Many years ago, on a pack trip with my two young sons, the importance of careful horse restraint in the backcountry was drummed into me with the sudden sounds of pounding hooves and crackling branches.
Camped in a spacious clearing a quarter mile above a United States Forest Service cabin, we'd done just one thing right, and it saved us a long walk to the trailhead.
Access to the cabin and park (Montanan for "clearing") was a bridge across a whitewater river. To contain our horses, almost as an afterthought, we put in place the pole left there by other packers. That single pole across the bridge rails, secured by baling wire, blocked the only feasible equine exit from the park.
What had we done wrong? We'd hobbled all our horses. They'd rolled, gratefully free of their saddles, and commenced grazing on the ample meadow grass. But we'd purchased old Mona, clan matriarch, from an outfitter who used this very drainage. She knew the ropes. And after taking the edge off her hunger, she suddenly loped down the trail, hobbles or no.
Panicked at the exit of their leader, the other horses followed frantically. The boys and I, equally panicked, sprinted toward the bridge. Mona beat us there. Chest against the pole we'd put in place, Mona stood, the other horses behind her, ready to cross and aim her herd toward the trailhead.
That said, hobbling is a viable horse-containment option while camping in the backcountry. Just don't hobble all your horses; keep at least one competent saddle horse tied short, preferably to a highline, at all times. Even seasoned mountain horses are homebodies, and sooner or later, they'll decide they're tired of the trip. The result can be a long, long walk.
(For a feature article from Dan Aadland on horse camping in the backcountry, see "Your Backcountry Camp" The Trail Rider, June '12.)
Hobbles consisting of two padded or leather pieces connected by a chain with swivel are easier on your horse than the single-strap type, but also allow more freedom.
Before you use hobbles in camp, train him at home on a soft surface, such as a sandy arena, in case he falls down. You can limit accidents by training your horse to freely yield to foot restraints. Such training doesn't take long, and it can pay big dividends down the trail.
To apply hobbles, place them on your horse's pasterns, just above the hooves, not on the cannon bones over easily damaged tendons. Yes, some tack catalogs show photos of hobbles on the cannon bones, but I've never seen an experienced outfitter place them there, and I'm convinced such placement increases the risk of injury.
For safety's sake, work from your horse's side, rather than in front of him; if you're bent down in front of his feet, he could barrel into you. And be especially careful while removing hobbles, since he'll be anxious to be free and may suddenly jerk his foot away, pinching your fingers.
Hobbles nearly immobilize some horses, but most soon learn to lift both front feet in unison and hop toward greener grass. For increased restraint, three-legged hobbles are available. These have a strap that extends from the center ring between a horse's front legs, back to one rear pastern.
Your horse can still move around to graze, but the characteristic hobble hop (that can quickly turn into a fast hobble lope) is denied him. Three-legged hobbles make sense in treeless areas, where rigging a highline is difficult.
Hobbling is light on the land, since it approximates free-range grazing. However, it's not an option where grazing is prohibited.
Picketing further restrains your hobbled horse. Use a rope 25 to 30 feet long and a hobble half. The rope must have a swivel, either on one end or in the middle, and be made from a nonabrasive material, such as soft nylon or a natural fiber.
Attach one end to a picket stake (I've also used large boulders and heavy logs), and the other to the hobble half. Always picket to one front foot pastern, never to the halter.
Your horse must be trained to hobble before he's attached to a picket rope. Once he's comfortable with hobbles, lead him around the round pen with the picket line attached to one front foot, then the other. When you first picket him out, take the slack out of the rope, and tug at his foot to remind him that he's restrained.
While picketing offers stronger restraint than hobbling, it's also harder on the terrain. Your horse will soon graze an unsightly circle, so move the picket line frequently. Picketing is an option only where grazing is legal.