Horseback riding in the backcountry could be just the ticket to making you and your horse better
Everybody can use a change of scenery – even your horse.
He might be getting a little tired of doing circles waiting for you to ask correctly for that lead change, and both of you might need a chance to unwind, relax and see something other than the indoor arena or your sliding track.
It might just be time to get out on the trails, clear your minds and experience nature the way it’s intended – from the back of your good American Quarter Horse.
But before you head out into the wilderness, there are a few things you and your horse need to know to make it back alive and well. Plus, you shouldn’t leave your horsemanship behind once you’re on the trail. You might find that rocks, trees and hills could be the key to finding that perfect horsemanship position and improving your horse’s skills once you get back into the arena.
After all, what better way to get your horse to lift his feet for trail than to cross an actual log? And after getting exposed to mules, pack saddles, trees, running water, living outdoors and the occasional elk, you might be surprised at how much better your horse is with scooters, banners and buggers behind the back gate.
To get you started, the Journal packed along with cowboy clinician Craig Cameron and Terry and Randy Palmer, professional outfitters who own Palmer Quarter Horses and Over the Hill Outfitters Inc., for a week-long backcountry horsemanship clinic designed to improve your horsemanship while venturing outdoors.
Whether you’re headed with the Palmers into the Weminuche Wilderness outside of Durango, Colorado, or for the state park down the road, here are Craig’s tips on how to head into the wild and make your horse better once you get there.
Before You Go
Anytime I ride my horse, I want to become a better rider and make my horse better. The whole point of going into the backcountry is to have fun, see the country and improve your horsemanship. Getting your horse out from the arena is a great way to see where he is with his training and what you need to work on next.
If you’re a beginning rider, make sure you take a horse that fits you. I wouldn’t suggest going into the Weminuche Wilderness as a green rider with a green horse. Either you or your horse needs to know what you’re doing. But if you’re an experienced rider, it’s a great opportunity to take the scare out of a young horse, build his confidence and develop collection. Plus, you can get a horse broke, develop your feel of where his feet are and get in sync with your horse.
If you’re experienced, I think it’s OK to take a young horse for a trail ride or on a pack trip. No matter what your horse’s age, to be safe you should be able to catch your horse easily, get on or off on both sides (you can’t always predict which side the cliff will be on) and be able to flex in both directions. With young horses and even with older horses on the trail, I like to ride in a snaffle bit, so before you get away from civilization, your horse should give his head to the rein. If you have that, then you can stop and turn your horse, which is crucial to keeping everyone safe on the trail. Before you go, make sure your horse is fit enough to handle the terrain where you’re headed, especially if you’re going on a multiday trip at high altitude like our backcountry clinic. If you’re going into really wild country, I’d suggest going with experienced packers or professional outfitters like the Palmers, if that’s not something you’ve done before. Even if you’re just headed into the country around your house, it’s safer to ride with a friend and be prepared for the unexpected.
On the Trail
To get the most out of your trail-riding experience, you’ve got to be an active rider. If you just sit up there like a lump with your feet hanging down on each side, you aren’t improving your riding, and you sure aren’t helping your horse.
Make the most of your time to learn to feel your horse and get him listening to your cues. I think the simplest way to think of a cue is simple communication with your horse.
You can use the natural terrain to ask him for the kinds of maneuvers you’re going to ask for in the arena, almost without him realizing that you’re training him.
The horse’s hindquarters are what he bucks with, runs with, fights with and kicks with. But if you get control of his hindquarters, then the hindquarters are what he stops with, trots with and lopes with. Going up and down hills is a great opportunity to help your horse learn to collect by giving you his face and transferring some of his weight from the front to the back.
Use the terrain to guide your horse and ask for his face. You’ve got to be able to get your horse’s face or you won’t be able to guide him. To have the horse collect and give his face, you’ve got to be a balanced, centered rider. Your job is to make the horse feel safe, sure and secure through the feel of your seat, hands and legs.
Once you’re on the trail, it’s essential that you use all of those aids to guide your horse and not pull on him. If you pull, the horse is going to resist and pull back and forget about where he is and where he is going. That’s not something you want to chance when you’re at 12,000 feet and more than six hours of hard riding from the nearest paved road. In the rugged Weminuche, you’ll learn real fast you can’t hang on a horse’s face, like we’re sometimes tempted to do in the arena, because the horse won’t be able to see where he is going. And when you continually pull on your horse, you make him heavy instead of light.
Once you’re away from all the hustle and bustle, you can also start to work on paying more attention to your horse. Most riders aren’t magically gifted with the ability to read the horse. You have to learn it and make a conscious effort to read what the horse is telling you by watching his eyes, ears, tilt of his head and body position.
Up Hill, Down Hill
As I said earlier, you’ve got to be an active rider. If you master the skill of moving with your horse and getting in time with him on the trail, it’s going to make you that much better when you get back in the show ring.
Riding is a partnership. If you are working against your horse, you can be the limiting factor that keeps him from reaching his athletic potential. On the kinds of grades you find in the Rocky Mountains or other major ranges, you can make it harder for your horse to climb or go downhill – and cause soreness – by not shifting your weight to the correct position.
An active rider should be like a plumb bob. You should help your horse by keeping your weight over his center of gravity. So going up hill, it helps your horse if you’ll lean forward. Going down hill, it’s the opposite – lean back slightly to help your horse.
At the same time, you don’t want to just lean and jab all of your weight down through your legs into the stirrups. That’s not helping your horse. Learn to ride with your weight centered over your seat and on your thighs. The stirrups are there to help you stay balanced, not to support all of your weight.
If There’s Trouble
On the trail, safety for you and your horse is the most important thing, especially if you’re miles away from ambulance or truck and trailer access.
You can avoid a lot of trouble by just paying attention to your horse. If you sense that he’s getting troubled, then just slow down, reassure him and ask him to listen to you. Slow your horse down, get him to flex by giving to your rein and then release him and see if he does it again. If he’s getting upset about being in the middle or back of the pack string, then put him in the front.
If he’s not being good, then maybe you shouldn’t ride the trails that day; maybe you should stay at camp and work on getting him to flex and listen to you
Whatever you do, the wilderness is not the place to get in a fight with your horse. Be more patient and slow down. If you have to and it’s safe, get off and lead your horse to a flat spot and start again by getting him listening to you. Work your horse and don’t abuse him. Use his energy in a constructive way. You must be able to read the horse and recognize what’s going on to be able to correct it.
On these backcountry clinics, we’ve had some horses that were pretty chargey and didn’t want to listen when we were at the ranch. However, after three or four days of putting lots of miles and wet saddle blankets behind them, they were a whole lot more cooperative, and the horse began to put effort into slowing down.
Everything depends on the horse, the situation and the circumstance.
As riders and horsemen, we should never stop trying to get better. A horse gets better through time and repetition. A week in the wilderness could make all the difference in your horse’s attitude and training.
Every time you round a tree, you can get him to round his rib cage with your inside leg and lift his shoulder with your inside rein. By the time you do that several hundred times, your horse is going to get pretty good with it. Work at it, and you’ll be amazed at how much better your timing improves with your horse.
As an added bonus, you get to enjoy the incredible scenery, smell of fresh air and, if you’re lucky, you might even be out of cell phone range.
It’s all about keeping the tradition alive and the big country open.
Cuts and wounds are inevitably going to happen to your horse and can sometimes happen on a trail ride. Are you prepared? Educate yourself on when it is imperative that you contact the vet and when you can take care of the injury at home.
Courtesy of American Quarter Horse Association