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Top of the World

Summertime is the best time of year to hit those high-altitude mountain trails. Here’s how to cope with mountain-riding challenges.

To climb in altitude is to progress toward fall or winter. It may be July at 3,000 feet, but climb beyond 9,000 feet and it's more like September or later. Travel high enough, and snow can fall on any day of the year. Photo by William J. Erickson

We'd been riding for two hours, climbing steadily from lush forest and grassy meadows toward scrub timber, the kind that struggles to survive in the sparse soil and thin air of high altitude.

We stopped to rest briefly at a mountain lake, admired the crystal water, snapped a photo or two, and then, driven by our ambitious plan for the day, pressed on.

As we ascended, I looked up at the switchbacks cutting through perennial snow on the pass above. Confident as I was in my horse, an uneasy feeling came over me, a feeling I'd experienced before at high altitude.

My wife, Emily, and I were tackling a challenging day ride. We'd started at approximately 6,000 feet of elevation and would rise to 11,000 before descending another drainage back to the starting elevation. Friends had shuttled our vehicle to the destination trailhead.

The total distance was 21 miles, but the extreme climb and descent were more serious factors than the distance. Although I'd crossed Sundance Pass twice on foot, many years had passed, and I knew no one who'd recently ridden a horse over it. Only now, in late August, had the snows receded enough to make it passable at all.


Sundance Pass lies between two drainages in south-central Montana. Located as the eagle flies approximately 25 miles from the summit of Granite Peak, Montana's highest mountain, and only 1,800 feet below it, the pass offers top-of-the world views to anyone ambitious enough to ascend it.

We had a mission (besides our customary one of celebrating a wedding anniversary with a special ride). We'd been told that the trail had been deteriorating, that there had been too little maintenance. So, as members of the Beartooth chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen of America, we'd decided to ride the route and report back to the group.

Sentiment was strong for keeping the trail, an engineering marvel, open to equines. The trail couldn't have been built without the sweat of horses and mules, so rumors of a possible closure were especially alarming.

All went well on our trek that day, and we'll never forget the sounds and sights or the steady efforts of our geldings Redstar and Little Mack. But we also can't recall the trip without reawakening butterflies in our stomachs.

Memories of this and several other high-altitude treks we've made over the years focus on three primary issues: (1) the effects of high altitude on both horse and rider; (2) the safety challenges posed by the trails leading there and back; and (3) the tendency for weather at high altitude to change rapidly in sometimes dangerous directions.

Coping with Thin Air
In some ways, altitude is relative. For instance, the altitude at which certain trees can survive is also dependent on latitude. Thus, the timberline is lower up north in Montana than in Colorado, and it's lower yet in Alaska.

However, one effect is constant and inescapable: At high altitude, the air is thin. Although the percentage of oxygen in air remains pretty much the same, the molecules in air are farther apart, so there's simply less of it in a given breath.

Just how this will affect you and your horse is dependent on many things. If you live at sea level and travel rapidly to a high-altitude destination, the effects will be much greater than if you reside year-around in a town such as Laramie, Wyoming, at 7,200 feet.

Acute Mountain Sickness is a collection of symptoms that can cause extreme illness, even death, at very high elevation. Most trail riders won't venture as high as mountain climbers, but AMS' first signs are quite familiar to me: shortness of breath, dizziness, a feeling of unease.

Gradual acclimatization helps prevent AMS. If you fly to Colorado from a coastal location, spend one night at 8,000 feet, then jump on a fast-walking horse and ascend several thousand more feet, you're asking for problems. Hard physical exertion will compound the problem. Acclimating gradually, over several days, is much safer.

Dehydration is also a cause of AMS, so drink plenty of fluids. Mountain air is deceptively dry, and cool weather may not prompt you to drink the required amount.

However, don't overdo it. A physician friend tells me that drinking water has become such a preoccupation with many Americans that overhydration is common, that ingesting too many fluids tends to wash essential salts from your system. Some sports drinks are formulated to help alleviate this problem.

Physical conditioning also helps prevent problems with altitude. The athlete with slow, at-rest heartbeat and respiratory rate has more reserve than the sedentary individual.

All of the above apply equally to your horse. Although many visitors who bring horses to our ranch have expressed concern about the animals' adjustment to higher altitude, we've never seen a major problem. Since horses come via trailer, trips from sea level have often taken several days, so the change in altitude is gradual.

We once hosted a group from New Jersey with seven horses in tow. The animals, all Tennessee Walking Horses, were in excellent physical condition from rigorous trail riding. Our ranch, at 4,100 feet, served as a base camp for rides to much higher elevation, and the horses handled the trip without skipping a beat.

