I looked back at the pack horses and at my friend Billy. Man and beast alike were covered with frost, and the horses' sweat had frozen into small icicles that clung to their coats.
We were pulling out of the wilderness area north of Yellowstone Park where we'd been for the early elk-bugling season, and though we'd seen no elk nor heard any bugle, we'd had a fine time in camp with five Tennessee Walking Horses.
But late September in Montana at 9,000 feet of elevation can quickly become winter. I dismounted to adjust the basket hitch on a pack that was hanging a little low on Skywalker, behind me. Then I remounted to face the wind and snow for our final ascent to the trailhead on the pass.
At the trailhead, we threaded our way among the parked vehicles and trailers that seemed surreal after our wilderness adventure. Then, leaning against the wind that blew clouds of snow sideways, we tied the tired horses to our trailer and commenced unloading our packs and gear.
The parking lot was covered with glare ice too thick for the gravel to poke through, the surface slick as a skating rink. We could scarcely stand while we wrestled the packs off the horses and unsaddled. Fearing a disastrous slide down the icy road, we put chains on the rear wheels of the pickup and (finally) enjoyed the thawing warmth of its heater.
A miserable experience? Hardly! Billy and I recall it as one of the most beautiful horseback rides we've ever enjoyed. The white mountains, garnished with strips of evergreen and copses of aspen with leaves frozen but still colorful, are indelible in our minds.
Images of our gutsy horses, led by my old reliable Little Mack (still tough as nails at age 15), blinking the snow out of his eyes as he powered up the trail, will remain forever, cementing our appreciation for these wonderful animals that so willingly take us places we'd never see otherwise.
The chilled fingers and the icy wind in our faces are minor memories, eclipsed completely by recollection of the great beauty that surrounded us and of the sense of freedom and accomplishment. We crossed an alpine pass in a snowstorm and not only survived it, but enjoyed it!
The trail rider who parks his or her horse for the winter misses much. The physical conditioning of both horse and rider suffer, and the rider misses an entire sphere of trail-riding experiences. Here are some random thoughts on horses, riders, and winter riding conditions.
Basic winter needs of your trail horse are food, water, and shelter. Calories keep a horse warm, so more are required in winter if your horse is to stay in good condition.
Water is too easily neglected in winter, yet ultra important. For instance, cold conditions in our dry western mountains quickly dehydrate animals (and people). In our part of the West, many horses drink their water from naturally occurring springs and streams. Experienced stockmen gravitate whenever possible to what they call open water, water from springs that tends not to freeze because it emerges from the ground considerably warmer than the water that flows in streams or rivers.
The advantages of water warmed either by Mother Earth or with electric heating elements in frost-free waterers are obvious. Your horse will warm the water to his own body temperature, and considerably fewer calories are expended if the water is 50 degrees Fahrenheit rather than 35 degrees.
The warmer water will make for a warmer horse and for one that consumes less feed in order to stay in condition. It's quite true that horses will manage in range conditions by eating snow rather than drinking water, but precious calories are consumed warming the snow to body temperature.