in case they tie up on a bush, rock, or themselves. I have seen it happen enough that I’d rather take a few minutes every 2 hours to make certain they are all OK.

At night, they are either tied back to the high line, or brought into a small corral set up with the electric fencing to remain safe and comfortable (and close) for the night. I personally can’t sleep well with my horses picketed, but I know folks who do and have had fine luck with that.

Example four: 4 horses at a new camp. We’ve been riding all day. Both we and our horses are tired. We have a big day tomorrow, and will be moving on mid morning. Yet the camp is not familiar to our horses, and we do not feel comfortable leaving them out at night, and nor have we packed in a portable electric fence.

One horse is picketed, two are hobbled, and one is left loose. The horses must be allowed to drink (led to water if no creek in the “pasture”) and graze at least two hours that night before we tie them to the high line for the night. There is usually a good 3 hours of light after we arrive at camp in which we can leave them out to graze. Likewise in the morning, the horses are given at least two hours to graze while we have breakfast and pack up camp, before we bring the horses in to saddle and move on.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A job to do

It helps to have a job to do. A job gives us focus, direction, motivation, clear goals. It’s the same for our horses, isn’t it? Likewise, without a job, I might not ride… might not find the time. And my horses might just hang around grazing all day long.

Though coming up with a job isn’t that hard to do. Especially when it comes to horses. A job does not always have to be as intense as packing us and our gear into Ditch Camp, or pulling a slip to clear dirt. A job can be more simple to find and do. Our job can be training, which really, we can look at as an opportunity presenting itself to us every time we ride. Or clearing trail. Now that’s a great way to “write off” a trail ride as a productive afternoon well spent!

Trail clearing may not be a regular part of your riding routine, but it tends to be an important part of our spring and fall schedule, when the trails we use for day rides are accessible only as far as we maintain them. When we can, we pack the chain saw in the saddle scabbard (see above). When we can’t, as in, when we are working in the Wilderness, we carry a good saddle saw and hatchet at the least, and a two-man cross-cut saw at the most.

The stop and go for the horses, getting on and off, often at odd and uncomfortable locations, the patience of waiting while we work, of listening to the sawing and branches snapping, and allowing mounting from the “off side” – these all provide valuable opportunities for training our horses, and for us, working on our own riding skills. Each time out, we strive to improve our communication skills with our horse, which will be evident in how well they respond to the work at hand and the variety of tasks we request of them.

The goal is better set as the process, the learning, the doing; not so much as the actual amount of dirt moved or distance covered. Perhaps this is impractical in our day to day jobs, however if we look at the task at hand in terms of how we accomplish it. This is a better focus than the narrow eyed veiw of the end result. This is how through our jobs, training, for both horse and rider, is truly achieved. The goal then is keeping it positive. Or at the very least, on those difficult days when we just don’t get it all right, finding a positive note on which to end the job.

I suppose the one exception I’m able to make with myself is those times riding or being with the horse is for therapeutic value. My own therapy. No work, just being, feeling, relaxing, unwinding, breathing… I’m not talking about anything professional here, just how good I feel riding, out there with my horses. Although it is rare, I can still occasionally justify taking the time for nothing more than a simple ride, an early morning silent ride just me and my horses, at the end of the season when the trails are clear and the ranch quiet, to clear by mind and settle my soul.

I leave you today with a quote, perhaps just a quip, I saw in a fancy horsey item catalogue that’s stayed on my mind for weeks now:

Feeling down? Saddle up!

Monday, June 22, 2009

The first of summer

So much I wish I had time to share. Yet like with so many of you, suddenly we find ourselves so busy this time of year. Where did this rush come from? Catching us unprepared once again, caught up in the whirlwind of the season, but enjoying most every moment.

We’re up at our “ditch camp” with our horses four days a week, then taking day rides and giving lessons and visiting with guests two days a week, and cabin cleaning on the seventh day…

And yes, I love summer.

However, there is also so much I’ve been anxious to share – especially specifics on horse camping now that we’re out there with our horses again. (Wendy – I took many pictures of the high line and horses at camp I look forward to sharing.)

The next couple weeks are jam-packed, but I’ll look forward to catching back up and sharing much more as time allows.

In the meanwhile, here’s one thing to think about…

As I sit at camp in the early morning hours, bundled in front of the crackling fire sipping my steaming coffee, with my boys still sleeping in the tent and the horses peacefully grazing about me on the high mountain grass, I can imagine no place I would rather be, no life I would rather have.

