It was an experience that took me back through time. In darkness, I'd ridden toward the trailhead, preferring to travel by night vision rather than headlamp.
I climbed toward the ridge, the light from the moon and stars just adequate to let me discern the trail where it wound around tall trees, recently burned, their black skeletons suggestive of Halloween (which was only a week away).
Then my gelding, Partner, and I broke out into the clearing that overlooked my destination hundreds of feet below.
The fires of a half-dozen camps spread out over a quarter mile glowed brightly, and I knew there were people circling each fire, swapping stories, rife with anticipation for the morning's adventure.
On a big, black gelding in total darkness, after a somewhat dicey ride, I absorbed the scene below. In another era I might've been a soldier returning to the fires of his comrades, a long lost traveler soon to be welcomed home, a Sioux warrior returning to his village.
My reason for this nighttime ride was an embarrassing one. Somehow, I'd forgotten a small bag of essentials that included mantles for our gas lanterns. Sure enough, the ones in place on the lanterns hadn't survived the pack-in.
Since the autumn nights were already long, the lanterns were a pressing need. So I opted to ride to the trailhead to borrow mantles from the first camp I met, and that's the way it worked.
I hollered, "Hello, the camp!" an old custom for politely announcing your presence, then rode in. The generous packer opened a box and promptly handed me what I'd forgotten.
I've ridden many miles on many trails, usually in friendly, sunny weather, where discomfort was minimal. How is it then that I've forgotten so many of those rides but remember the night errand to a dark trailhead as if it were indelibly stamped?
Though the ride had its dangers, I find myself grateful for having forgotten the little bag of essentials, the reason for my night ride. Had I remembered to include it in my food panniers, that ride wouldn't be in my memory.
Out for Adventure
We equine writers tend to incessantly preach safety, and I suppose that's necessary. But maybe by constantly writing about worst-case scenarios, we sell our readers short.
A certain number of trail riders are looking for more than a sedate ride through beautiful country. Some genuinely want adventure, to push the envelope just a bit, to make unlikely rides at less-than-opportune times, in weather that may be iffy, on trails that provide challenges.
Many of my most challenging and most memorable rides have been in conjunction with hunting trips, but not because of hunting per se. These rides tend to get people out into the backcountry on horseback at times and in situations they might not go for pure pleasure.
And the upshot is often a different sort of pleasure.
Tackling trails under less-than-ideal circumstances spells adventure and a sense of accomplishment that builds the strongest possible bond with your equine trail partner.
The same could be said, of course, for any riding that involves some sort of "mission" that can't always wait for the best weather or the most favorable circumstances: Packing in supplies for United States Forest Service work crews; participating in search-and-rescue operations; volunteering to help members of the Backcountry Horsemen of America clear an essential trail.
And even if none of these apply to you, it's possible to broaden your horizons and improve your skills by pushing the envelope slightly beyond the most mundane sort of trail riding.
The result can be beauty of surroundings and camaraderie with your horse you'd never experience otherwise.
I'd trade nothing for the memory I have of a ride high in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. A friend and I had watched a clearing for elk until the light failed. At 9,000 feet elevation, there was a foot of early snow, though our camp below was perched on bare ground.
We started down, first with headlamps, required in the timber before the moon rose. Then we broke out into a mile-long clearing that descended toward our camp under moonlight so intense we could've read small print.
Our horses traveled in a proud running walk toward the pinprick of light at the base of the mountain, our camp lantern, where we'd soon build a fire for warmth while scenting the aroma of the Dutch oven meal bubbling over charcoal.
Even circumstances that seem miserable at the time can spawn unforgettable memories, along with awe at a different sort of beauty and pride in the pluck of your mount.
A friend and I were camped on a tributary of Slough Creek north of Yellowstone Park in mid-September. We'd left home in hot weather, but mountains breed change, and we could feel it coming after our third night in camp.
Ill-advisedly, we waited until mid-morning to decide to break camp and move out. Billy, my energetic partner, asked what he should do first.
"Make us each two big sandwiches," I suggested. "I have an idea we'll need them."
By the time we'd struck the tent and packed our panniers and manties, dark clouds were scudding in from the west, and the temperature had dropped. A light mist of sleet filled the air like fog.
