1. Plan Your Ride
There is a great app called the MTB Project. It is a crowd sourced trail guide built and developed by mountain bikers and it covers everywhere in the US. J and I really like it because it gives great detail about the trail and pictures as well. Included in the description is driving directions, elevation gain and loss, recommended direction of travel and footing. Although all of that information is directed at bikers (which I ride with) there is still a lot of good information to be gathered from the app. Usually, it also provides trail hazards and indicates when the trail is closed to one type of traffic or another. We rode Little Scraggy and Soapstone because of this app. Finally, it gives both J and I an idea of how difficult it will be for her to ride, what kind of obstacles Ashke and I might have to maneuver, and what kind of grade we will be facing.
Then we do some research. I look at the trail on mapquest or google earth (how I found the East-West Regional trail) and try to figure out what we might be facing, how long the trail might be, and if there is water available on trail. I look at the parking lots and what is safe for horse trailer parking (which is how we found the trailhead for the South Platte). Last, I look for water sources (like cattle tanks on the Soapstone) to provide water for the horses. Water and heat can really limit where and how long the ride is, because although we can haul water for people with us, I have no way to haul in five gallons of water for Ashke. Fifteen miles is about the maximum I am willing to ride without water for him to drink.
Once a trail is picked out, we do exploring. That involves driving by in the car (if the trail is local), sometimes that means driving out the horse trailer and just hoping things work out. An exploring ride is undertaken with the understanding that we have no idea what we are getting into or what we might face. J and I explored Soapstone with just the two of us, because we don't take it personal if one or the other says it's time to turn around and head back. It's fun to do the research and set expectations. Riding the Indian Creek trail was that way this summer. I had mapped it out, estimated the time it would take to make the ride to the top of Waterton Canyon, brought plenty of snacks and drinks with me, but still had the risk that something would keep us from making the ride. We ended up exactly where I thought we would be at exactly the time I thought we would be there, which worked out wonderfully. The hard part about riding a trail like that is the lack of communication with J, since cell service in our mountains is non-existent.
2. Be Prepared on Trail
- Bring water, gatorade, snacks, and lunch. Keeping yourself fed and hydrated will help with altitude, energy level, dizziness, and decision making. Pack a variety of edibles and more than you would expect to want or need. If you are doing back country where you might get stuck for more than a day, you might consider a small water purifier. They make them now to fit inside a water bottle, which is small enough to pack on horseback. We also bring a collapsible bucket for the horse, although we have yet to have either of them drink out of it.
- Bring treats for your horse. Carrots or apples for the moisture they inherently have, or a bag of feed (I prefer Triple Crown Senior). The last time we did Indian Creek, I supplemented the treats with a bag of TC Senior that fit in one of the packs. I knew from the terrain it would be hard to find forage and so wanted to provide a meal that Ashke would enjoy. It's easy to feed just by pouring it out onto a flat piece of rock or a patch of short grass.
- Bring the proper attire. This will vary depending on season. The tricky times are spring and fall. During those seasons, this should always include a jacket, a beanie type hat and a pair of warm work gloves. The weather here can change quickly, despite forecasts, and if you pack for prevention, you won't ever find yourself shivering in 19 degree weather with no gloves or a hat. I would also recommend work gloves in your bag regardless, because you never know when you might have to move downed timber or wire. Be sure to wear boots that you can both ride and hike in, since there is nothing more miserable than trying to hike in godawful cowboy boots. Hiking for five miles with a poorly fitting pair of boots sucks rocks, as my son would say.
- Bring some basic common sense items: a basic first aid kit (make sure it has waterproof matches as part of the kit), sunscreen, ibuphrophen, a multitool with a blade and wire cutters, a hoof pick, paracord, and a rope halter and lead rope. These are all basic necessities if caught out on trail with an emergency, like turning the wrong way and getting lost. (At a minimum, you can tie your horse safely to a tree, start a fire for warmth, to signal for help, or to boil water to drink. Thirty minutes with your knife and a little ingenuity will create a lean-to shelter to keep you safe and your horse will warn you of any danger. This is where having a little extra food comes in handy.) The other items will help if you need to McGuyver something on trail.
- If you are riding in the backcountry or in an area where help is not close and immediate, or the potential for getting lost exists, I would also add a hammock (they pack small and don't weigh much), water filtration system, and an emergency blanket to your pack (the kind with the foil reflective material on the inside). Being prepared is the difference between being comfortably lost in the wilderness and all kinds of bad things happening.