There is a closeness to oneself one finds out there, perhaps because one has fewer distractions, only seeing if we choose to look and hearing if we choose to listen. There is a universal understanding which comes to us, however we prefer to spend time out in nature. We begin to see the Big Picture, and realize our small but blessed place within that circle of life. And there is a closeness that comes with our horses when we are out there living and working with them, day in and day out, side by side, that can not be achieved back home on the ranch or in the stables.

And so, off to the high country we head with our horses today….we’ll return Thursday evening. May you all have a wonderful week!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Floyd's Horse Stories: Taking the sheep to the summer range

Soon after the ewes lambed out on the Ranch, and the lambs grew to be about 3 weeks old, we docked and branded and then took small bands of 150 or so pair at a time to the foot hills.

During the summer, we were permitted a total of 1200 adult sheep and their lambs on Forest Service lands. But during the latter part of May and into June, we’d drive the flock up to pasture in the foothills above the Ranch, taking the ewes and lambs up in the small bands as soon the lambs grew big enough to travel.

It was about a 6 mile trip up to the foothill pasture from the Ranch. And it was always on a Saturday when the drive took place. Funny, that’s the day when us kids (my brother, Melvin, and I) would be home from school and could take the sheep up... We did this on foot, driving the sheep slowly along for about 4-5 hours, followed later in the day by Dad, who would meet us up there in the pick up and bring us back down to the Ranch.

The first time I went up, the sheep herder went with us. That’s how we learned the way. But the sheep pretty much knew where to go in the foothills. The old ones would teach the new ones, and they would slowly move off in the right direction, urged on by the promise of greener grass. The only challenge here was keeping the little lambs moving along. They’d get tired and want to call it quits. We used to make rattles by taking a half gallon can with a handful of rocks inside, hammer the top together, drive a nail through to make hole, thread a piece of wire thru it, and had the perfect tool for tossing behind the sheep. That rattle sound would get them up and going.

As you can imagine, with the sheep spread out and grazing along the grassy hillsides, rattle snakes would get stirred up from time to time. One day, as we were driving the sheep along, there was this snake, laying there all coiled up shaking his rattle menacingly at us. Of course us kids just had to have those rattlers. Well, we found a couple rocks and then struck the snake on his head, then we stepped on his head to be safe and cut off our prized rattle.

By the way, did you know they used to actually sell canned rattle snake? Came in a small can and looked a lot like Vienna sausage. But food stuff… well, I’ll save all that for the next story. This one, we did not eat.

There was a sheep herder who stayed with the flock up on the foothills. Usually by the 10th of June, all of the range flock was in the foothills, which was BLM lands, and they would remain there until time to head to the high country. The high range on the Forest Service land was in Summitville, which was about a four day drive from that spring range.

The summer range permit allowed for the sheep to be turned out on the first of July. Most years I was unable to go because we were in the middle of haying. That kept me plenty busy. However when I was about 12 years old, a friend of Dad’s, and his son who was my age, came down from Denver to go with Dad on the sheep drive. You see, the friend had done that when he was a kid with Dad, and now he wanted his son to experience it as well. So that year, Dad let me off the hook from haying, and took me along on the sheep drive.

That first day the sheep were moved from the foothills, up to Rock Creek, which was about 7 miles, then another 3 or 4 miles to the counting corral – all on the first day. The counting corral was where the Forest Service Ranger would count the flock to be sure of our numbers.

On that morning of July 1, we rode our horses up from the Ranch and met the sheep as they were crossing Rock Creek and heading up to Dry Creek.

The camp and cooking equipment was being packed in with us on our 5 burros. Each burro carried a portion of the camp, and just followed along with us, or else we drove them along with the sheep. There were four sheep herders who would remain with the flock for the summer, who had only 2 riding horses, so they alternated walking and riding.

The burros would spend the summer with sheep in the high country as well. Dad would go up every 2 weeks to deliver resupplies and salt. He would drive up the road from Del Norte to Summitville, which went right thru the range. The sheep herders camped a mile or so off the road, but would meet up with Dad at a predetermined place every other week, leading the burros along to haul back their supplies that would get them through until the next time.

