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. Here’s one of my most memorable push-the-envelope rides.
Though my wife, Emily, and I joked with the young couple who’d volunteered to shuttle our pickup and trailer to the trailhead at our destination, I suspect we both felt a little uneasy deep in the pits of our stomachs. The day ride we’d planned wasn’t excessively long for horses in shape—just 20 miles—but these would be challenging miles.
From the parking lot at the Lake Fork trailhead south of Red Lodge, Montana, we’d climb nearly 4,000 feet to Sundance Pass, just over 11,000 feet in elevation, then plummet into the West Fork valley, a descent with more than 50 switchbacks in less than a mile.
Several decades earlier, much younger and in far better shape, I’d twice hiked over this pass, once on a recreational reconnaissance for the Marine Reserve unit I commanded at the time, then, the very next weekend, at the head of a company of gung ho Marines.
Our purpose in riding today was two-fold: We’d check on reports that the trail had deteriorated, and we’d satisfy that craving for adventure that crops up now and then.
We said goodbye to our friends and mounted up for an unforgettable ride ascending through timber, past lakes, then above the timberline to the perpetual snow on the final summit of Sundance Pass.
Yes, the trail had deteriorated, particularly on the switchbacks down into the next valley, where we led our horses part of the way over sections where the gravel underfoot resembled ball bearings that slid out and over the edge to plummet hundreds of feet down the nearly-vertical mountainside.
Would we do it again? Perhaps not, at least until the trail is considerably improved. Are we glad we went? Absolutely.
Rides that push the envelope just a bit are often the ones that make memories, and we’ll never forget the performance of our stalwart geldings, Redstar and Little Mack.
Stay safe, yes. But now and then, tackle an adventure.
A free-lance writer, Dan Aadland has published in Western Horseman, Equus, Horse and Rider, The Western Horse, and, of course, Voice of the Tennessee Walking Horse. He also teaches writing workshops. Six of his seven books--Treading Lightly with Pack Animals, Horseback Adventures, Sketches from the Ranch: A Montana Memoir, The Complete Trail Horse, 101 Trail Riding Tips, and The Best of All Seasons: Fifty Years as a Montana Hunter--are horse related, each featuring Tennessee Walking Horses in western settings.