Planning to go camping with your horse? Before you go heading off in to the wild blue yonder with your beloved steed, there are a couple of things you’ll need to prepare your horse for first….. the trail and the feed.
Whether you are going camping at a designated equine campground or heading off into high country with pack animals it is essential that your horses be up to the physical challenges ahead. This is especially important if you are packing in. The last thing you need is to have a horse tie up, go into shock or colic. You may be hours (or days) away from veterinary care. And trust me; it can be a long walk back to the truck!
If you are camping with your horse at a camp ground, you’ll be wanting to enjoy all trail riding opportunities the park has to offer. More than likely, you’ll be riding with friends. Some of them may have horses in much better shape than yours. It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of a ride and then find out you've bitten off more than your horse can chew.
Before you go camping with your horse, get trail maps and talk to the park rangers and other trail riders to find out about the difficulty level of the trails. Most parks will offer several trail loops of varying lengths. Stick to the ones that you feel your horse is ready for. You will have plenty of riding company!
In the summer we go equine camping at Cuneo Creek horse camp in Northern California. The ‘die hard’ trail riders take off early in the morning and take the 6 hour trail. Long, steep and hot! The rest of us go out for a shorter ride in the morning and a second one in the late afternoon. That way we avoid the afternoon heat and still get our riding in.
As for packing in, it has been my experience that most camps are a 3-4½ hour ride from the trail head. Of course this is not set in stone. They can be considerably longer too. A 3 hour ride in the mountains is a lot harder on the horses than a 3 hour ride on flat ground. Find out ahead of time about the trail you will be taking. How many hours ride in, and how long the day rides that you plan on taking will be. Back to back days of riding in rough country will require a lot of endurance from you and your horse. Especially if you are riding in the heat.
If you are lucky enough to live on the coast and have beach access, this can be a wonderful tool for getting your horse into shape. Walking your horse in deep sand is an effective way to build muscle strength. Running in deep sand is not recommended because it’s too easy to pull a ligament. But walking for an hour is equivalent to a much longer ride on solid ground.
Get your horse ready with some ‘hill’ work too. Walking them up and down will get all those mountain muscles into shape. I have found that we could get our horses ready for the mountains in 1 month by taking them out twice a week. We would do a 1-1½ hour workout in the sand during the week and a 3 hour ride on the weekend. If you only have weekends to prepare, or your horse is very out of shape, give yourself 2 months or better.
Don’t forget about your pack animals. This is not the time to borrow your friends out of shape broodmare to haul your gear. Carrying dead weight is much harder than carrying a rider. Because we didn't always have enough riders to exercise the pack animals too, we would drape old tires from the pack saddle for weight and bring them along on our workouts.
If you are camping with your horse in a camp ground with your truck and trailer, you’ll be feeding your horse the same feed you give them at home. If you are packing into the mountains, you will not have that luxury.
Mules and horses can only carry so much weight. Most packers do not have the ability to pack in feed for their animals beyond grain rations. This leaves the animals to forage for grass in the mountains; about 2 hours of grazing in the morning and 2 hours in the evening. That’s 4 hours of green grass! If your horse is not ready for this feed….you could be facing colic or laminitis or both.
If your horses are already on open pasture you’re ahead of the game. If your horse is not, you've got some work to do before your ready to go camping with your horse. Take your horse out and let them graze on green grass every day until you have them built up to at least an hour a day…two is better. Start out only letting them graze 10-15 minutes on green grass. Do this for 4-5 days and then increase the time by 10-15 minutes every few days.
If you have never staked your horse out before, this is a good time to start teaching them to behave on a long line tied to the ground. With practice horses will learn how to keep themselves from getting tangled in the rope. Stay close with your horse and watch them carefully. Give them the opportunity to figure out how to untangle themselves while you stay at the ready to help them out when needed. You don't want your horse to get a rope burn on a fetlock just before a big trip.
You can go camping with your horses without teaching them to be staked out……Our friend Daryl never staked his mules. He would tie a bell around their necks and turn them loose. That worked out well for him most of the time….but there were a few times we had to saddle our animals and go get his mules, who were well on their way to heading back to the truck. It’s a good thing somebody had their horses tied down!
Most times the horses get down to the serious business of grazing. But once their bellies are full they start getting playful, curious and full of wanderlust. Some people have success using hobbles. I did not. It took my mare all of 3 minutes to learn how to run at speed in hobbles. My friend Jarl uses a small battery powered electric fence. Which is great if you have the space to bring it. If nothing else, you can always grab a good book and a lead rope and just hang out with your critter while they graze.
You may find it difficult to prepare your horse for green grass if you haven’t time or any access to grass. But it is so important. If you absolutely can’t get your horse ready for green grass you can still go pack camping with your horse. You'll just have to make arrangements to pack feed in. Something like alfalfa pellets or cubes.
Camping with your horse is so fun when you’re prepared. It’s not fun when you are stressed over your horse’s condition. As my Dad would always say, "be safe out there!"