We camped that night outside the corrals in which the sheep were contained. Early the next morning, the Ranger showed up, counted the sheep, and off we went, starting up the trail to the high country with the flock of sheep before us

The second day we travelled only about 4 miles, but up an extremely steep grade. The trail went up and over Mount Baldy, a very rocky rough trail across the top of the mountain around the head of North Rock Creek and over to Blowout Pass. It was hard to move the sheep up that steep hill and across the rock slide. The widest place was maybe 8-10 feet wide. So you can imagine 1200 sheep plus their lambs, strung out for a mile or more up the steep mountain trail…

This is as far as Dad went to help. There way haying to be done, so the sheep were left in the care of the sheep herders who led the flock the rest of the way to the summer range.

From there we turned around, and rode back home in a day. Dad and his friend walked back down to the counting corral where they had the pick up truck and drove back to the Ranch. But Jimmy (the son) and I had to ride back to the ranch. Fine by me, but for poor Jimmy, who had probably only had a day or two experience horseback all his life up to this point, that 12 miles or so back down to the ranch was probably pretty long and more than a little uncomfortable. That poor kid was so tired and sore, he got off part way and walked the rest of the way back to the ranch.

I don’t know if it was much more comfortable in the truck – the road was no more than a track across the foot hills, and took Dad and his friend clear into Monte Vista, then back out the ranch. But still, they beat us home by quite some time.

Story by Floyd Getz

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Always something...

As those of you who have horses may have come to believe, if it can go wrong, it will. Careful as we may be, we can prevent most problems, but new challenges present themselves regularly. Horses have a way of reminding us to be present, to pay attention at all times, to only let your guard down in limited doses, and to always be prepared for the unexpected. Our beloved equine companions have become for us loving half-ton bundles of lessons in learning to deal with the many surprises life has to offer.

This is about the latest lesson in learning to handle the unexpected. And it’s a pretty beautiful story in the process.

Our lovely mare Willow, a 10 year old Fadjur bred Arabian mare we brought home from the Jack Tone Ranch about 3 ½ years ago now, birthed a precious little colt early in the morning yesterday. I’ll share my birthing notes at a later date – hopefully as a help to someone out there, but at the very least, as record for me. This was Willow’s third baby. She’s a beautiful mother to watch – so protective and alert in her never failing care.

Anyway, this colt is a cutie. A little elf of a fellow. Quite the contrast to his especially graceful dam, though I am certain he will one day blossom into the lovely swan. He’s got these LONG legs, I mean LOOOONG. So long, in fact, that he has no idea how to lie down. It’s a long way down from up there. And these legs are simply unruly. What’s a colt to do?

In this case, the answer seems pretty clear to this little fellow. Just don’t lie down.

But boy-oh-boy does he get sleepy, and little foals have not mastered the art of sleeping standing up very effectively. So he’s been tired, so tired…

We tried to lie him down. He’d pop right back up, as quick as those gangly legs would manage. Even when his mama and the other mare and foal are flat out and sound asleep in the afternoon sunshine. Nope, he just wouldn’t lie down.

Finally yesterday afternoon, we figured out the secret weapon to battle his exhaustion and conquer his fears. Beka.

See, if we lie him down, and Beka gently holds him and stays there with him, he’s more than happy to fall into a deep sleep. What little one wouldn’t be content sleeping in someone’s loving arms? Last night, it took him less than a minute, and Beka was stuck remaining there for over an hour as the rest of the horses decided to lie down all around her. This morning, perhaps it took a full minute before he was sound asleep, as Beka sat with him in the wet grass, with the content mother looking over.

I’m sure he’ll learn eventually, but in the meanwhile, we figure sleep is pretty important, especially to a little guy. And we’re pretty grateful to Beka for her patience and gentle care that baby and mother are obviously most comfortable with.

Spoiled? Maybe. Who cares? We’re glad to do whatever it takes to keep our little ones healthy and happy. Why not?

Anyway, Bob’s been lying the baby down by reaching over him and pulling his legs up and over like a calf at a roping. The colt ends up in Bob’s standing lap, and he gently lowers him. Baby better figure things out fast, because I don’t know how much longer Bob will be able to do this! And likewise, how much longer Beka will remain so loving and patient…

In the meanwhile, if anyone knows a better way to safely and gently lie a foal down, please drop me a note.