3. Share the Trail
This is an issue all trail riders are going to have to deal with, since it is impossible to find horse only trails. All of the trails I have access to in Colorado are multi-use trails, which means there are bikes, dogs, people, strollers, backpacks, umbrellas and children to contend with. I would suggest despooking your horse to bicycles before setting out on trail, since they are the most prominent, fastest moving and most silent traffic you will have to deal with on any given day. Don't get hostile or abusive with them, they are the ones driving trail access, especially in the back country. The mountain bike community works to fix trails, expand trails, and maintain access to a lot of trails in the mountains. The Little Scraggy trail we rode was cleared and built by several groups of mountain bikers.
Yes, I know horses have the right away, and just like you I can get crabby about other trail users. However, don't be a dick. Bikes have to stay on the trail and we do not. Verbally greet them, tell them you will move from the trail as quickly as possible and then do so to let them go by. Be especially aware in the parts of the trail where bikes will be traveling downhill at speed. That is their fun zone and the thing they live for and the last thing you want to do is kill their mojo. I am pretty lucky in that I ride with a bike and she acts as an ambassador to the biking community when we are out. But even when she isn't there, I pay attention to those little details.
Be polite. Say thank you. Acknowledge their patience and willingness to stop and wait. Wave them on if you can, and above all BE NICE. You are an ambassador for every single trail rider out there: if you are nice, they will remember and be patient with the next rider they come across.
4. Be Aware of Your Limits
When you are riding with a group be aware of your limits. And the limits of your horse. It would be best if that conversation occurred prior to hauling out, but if it didn't, be vocal about what you are willing to do prior to starting the ride. It's no fun for anyone if you were thinking three mile easy ride and you are riding with someone that wants to do twenty with a nine mile an hour pace. As both the pace and length of your ride increases, be aware of what your horse is telling you. On some trails, there is no easy access for any type of emergency vehicle and the last thing anyone wants to do is walk out ten miles with a lame horse.
Know what you are comfortable with as far as trail obstacles go. Are rattlesnakes a deal breaker for you? Then stay out of their habitat. Is your horse barefoot? Be aware of how rocky the terrain is where you are riding and make adjustments ahead of time. Understand how long you have to ride, when the sun goes down, and at what time you need to just turn around and head back. The law of diminishing returns applies to trail riding and the last thing you are going to want to do is ride unknown territory in the dark.
Make sure you are fit enough for the ride you want to do. There is nothing more difficult than getting out on trail and not having the strength or stamina to finish the ride. Know your limitations. If altitude gain and loss (mountains) stresses muscles and joints that are used to flat riding, don't go as far or as fast on those type of rides. It's not fair to your riding companions or to your horse if you can't finish the ride, not to mention, if you are in the backcountry an emergency like that might end up causing the kind of overnight emergency we are trying to prevent.
5. Stay with Your Group
I don't care how experienced you are, you stay with the group you started with. Yes, that might mean you have to ride slower or for less distance than you wanted, but you need to recognize that horses are herd animals and separating one from the others is going to result in a lot of undue stress on your animal. If there are only two of you, separating them is going to cause stress for both, which means that both riders need to be okay with that. If that is in your plan, make sure you communicate that up front. If everyone isn't onboard, then plan your ride alone. It creates a safety issue to separate horses on trail.
This also applies to obstacles on trail. If, for example, there is a log down and your horse clears it like the winning round at WEG, don't just keep going down the trail. Stop and make sure that all of the horse and rider combinations have cleared the obstacle before continuing on. Some of the biggest wrecks I have seen on trail have resulted in one horse trotting off down the trail and the second horse freaking out at being left behind and not paying attention to what the rider is telling them. Be aware of what might be an obstacle for someone else, but doesn't seem like an obstacle to you. Crossing water is a prime example. Keeping your horse close will help create a "safe" zone for the other horses and they won't feel like they need to rush the crossing just to stay close. In heavily wooded areas, it can be a disaster for a horse to leap over a small stream instead of walking because of low hanging branches. Be vigilant!
6. Check Your Pride at the Trailer Door
Get off your horse and hand walk if necessary. Be aware of what constitutes a serious obstacle or hazard on trail and then get off your horse to negotiate it by hand. Being too proud to get off or too obtuse to recognize the real hazard you are facing can get you and your horse in big trouble. Don't hesitate to ask for help in determining how to deal with the obstacle you are facing. I know that I will always dismount to cross large patches of slick rock, because I don't want Ashke to have to balance us both in a situation where he might slip, especially now that he is wearing shoes. Your horse should gain confidence from you on the ground with them and will negotiate the obstacles easier that way.
7. Have Fun!!
Pick your riding partners carefully. Finding someone who wants to ride the same type of trail and distance is key. Make sure you are well suited to each other and can at least laugh about the foibles you will face on trail. There is nothing worse than riding several hours with someone you are struggling to spend time with. Have fun on trail. That's why you get out, right?
Happy trails to everyone!!