Taking your horse along for a camping trip opens up a whole new world of trail riding adventures. Horse-camping allows you to go farther and stay longer, and will help you develop a whole new relationship with your horse. You'll be limited only by your personal time, the weather, and how much you can conveniently take with you.
But before you load up and head off for an overnight with your horse, you'll need to invest some forethought into preparing and planning for your trip.
1. Do Your Homework
First, how much camping experience do you have? If you're a veteran outdoors person, great. If you're not, don't let that discourage you. Just keep in mind that when you take a horse camping, it adds a whole new dimension to the outing.
To get a preview of what's involved, it's a good idea to attend an expo or seminar that offers horse-camping clinics or demonstrations. This will help you identify opportunities, decide what kind of outing most appeals to you, and what kind of skills and gear you'll need. For example, there's a world of difference, say, between setting up camp at a KOA site next to your truck and trailer, and an outing that requires you to ride into a wilderness area with everything you need for survival on the back of your horse.
Great Get-Away Tips
• First time out? Try a guided horse-camping trip to learn the ropes.
• Contact national, state and local land agencies to find the best horse-camping spots in your area.
• Protect wilderness areas by feeding "certified weed-free" feeds.
• Confirm your campsite's drinking water supply; be prepared to provide your own.
• Create packing lists for both you and your horse.
• "Leave no trace" by packing out everything you take with you.
If you've never horse-camped, the ideal situation is to go with someone experienced. Join an organized overnight ride, and be sure to tell the outfitter that it's your first horse campout. That way you can be partnered with a veteran on a seasoned horse, who will help impart a measure of confidence in your horse, too.
Also consider joining a horse-camping club or organization, so you'll have the support and know-how you need to get started. Regardless of how many miles of trails they seem to have under their horses' hooves, horse-campers seem especially willing, ready and able to help newcomers.
Second, has your horse ever camped? Some horses readily adapt to camping. It's like they do it everyday. Others become basket cases when the first pine needles hit the ground! Naturally, the more you trail ride, the better your horse becomes when traveling the trail. And the more a horse goes camping, the more accepting he becomes of the changes in his surroundings.
It's been said that you never really know someone until you live with them. Horse-camping is a bit like that. It provides a unique opportunity for you and your horse to get to know one another-perhaps better than you ever have before. You'll eat together, drink together, wake together, and traverse the trails together, enjoying the sights, sounds and sensations that go along with discovering new places.
Be aware, though, that your horse may not appreciate the outing quite as much as you do-at least not at first. He may be nervous and distracted on the trail. He may fidget and fuss in camp. He may stamp and whinny throughout the night, and act like a far different animal than his usual, confident self.
But whether you're out for a night or the weekend, be considerate. Pay special attention to your horse's physical and emotional needs, and try not to ride him too long or too hard. And whether you're on the trail or tending to him back at camp, be calm and consistent in how you apply your cues. Use the language he knows and respects to refocus his attention and reinforce his good manners.
By keeping your side of the relationship bargain, you'll confirm that you're worthy of your horse's trust-and he'll learn to relax and look to you for security, no matter where your travels take you.
With horses, it's all about exposure to new places and new things. Whenever you go camping, you're changing the horse's "home" environment, and that's likely to make him feel insecure at first. You'll need to be patient as you work through his quirks.
For example, the horse who lives in a box stall bedded with shavings will be nervous when put into an open corral, paddock or pen. In contrast, a horse used to being at pasture may feel nervous when confined to a stall, paddock or corral because he's used to wandering freely.
To find out how your horse may react to changes in his environment, try camping out at your own barn first, or haul to a friend's place. To a horse, just moving from indoors to outdoors, or going to a new stable, is "camping," until he gets used to it and learns to relax and to feel "at home."
To start preparing your horse for your camping trip, put the stalled horse into an outdoor corral or pen, no roof or shavings-or put the claustrophobic pasture horse in a stall or small pen. Feed and water him, and let him spend the night. You can monitor your horse by "camping out" with him. It's better to find out how your horse will react to such changes in environment when he's in safe surroundings than to haul 100 miles from home only to discover he's stressed-out and worrying himself sick.
Incidentally, one indication that your horse has accepted his new surroundings is when he relaxes enough to lie down to rest, even in the dirt!
Also, consider how good your horse is at standing tied. Many campsites have no corrals, pens, stalls or structures to contain horses. So your camping horse will have to be tied to a trailer, put into portable panels (brought from home) or "high-lined." A high-line is a rope, spanning two trees, strung well over ear level. The horse is tied to the line in a stationary spot, which allows him to move around a pivot point and to lie down to rest when he wants to.
A good camping horse should be used to standing tied for long periods of time-overnight or possibly even longer. He should not paw, weave, or pull back. You'll want to teach your horse to stand quietly at home. If you have doubts about his safety when tied, find out in advance what kind of horse-holding facilities are available at your camping destination, and stick to those that offer a safe place to contain your horse-or be prepared to bring your own portable corral.
2. Choose Where You'll Camp
Finding horse-friendly campsites is simple-you just need to know where to look. Start by asking experienced horse-campers where they like to go. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has millions of acres available for horse-camping and trail riding. You can write, call, e-mail or drop into your local USFS office to obtain maps and advice as to where horses are allowed.