So, there you have it. Who would have guessed the simple act of lying down would be such a big problem? Such is life with horses…

Would we want it any other way? No. And learning to work with our horses, we then slowly learn to handle our children, our spouse, even ourselves… whatever life throws at us, in the most positive approach possible. Learning to deal with whatever comes up next in the best manner we can. We do what needs to be done, and learn to love the journey more so than some goal or final destination.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Floyd's Horse Stories: The Cattle Drive

Today I’m going to tell you about the Cattle Drives; about driving cattle from our Ranch in the valley to the mountain range where the cattle were turned out for the summer.

The Getz Ranch had a summer cattle range above Creede, Colorado. It was about 70 miles from our Ranch and took 7 days to drive the cattle up there. Dad, my Uncle Bill and a couple hired cowboys did this every year. And every year, I wanted to be there, working with them, on the back of my horse all day, heading towards the high country.

The permit allowed for the cattle to be turned out onto the range the first day of June each year. When I was 12, I was finally allowed to go. However, this presented a serious dilemma. I wouldn’t be allowed to miss school, and didn’t know if I’d be out of school in time.

That first year I went, the drive started on the very last day of school. I didn’t get to help them start from the Ranch and up the road. But I joined them late that afternoon. I rode Ginger straight from school and met up with the herd at the Cornelius Ranch, about a four mile ride from my school.

My folks had made arrangements all along the route for pastures or large corrals that we’d keep the herd in at night. My Uncle Bill would meet us there each evening with a truck load of hay and an over night camp for us. He drove a pick up in which we could haul horses, and pulled the sheep herders camp trailer. (see photo above) That trailer was set up with a kitchen to cook our meals and a bunk. Uncle Bill and Dad would cook the meals. At night, I got to sleep in that bunk, which was probably just a regular “full” size bed, in between Uncle Bill and Dad. All night, I’d either be squashed on one side or the other, but I never worried about being cold. Next to the trailer, we’d set up a tent in which the two hired cowboys slept.

As for the cows, they’d settle down in the evening when they were full. We’d be stopped for the night at a place with water, and like I said, Uncle Bill brought plenty of hay. They were contained in pasture or corral all nights except the last night, when we camped out on Forest Service lands, and the cowboys would take turns throughout the night keeping an eye on the cows to be sure none started to wander back to the Ranch or head up without us onto the range.

Well, it was about 225 head we drove up there. Each morning we’d get up as soon as it was light enough to saddle, and head out around sun up. We’d usually arrive to the night stop around 3 pm, giving us, our horses and the cows plenty of time to eat, drink and rest up. The stopping point on the second night was just on the east edge of the town of Del Norte. We’d need to get an early start on that third day because we had to drive the cattle right down through that main street of Del Norte. We’d pass through early in the morning in hopes of avoiding traffic.

The next stop was 9 miles west of Del Norte. There was a large pasture with water where we could turn the cows out for the night. And then on through the town of South Fork. There again, we tried to get through town early to avoid traffic. Even though we’d usually leave by 6 am, we were still 4 miles out of South Fork; it wouldn’t be until mid morning before we’d be driving the cattle through town, and usually quite a little traffic.

That first year I went, just as we got to South Fork, the train to Creede was coming by. The train went along the highway, right along side us. As you can imagine, it caused quite a ruckus with the cattle.

I remember another time we were going thru South Fork and the Coca Cola truck came up and wanted to go thru the herd. Usually one of the cowboys would go ahead and break a path for the vehicle to get through. Well, when that soda pop truck drives though the herd, one of the cowboys rides up along side, got his horse right next to the truck, reached in, and helped himself to about a half dozen cokes. We stopped and had a treat of a hot coke. As you can imagine, when we opened the bottles, which were hot and well shaken, about two-thirds of the pop fizzed out.

By this time, the cows were tired and sore footed from all that walking on the pavement. It was tough, and slow going. The third day was probably the hardest day on the cows. The last three days were longer, but the herd moved better off the paved road, and probably could smell the fresh mountain air like I could.

That forth night was spent up by Masonic Park, just past South Fork. One night when we were camped there at Masonic Park, for some reason one of the food boxes was left open in the back of the truck. Well, next morning, we got up and found a whole loaf of store bought bread missing. And an empty beer can in its place. Turns out a pack rat left us a shiny exchange.

Now, back in those days, the road from South Fork to Creede was not paved; it was a gravel road. We’d follow along that road and drive the cattle along until spending that fifth night up at Wagon Wheel Gap. There we pastured the cattle along the river and prepared for the next long haul.