The ride out to this particular trailhead, Daisy Pass, near Cooke City, Montana, was unusual, in that we'd be climbing toward it, not descending as is more common on our return trips.
As we approached the high summit, the sleet turned to light snow, then to a wind-driven blizzard. I'd selected Little Mack, then in his mid-teens, for this tough ride out, and he didn't disappoint me. Face plastered with driven snow, blinking in order to see, he led the pack string with stoic grace.
We arrived at the trailhead cold and tired. The ice that covered the parking lot was so slick that we sought handholds to keep from falling.
We quickly removed the packs and saddles to get the horses into the stock trailer, which offered some shelter from the biting wind.
Then, frightened at the thought of losing traction during descent on the steep road, we put chains on the pickup and crept down into the valley, keeping our right wheels off the ice onto the shoulder of the rough gravel road.
It was after we arrived at the paved highway, after removing the tire chains, after biting into the king-size sandwiches Billy had made, that we both started laughing.
"That was cool," he said.
Yes, it was cool, and in the best sense. There was beauty in the high peaks that were partially hidden by falling snow and in the stalwart performance of our horses.
But Billy's comment also reminded me of the words of a famous man, one who covered more miles horseback in rough country than most of us will ever hope for. The young Theodore Roosevelt, on his first trip west, went buffalo hunting with two grizzled guides.
The trip was miserable by all usual measure. There was incessant rain, mud, sleet, every sort of discomfort.
One morning, after camping in a crude, deserted cabin and awakening in six inches of water that soaked their bedding, Roosevelt's companions were astounded to hear him say, "By Godfrey, this is fun."
Roosevelt wasn't being sarcastic. His mind-set was different than that of his companions. The wide open West, good horses to ride, an elusive quarry to seek —these things outweighed any discomfort.
Push the Envelope
So, often as I admonish readers to stay safe, this month I have another message. Yes, keep it safe, go prepared, but push the envelope just a little.
Don't tackle things you can't handle, but challenge yourself and your mount a bit and see if you don't create some trail riding experiences you'll never forget.
Here are some approaches:
- Go where others do not. One of the wilderness trailheads in my vicinity has a paved highway right to it. Consequently, it's heavily used. The paradox of designated wilderness areas is that they're widely publicized and tend to draw crowds. Consider those quieter areas of national forest on the fringes of such areas. You might unearth trail-riding treasures, places few go.
- Start at dawn. Drive to a trailhead very early in the morning while it's still dark, saddle up, and start up the trail at the very first hint of daylight. Everything in nature is better early in the morning. You'll see the first sun strike the high peaks and watch the grass turn golden. You'll also see more wildlife than you would later in the day.
- Challenge the cold. Ride when the weather is less than ideal. On my recent trip to Iceland, I noticed that there were stables everywhere, but very few indoor arenas. Icelanders ride in rain, sleet, and snow and thoroughly enjoy it. Again, it's a mind-set. Properly clothed and equipped, riders find they have nothing to fear from such weather.
- Go off trail. This tactic is impossible in some areas but feasible and safe in others. When you can find the right area, riding where you pick your own way is great training for your horse. Take a map, compass, and GPS, and work on polishing your land-navigation skills.
- Ride in the Big Open. On vast stretches of public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, off-trail riding is the norm. Open country is more challenging than narrow, tree-lined trails, but being able to see long distances is one of the rewards. What may look like a sterile environment often proves to be loaded with wildlife and wildflowers.
- Volunteer. Consider volunteering to help a trail crew, perhaps with your local chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen of America. Having work to do, such as clearing trail, means mounting and dismounting, and frequently tying and untying your horse. This is good training for your horse and good physical exercise for you. The best trained horses are those that have a job to do.
One of my sons, while still a toddler, described particularly exhilarating experiences as "scary-but-fun."
The word "scary" might be going a little too far in describing trail rides that push the envelope. But deliberately seeking to put a little challenge into your trail riding may restore that exhilaration you felt the very first time you mounted up and headed your horse into the backcountry.
Dan Aadland raises mountain-bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are In Trace of TR; The Best of All Seasons; The Complete Trail Horse; and 101 Trail Riding Tips. For information on Aadland's horses, books, and clinics, visit http://my.montana.net/draa.