Your horse, like all his brethren, is a creature of habit. This means he’s most relaxed and comfortable (translated: most likely not to harm himself—or you) in situations he’s been conditioned to accept. If he’s a rookie at being away from home, let alone spending his nights on a picket line, or tied up to your trailer, you’ve got some work to do before you can safely take him camping. Your homework:
- Train him to tie. If you can’t tie your horse and be absolutely certain he’ll accept the restraint, your horse-camping trip will be a nightmare.
- Hobble-train him. Not only will this make for excellent basic schooling in the realities of restraint, it’ll also give you a safe, and environmentally sound way to feed your horse while you’re camping (See Code Five.)
- Teach him to load, and to ride quietly in your trailer. You don’t want to be dealing with a balky loader out on some lonely trailhead, and you won’t want to be hassling with a bad hauler, either.
- Rehearse “wilderness stabling” at home. Practice tying your horse to your hitched-up trailer, and/or to a picket line, for gradually increasing periods, until he’ll accept being secured there for a number of hours. (Smart idea: Camp out with him for a night or two in the pasture, so you both know what you’re doing.)
“Getting away from it all.” That’s one of the main reasons you want to go horse camping, right? Just remember: That reward comes with a price. The very fact that you will be away from it all means you won’t just be able to “911 it” if you get in trouble. Horse camping is an exercise in self-sufficiency, which means you must have the tools and expertise to:
- Maneuver your loaded rig in and out of tight spaces. Trailhead parking can be limited, and turnarounds can be tiny. Be sure you know how to back up your rig without jackknifing it!
- Change a flat tire. (Word to the wise: Pack a spare tire for your truck and your trailer, and get ‘em freshly aired up before you leave home.)
- Deal with overheated engine. Summer heat, and hauling up steep grades toward mountain splendor, or across long stretches of desert, can steam up even the most faithful truck. (Smart idea: Bring along some plastic jugs filled with water, in case your radiator gets thirsty.)
- Administer basic horse/human first aid. Keep in mind, you’re gonna be a long way from a vet or physician, maybe even from the nearest phone service. The savvy horse camper’s rule of thumb: Keep a well-stocked first-aid box in your trailer, and pack a smaller first-aid kit with you at all times out on the trail. And don’t leave your veterinary manual (you do have one, don’t you?) at home on a shelf!
- Set up a campsite that’s safe for both you and your horse. A complete guide to setting up camp is beyond the scope of this article, but we can run down a list of common causes of camping wrecks: tying a saddled horse to a picket line; tying to dead trees/limbs, or to any other unsecured “post” (including an unhitched trailer); tent/stove/campfire placed within kicking/stomping distance of horses; tie rope secured below horse’s eye level (a major cause of entanglement/rope burns); camping near bee/wasp/hornet nesting areas; failure to inspect campsite for toxic plants/ground holes/jagged stumps or rocks; camping beneath an area’s tallest tree (a potential lightning rod), or along a creek bed that could overflow during a flash flood.
- Build a fire in inclement weather. In these environmentally sensitive times, cooking/recreational fires are frowned upon, even forbidden, in some backcountry areas. But that doesn’t mean you might not need a fire if weather threatens your life.
Safe horse camping requires some horse sense. For example: In the situation shown below, the picketed horse on the left could easily get his saddle/hanging bridle tangled in the ropes. But untacked, as shown on the right, he can move about without risk.
“Out there,” you’ll be just as far from your farrier, tack store, and auto mechanic as you will be from vet/medical aid. You’ll cut down on a lot of potential for grief by doing the following before you take off:
- Have your horse freshly shod, to reduce chances of a lost shoe “blowout.”
- Inspect every piece of tack for wear (especially your cinch, latigos, halter, and tie rope), and repair/replace if necessary.
- Fine-tune your truck and trailer. Have a mechanic inspect your brakes, belts, and hoses; get you trailer’s wheel bearings repacked if you haven’t done so in the last year.