The sixth day was longest. From Wagon Wheel Gap, we’d drive the cattle up and across the 7 Mile Bridge. There were no fences there then, no assigned pasture, just open land owned by the Forest Service. When we arrived, we pushed the cattle off the side of the road, fed them on the open ground, and had the cowboys take turns throughout the night keeping the cattle in line.

From there, it was only the final 7 miles that last day to what is now the Broken Arrow Ranch, where the cattle were turned out to the range and into the care of the cowboy who took care of them all summer.

It was a good time, I suppose the highlight of my year back then. There would be one rider in the lead. He kept the cows up front from getting too far ahead, would lead road crossing, open gates to lead the herd through, or close other gates and block side trails to keep the cows from straying

The rest of us rode drag. I’d be there, riding Ginger. Ginger knew more about herding and driving cattle than I did. He’d go up and nudge the tired calves with his nose to push them on. He knew what to do, and pretty much did it all for me. I went along for the ride.

Our horses were so well behaved; I don’t remember any issues or concerns with them. They were all used to working, and they were working all the time. It’s not like horses that are turned out most of the time then used a few times here and there. It sure made a big difference. They knew what to do, and did their job well.

There were 5 permittees back then on what was called the Park Cattleman’s Allotment. Three of the ranchers were from the Monte Vista area. The other two were ranchers from the Alamosa area, including the former Governor Adams, who shipped their cattle up to Creede on train. By about 1945, we too began to ship the cattle, and save the 7 day journey which probably took its toll on the cattle, but as you can imagine, I sure enjoyed.


In my last post, I introduced to you Beka, who we're lucky enough to have here at our ranch for the summer. As I mentioned, I am learning a great deal as I take the time to teach, to introduce Beka to our herd and horse handling, riding, etc. (My victim!) Beka too has a blog and is writing about the experiences from her point of view. It might be interesting to see what she has to say, what she learns, what works from my teachings and her expereinces, etc. For me, it's another great opportunity to learn...

Beka's site is: Imperfectly Living a Perfect Life

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Horsemanship 101

A wonderful opportunity presents itself to us each time we are given the opportunity to introduce the horse, perhaps for the first time or in the early stages, to one we can see has that passion or interest. Suddenly, we become beginners all over again, and in seeing things anew, perceive things more clearly, more defined than perhaps we have in a while. The process of instruction brings learning to both student and teacher.

For years, I was lucky enough to have such opportunities with children at camp, eager and open to do it all, as long as horses were part of the package. Over the years, here too I have such opportunities; not with children but with the open mind of a new beginner adult, on a weekly basis throughout the summer.

Each of these opportunities were limited in time and therefore in scope. At best, at camp, you can only teach/learn so much in a week or two. And likewise, here at our guest ranch, I can almost assure a beginner a safe, comfortable and enjoyable ride. I take great pride in this and truly enjoy sharing the time well spent with horse and rider on these awesome mountain trails. However in just a couple hours, and without a “follow up visit”, we end it there, and hope for the best next year, or in a few years when that person returns and wants to ride again.

This year, I have an exciting opportunity present itself to me in the form of an enthusiastic and athletic young woman here to spend the summer with us. She’s not a horse person… yet. We’ve got the whole summer to work on it, and with her energy and interest, I think it’s going to be fun for us both. I tease her that she’ll also learn to be one heck of a cabin cleaner, which isn’t exactly the brightest side of the position, but it is part of the package deal. (And really not that bad, I promise her.)

And so, I find myself given the opportunity to see horses and learn their handling all over again as I present it all to my summer helper, Beka, who comes with limited horse experience but great ability and interest. I tend to find the latter two so much more essential than the former. The bottom line is you have a clean slate waiting to be filled with poetry. In this case, poetry in motion. Horsemanship.

The first thing we went over is something you can spend a lifetime perfecting, yet it is so remarkably simple you may laugh that I give it such importance. Getting the horse in from pasture.

To begin with, it’s all about body language. I explain how I don’t try to sneak up on my horses. I don’t try to be the predator and chase them in to the corral where it’s easier to “catch” them. (I did have to re-teach the old dogs this new trick, as this is the way it was done here for years.) I approach the horse directly, with respect, but not like the human/hunter that they fear us to be. Firm but fair, remember? You can see their reaction to you from a quarter mile away. If they are scared from way back there, you better slow down, approach and retreat, and turn down the human/hunter in you.

When you come near the horse, I’d like him or her to turn towards me, and better yet, take a few steps towards me. You can “reward” them with treats. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with that, though I prefer to give a kind word and a gentle rub.

