Horse sense 2
If familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, it can at least cut the tension. That’s why it’s wise to visit a riding stable a few times before a major horse-camping trip. You might even consider taking a lesson or two. While you’re there, you can break in those new boots and jeans, too – once you hit camp it’s way too late. Learning to ride a horse is no more difficult than mastering a bicycle. Practice these tips for safety and to smooth your first riding experience:
* Wear hard-soled shoes or boots with a pronounced heel for a better “bite” in the stirrups.
* Approach the horse from its side – where it can see you – and speak the horse’s name in a calm, low voice.
* Mount from the animal’s left side in an open area (standing on an incline the first couple of times may help). Position your foot in the stirrup so the weight is across the ball of your foot. Then, grasping the mane in your left hand, mount in one smooth motion.
* Remember that the reins are used for steering. Hold them in your left hand and keep your right hand free and loose. Because the horse’s mouth is sensitive to the bit, jerking the reins can make the animal rear up, and you could be thrown. Don’t allow the reins to droop over the horse’s head either – your mount could step on them and injure itself. Find a position for your hands that is relaxed but allows you to easily apply pressure when you need to.
* Ride with the balls of your feet in the stirrup and lift your weight slightly, allowing your knees to act as shock absorbers.
* Most horses test their riders at some point, and even the most placid animal can be easily spooked in unfamiliar surroundings. Continually check the horse’s ears and eyes for signs of fear or mischief. When the ears prick up or the eyes roll, revealing their whites, something is going on – anticipate the unexpected.
* Remember gun safety: Never carry a chambered load when riding, and always place a scope down (not up) in the scabbard.
Pack animals often make poor riding mounts. Consider the mule: This donkey/horse hybrid so valued for its endurance and surefootedness can haul inanimate loads in excess of 200 pounds, but it loses all sense of cooperation with a live rider on its back. Most horses, depending on their size, can carry 100 to 200 pounds, but the load must be evenly distributed. If in doubt about how much total weight you have, suspend a spring scale over a tree limb and weigh each article. To assure even distribution of weight, no-stirrup sawbuck saddles with wooden cross braces work best.
Over the years I’ve seen many innovative containers used for packing. Rectangular Rubbermaid garbage cans, for example, can be roped together and slung over the saddle. In camp, laying a board or two across the containers turns them into tables.
A grub box can be easily made of plywood. One outfitter I know builds his to be 9 by 18 by 32 inches, with a hinged top for easy access. The top features a heavy-duty clasp and a rope handle for attaching to a sawbuck saddle brace. Cans in the bottom of the food box are separated from bread and soft goods, held in place by an inside frame of 1 by 2s. The plank also serves as a cutting board; the box itself doubles as a seat or small table. Besides food, fragile gear like lanterns and stoves should also be packed in wooden boxes.
Mail-order houses sell panniers and other specialty horsepacking gear, or you can have the containers made to order by a local tent and awning company. Canvas tarps, called mantas, are ideal for wrapping together bulky items like coolers and stoves, which are then secured with hitches. Any book of knots will explain how to tie the basket, barrel, and diamond hitch that the professional packers use. But like the horse hitch (see above) – a special knot that tethers the animal but allows for quick release in the event of emergency – they are more easily learned through demonstration by a wrangler.
Use foam sleeping pads and empty grain sacks to cushion breakable items and to quiet rattling cookware. Rucksacks, like the Duluth pack designed for canoe camping, are great because the fabric assumes almost any shape needed. Duffel bags are fine too. Be sure to protect fishing rods in plastic tube containers.
Outfitters and veteran wranglers pack the string with care, separating fuel from food and carefully sheathing the cutting tools like axes and saws – they go aboard the lead animal, by the way, for trail clearing. The mess tent and cooking gear should also be at or near the head, followed by sleeping tents and personal gear. The tack tent and horse supplies bring up the rear.
Because there is a pecking order among horses, expect one or two rowdies in the string. Separating the bullies as much as possible is the best way to avoid a rodeo on the trail. No one knows his horses like the head wrangler. If he offers to let you lead a pack animal or two, do it, because it’s actually fun. Carry the packhorse halter in your right hand or loop it once around your saddle horn. Never tie it tightly because you may need to let go if a horse stumbles or grows troublesome. Sometimes packers tie the halter to the tail of the animal in front, and a few use baling twine at the end for a quick breakaway in a brouhaha or emergency.
I doubt if I’ll ever have a love affair with horses the way I have with bird dogs. But horses often are the only way to reach a camp, and even I have to admit that the view from the saddle is one everyone should experience.