Ledge Trails

In some areas of southern Wyoming and northern Colorado, where mountains rise from a high plateau, it's possible to ride to high altitude without ever hitting an intimidating trail.

For the most part, though, there and elsewhere, high-altitude riding involves trails cut into the sides of mountains and switchbacks, which are needed to adjust the grade to a percentage humans and animals can handle. (Current trails are built to a maximum of 10 to 12 percent grade, and many are gentler.)

A trail ledged into a mountainside with a downhill cliff on one side and an uphill one on the other is understandably scary to some riders (but only rarely to their mounts). Some tips:

  • Trust your mount. You may be tired of hearing it, but it's really true that your horse or mule is no more anxious to walk over the edge than you are. For the most part, horses have excellent judgment in such matters!
  • A trail ledged into a mountainside with a downhill cliff on one side and an uphill one on the other is understandably scary to some riders (but only rarely to their mounts). Photo by William J. Erickson

    Keep to the trail. However, your horse doesn't always know best. Keep him on the designed trail, unless some natural change — fire, flood, or fallen trees — has made it impassable. Switchbacks exist for a reason, yet some hikers and riders will occasionally shortcut to reduce distance.                                                       Creating new trails that cut short of the designed turn-abouts on switchbacks does considerable damage. Eventually the shortened (and thus steeper) trail is followed by others, and the result is greater erosion and less trail safety. Your horse, like some humans, may decide these shortcuts are attractive, but you're the leader — keep him on the trail.

  • Don't look down. Avoid looking down if it bothers you. Look right between your horses' ears at the point to which you're headed. As with preventing sea sickness on a boat, looking off into the distance helps stabilize things.
  • Get off and lead. Don't be afraid to get off and lead, especially going downhill, even if your companions stay in the saddle. On the west side of Sundance Pass, Emily and I found treacherous spots where the trail consisted of golf-ball sized stones that rolled like ball bearings under our horses' feet. We watched the dislodged rocks tumble toward the bottom of the cliff 1,000 feet below. We weren't too proud to get off and lead over such spots! Also, your perspective lower down, off your horse, is much less intimidating than while mounted, and this may ease your fears.
  • Face the drop-off. If you must turn your horse around, whether mounted or not, turn him facing the drop-off, not facing away from it. I know that sounds counterintuitive (and dangerous) but it's definitely the safer way. Horses have a very good sense of where their head and front feet lie, but a less accurate sense of hind-foot placement. Turn your horse with his rump toward the drop-off, and his feet just may slip over the edge.
  • Carry a trail saw. It's worse than annoying to find your progress on a ledge trail halted because a lodgepole pine tree has fallen across it. A trail saw can prevent having to turn around in a tight spot and, perhaps, a climb back up the mountain.

However, if an obstacle totally stops your progress, have each member of your party turn around in place, each facing the drop-off in turn, then backtracking in reverse order. Don't juggle your horses for position in line while you're in a tight spot.

Weather Concerns
To climb in altitude is to progress toward fall or winter. It may be July at 3,000 feet, but climb beyond 9,000 feet and it's more like September or later. Travel high enough, and snow can fall on any day of the year. Watch weather forecasts, but be aware that rain below is likely to be snow above.

High altitude promotes rapidity of change. During summer, be prepared for all increments of weather, from hot to cold, dry to wet, sleet, wind, and snow.

Rain gear must be accessible at a moment's notice, and that nice warm vest you brought along has no value if it's buried so deeply in a pack that you can't access it without major delay.

Rainy weather points toward wool and synthetic fleece, materials that retain insulating properties even when wet. Cotton and down are worthless when soaked.

Prepare in other ways, as well. Does your horse allow you to don a rain slicker while mounted? Is it safe to do so, even with the wind whipping the garment around? The time to train for such things is at home, not when you're in a tight spot.

Lightning is a major worry at high elevations. Again, watch the weather forecasts. If you get caught up high during a thunderstorm, try to get down to lower elevation as quickly as possible. Avoid shelter under an isolated tree. Also, you're probably safer off your horse than on him, since your profile is lower.

Hit the High Trails!
When Emily and I traversed the 57 switchbacks that zigzag down the west side of Sundance Pass, we stopped at a meadow by a bridge, where clear water gurgled its way toward the trailhead.

We'd seen the perennial snow of 11,000 feet in elevation; the tops of eagles' wings as they flew far below us; the tundra grasses and buckbrush that now, in late August, were already taking on a tinge of fall colors.

We didn't linger long, for we still faced a long ride to the trailhead. But looking up at the mountaintop, where we'd been a couple of hours earlier, we felt a sense of exhilaration. We'd been there.

See you on the high trails!

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