Then and only then do I halter the horse, followed by another kind word and gentle rub. And then we proceed to practice leading.

Here again that body language thing comes in to play (doesn’t it always?). I want my horses’ shoulder in line with mine. He or she should not be any further in front of me, so that if I stop abruptly, so will my horse, and be no further ahead of me. Should he or she push the boundaries and step ahead of me, I take control of his or her feet, and then ask my horse to walk completely around me until we’re lined back up, shoulder to shoulder.

There is no pressure on the lead rope unless I need to up the pressure. Otherwise, I’d like to have my horse expect the light touch.

While walking up through the pasture, I’ll make a few sudden stops just to keep my horse alert and paying attention to me. Perhaps even stop, then take a few steps back. I’ll expect my horse to step back in line with me. If just my walking back is not enough to signal to my horse to walk backwards with me, I’ll flap my elbows and act bigger. That usually does it. But if that’s not enough, I’ll raise my whole arms and swing the lead rope and make sure my horse understands I’m backing up and I expect him to as well.

As always, start soft. Assume your horse will not need more than a light touch or gentle signal. But up the pressure if need be, never to the point of pain, but only to the point of getting the results you want.

Be careful here though. More often than not a horse doesn’t do what we are asking because we are not being clear in our request. Perhaps we need to stop and take a look at our own body language and movements and see what we can do to improve our communications with the horse before we quickly blame him or her for “not getting it.”

Leading a horse in from pasture is something we do almost daily. Seems to me it’s an opportunity each time to advance with your communication skills, fine tune the effectiveness of your body language, and constantly improve your relationship with your horse.

Opportunities present themselves in the simplest ways at times. I hope I don’t overlook too many in my rush to just get it done or get there.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Part V in the series on Horse Packing How-To: The Pack Saddle

The next stage in the game of horse packing is finding and fitting the pack saddle.

There are two main types of pack saddles: the Sawbuck and the Decker, as well as several newer varieties, including some "no rope" types, and even packing systems that are designed to work off a riding saddle. Once again here, it’s personal choice. There’s no one right answer. You got your right answer if it works for you and your horse.

Our personal preference is the Sawbuck, pictured above. It works for us and our horses, so we stick with it. The Sawbuck looks like the device of the same name that is used to secure a log when cutting it into firewood, with hard plates or “bars” that fit behind the horse’s withers and distribute the weight along the horses’ back. We start with a thin wool pad, then a heavy, longer pack saddle pad under the saddle. Rigging is attached to the Sawbuck and secured and adjusted to the animal. Then panniers, or pack bags, are hung from the cross bars. On top of the whole load, we use a folded tarp or mantie, to cover the load, and hitch it securely with a cinch and long pack rope.

Variations on the Sawbuck have been around for as long as folks have been packing in the west, and we still have some Sawbucks here that I think are about that old, and remain in good working condition. It works for us; we are comfortable with the design, so we continue to use this method. We have several saddles to choose from that can fit a wide variety of horse shapes and sizes, from standard mule to Arabian to the Percheron-Quarter Horse cross pictured above.

Fit is everything. That’s where we’ll start. If the pack saddle does not fit your horse well, you’ll have a sore horse and no one to blame but yourself when your horse refuses to accept a load. There’s no excuse for an uncomfortable horse. Take care of your stock. Bottom line. I believe if you don’t care to care well for your stock, don’t pack.

Assuming you do care for your stock, that’s why we’re choosing to be out there with them, start by making sure the saddle fits well and your rigging is properly adjusted. Every horse is going to be slightly different, so get comfortable changing positions and adjusting the rigging with each horse.

Start with your pads – place them smoothly and well centered on your horse where they will protect withers, sides and back from friction and any direct contact from the saddle and the load. The Sawbuck should be fit first without the pads to ensure the correct size. Once you are sure of proper size, center your saddle over the padding and adjust the rigging so that there is no binding with the breeching, and nor does it hang low to rub your horse raw. You’re looking for a good fit here. The rigging is designed to hold things together, not just decoration, so we should fit it well, not just allow it to hang there.

There are a lot of adjustments to the pack saddle rigging. Spend the time to properly fix and place each strap for the most comfortable fit for your horse. The only tight fit should be with both cinches. Like mentioned in an earlier Floyd Story, you can over tighten the load and have a very uncomfortable horse. Like with a good rider that can safely ride with a loose cinch by adjusting his or her body weight, more important that a super-tight cinch is the equally balanced loads. We’ll discuss that further in our next installment.

