Setting Up Safe Highlines and Picket Lines

When you venture into the backcountry with horses, keep them secure in camp by learning to tie a highline or picket line.
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When you venture into the backcountry with horses, keep them secure in camp by learning to tie a highline or picket line.
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Venturing into the backcountry on horseback is a great way to cover ground and see astounding sights and wildlife. But when it comes time to build camp, you have more than just yourself to worry about. You also need to create a home away from home for your horse.

Unless you're at a developed horse camp, you're probably not going to find a corral to pen your horse in. Instead, you'll need to tie a picket line or highline. Both lines are safe methods to secure your horse and minimize damage to the natural environment, says Bo Winslow, who is a past president of the Certified Horsemanship Association. During his 25 years working for Cheley Colorado Camp in Estes Park, he set up more picket lines and highlines than he can count.

Before You Go
Just as you would do with other training tasks, you first need to train your horse to stand for hours upon hours tied to a line at home in a comfortable setting. Before you get started, make sure your horse is trained to his halter, easy to lead, and unlikely to pull back when tied. If he isn't reliable at the hitching post, he probably isn't ready for tying to a line.

Practice setting up your line at home, away from the pressures of actually needing the line. This will give you a chance to work through the knots and figure out how to properly tension the line tight. It'll also give you a chance to tie your horse to a highline in a safe and supervised place, which will help keep him comfortable and confident.

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Here's what you need to get started:

• Two strong trees, about 10 inches in diameter and at least 15 feet apart. Make sure they have no low-lying limbs that could poke or injure your horse. That distance should hold one horse. Add five to 10 feet for each additional horse you're tying to your line.

• A half-inch diameter hemp or polypropylene rope long enough to span the trees and tie in knots, and then have some extra length. Highlines and picket lines work off tension, so you need a rope that won't stretch. Avoid nylon.

• Two rope saddle cinches to wrap around the trees to protect their bark. A rope alone would cut into the trees and damage them.

• A guide to knot tying with a diagram of a Dutchman's knot.

• Baling twine, to create spots to tie each of the horses.

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The Right Setup
Before you get started with Bo's process for setting up your picket line (as described in the photo captions), here are some points to keep in mind:

• A picket line is like a hitching rail and set at chest height-high enough that the horses can't climb over it but low enough that they can't go under it either. Horses must stay on one side of the line.

• A highline is at least seven feet high and allows horses to move around underneath it.

• Never tie your saddled horse to a picket line or highline. The saddle could get caught on the rope, causing him to panic. Just take the time to untack before tying.

• Tie your horse so his head can reach about two feet off the ground. This will give him enough slack to lie down, but not enough to get himself tangled in the rope.

• Select an area for your highline that has good footing and is free of vegetation. Wet areas are especially vulnerable to hoof damage.

• Leave your camp area as you found it. Avoid damaging trees with your highline or picket line, and clean up after yourself and your horses.