Once your rigging has been properly adjusted and tightened, be sure to carefully fold over the cinch straps so that they do not drag and do not bulk up under the load. Likewise, when unsaddling the pack horse, take the time before removing the saddle to fold back the cinch straps, and hook back all parts of the rigging back onto the Sawbuck, like folding a tent back together. This will not only make it safer to remove the saddle from the horse, and easier to put the saddle back on it’s saddle rack, but it will make it easier to pull out the rigging when put back in place on your horse your next time packing.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Floyd's Horse Stories: Our 2nd Pack Trip

The next story I want to share with you is about the second pack trip, with me and Melvin and Robert, the following year. We’re now a year older (11, 12 and 13 respectively) and a year wiser. We made the same deal with Dad and Mom: after haying we could take our little trip. This time we decided to go up to what we then had called Baldy Lakes. These are now called San Francisco Lakes up at Frisco Creek.

So we left home the same as we had the year before. But by now we had acquired a real pack saddle and panniers. And after (or because of) last year, we had learned a thing or two.

Early in the morning, we headed out, on up the same route to Rock Creek. From there, we followed the old horse trail up the North Fork. About half way up the mountain, there was an old, abandoned saw mill. We figured that was a good a place as any to pick for a camp, so we stopped there for the day. Fishing was tremendous; any old fly would catch a fish. Dinner was pretty special – sure beat just opening a can to warm up and fill you.

The next day, we packed back up, and rode up over the top of the pass between North Rock Creek and Frisco Creek, and continued on to just where you dropped into the basin of Baldy Lakes. That particular area was pretty unusual. It was formed in a way where it was made of a series of benches, each bench a 10 -1 2 foot grassy place with rounded rocks, then dropping 3 - 4 feet down to the next bench. So, it was like a big huge stadium in a way, but all in the high mountains above tree line.

We found our way down to the alpine lakes and figured we’d set up camp there. Our way of setting camp was with a tarp, no tent. Being above tree line, and with timber somewhat scarce, and little to tie the tarp to, we decided to lay the tarp out starting from an upper bench, going down over a lower bench where we’d have our little camp. Since there was not much wood, we used rocks to stake and tie down the tarp.

With camp set, off we went to fish the lakes. We caught some 2 lb beautiful native trout and again were lucky to enjoy a big fish dinner. Then we crawled into our bedrolls under that tarp and anticipated a nice long night sleep.

About 4 am we woke up with a start. Our tarp had caved in. It was snowing like crazy. We got up fast, got a fire started with scraps of wood we had gathered earlier. We then collected our stuff up, decided to have a warm meal, and pack on down to a lower – and warmer – elevation.

Another part of the deal of us being allowed by Dad and Mom to take the trip was that we had to buy our food with our own money. So, being the thrifty young men we were, I remember we had bought and packed a bunch of cans of Spagettios. They were sold 2 cans for 15 cents. A bargain. We bought them because they were cheap and easy. There we were in the snow, with a pot of water on the fire, and all we had to do was open the cans, put them in water to heat, and we’d be fed. Of course, it was still snowing, but there we were, huddled under a tarp, each with a spoon, eating from a can of Spagettios as the sky started to get a little light.

Well, we packed up and moved on, over the Divide and on to the other side, moving as quick as we could. It stopped snowing when we finally rode down to an elevation of about at 9000 feet. There, it turned to a light drizzle. We rode on to where the North Fork of Rock Creek meets the South Fork. We had known of an old Ranger Station just up the South Fork and headed that way. We rode up to the old site; no one was there. There was an old barn with a lean-to that was probably built for the Ranger to keep a car sheltered. But since no one had been stationed there for years, we figured that lean-to would be a mighty nice warm, dry shelter for these three wet and cold boys. We put our horses in the barn, and spread out the horse blankets there to dry. Then the three of us went into that lean-to (maybe we could be in prison still for this) and build a fire right in middle of that lean-do. As you can imagine, it was terribly smoky with the fire under that roof and the smoke hovering under the shelter there with us. It was a wonder we didn’t burn that thing down. We ran our ropes across top of lean-to and hung our clothes and bed rolls out to dry in that smoky warm air.

By evening, most everything was pretty dry. We spent a warm, dry night under that shelter, and the next day, rode home.