Hold Your Horses
Depending on where you camp, you may have to corral your horses, or use a high-line or picket-line to keep them with you.
To set up a picket-line, string the rope chest-high to the horses. Horses are usually tied one on each side along the picket, so they can move only in a half circle on the line.
To install a high-line, you'll string a rope between two immovable objects-usually two trees-well above the horses' ears, usually 6-8 feet. Horses are tied to the high-line in a stationary spot, which gives them the freedom to move in a full circle beneath it.
If more than one horse is being high-lined, you'll want to allow enough space between them so they don't crowd or annoy one another. If tied correctly, a horse should not be able to get away or injure himself if he pulls back on the high-line. Because the tension on the halter and lead rope comes from well above the horse's head, it reduces his leverage advantage, while still allowing the horse to lie down when he needs to rest.
Many National Parks are also open to horse-camping, as are some of the lands managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. West of the Mississippi, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also offers horse-camping facilities, many of which are free. Facilities range from those with a few corrals, pens, tie racks, pit toilets and picnic tables, to first-class camps with corrals, barbeques, showers, flush toilets and running water.
In addition to federal lands, consider contacting state and local agencies. Many state parks, city, county, and local agencies have trail systems, with some allowing camping at trailheads and in trail camps. Plus, there are private horse-camps that cater to trail riding enthusiasts, and offer special events to go along with the camping experience.
When deciding where you want to go, think about how you actually want to spend your time camping. Do you plan to camp out of your RV, or do you want to rough-it in a tent or on a bed roll? Exactly how you want to set up camp will influence where you want to go with your horses.
Horse-camps generally fit into one of three categories: developed, semi-developed and primitive.
Developed-Can be first class and just about like home living. Corrals, pens, paddocks, wash racks, hook-ups for RVs or trailers, easy access and parking, showers, toilets. Some even offer cabins, meals, feed for your horses, stall cleaning and guided rides. For the first-time campers, a developed horse camp is a great destination.
Semi-developed-Usually has some type of pit toilets. May or may not have corrals, pens or paddocks for horses. Don't expect wash racks or hook-ups for your RV. Access is often via a dirt road. There are lots of semi-developed campgrounds on federal lands.
Primitive or wilderness-No amenities here. On the map, X marks the spot where you'll likely find a scenic view near a stream or river where you can make camp. The road access may be rutted and rough. You'll have to bring everything you need-including safe drinking water for both humans and horses. But primitive and wilderness camping offers some of the most relaxing types of horse-camps. There are generally fewer people around, and you really develop your camping and trail expertise through self-reliance.
3. Pick a Good Time of Year
For some riders, horse-camping is a weekend excursion. For others, it's a full-fledged vacation. Depending on where you live, you'll probably want to go north in the summer and south in the winter. If you're staying close to home, plan your trip during mild weather, when nights aren't too cold and days aren't too hot. Also, take bug season into consideration. You and your horse might want to stay home when the mosquitoes are biting and the bees are swarming.
In large national parks such as Yosemite and Lassen Volcanic, horse-camps are generally full in the summer months. You may have to make reservations months or possibly a year or more in advance. But spring and fall often have openings. If your personal vacation time allows it, camp Monday through Thursday, avoiding crowded weekends. Usage fees are usually cheaper mid-week in private camps, too.
Again, select a horse-camp to meet your level of experience. That first trip should be fun and exciting, never dangerous or uncomfortable. You'll want to be well prepared and well equipped if you're planning to head into the wilderness!
4. Pack Plenty of Feed & Water
When contacting individual horse-camps or agencies, inquire about feed restrictions. In some states "certified weed-free" feed is required whenever you're on public lands, whether at trailheads, in designated campsites, traveling the backcountry, or simply parked in a parking area. If certified weed-free feed is required, ask for a list of where to buy it, and make sure you have it in your trailer before going onto the lands.
If baled feeds are not available, ask about certified weed/seed-free pellets. Many states have manufacturers who process pelleted feeds at temperatures high enough to qualify them as weed/seed-free. Elk Grove Milling in California, for example, has a certified pellet that is good for use on all federal lands in California.
Just remember that if a specific type of feed is required and it's different from what you normally feed at home, you'll need to change your horse's diet gradually over a five- to seven-day period (possibly longer) prior to your trip. For example, if changing from grain and hay to a complete pelleted feed, or even from one kind of hay to another, do it well in advance so you don't put your horse at risk of colic or other potential health problems.
Also, when camping, don't allow horses to graze on green meadow grass if your horse is not accustomed to eating fresh forage at home. Colic is one thing you want to avoid at anytime, but especially when horse-camping, where the chance for help may be far away!
Even more important-think water! It's the most vital of requirements. Remember that horses drink about 12 gallons of water a day. Find out if water is available in a stream that flows all year long, or whether it's supplied via a pipe system that's in good repair. Some streams are seasonal, and often pipes break, so plan a back-up.
Take enough water to last at least two days for each horse. This may mean taking full plastic jugs and refilling them. Water in a camp may not be potable for humans, so take plenty of water for yourself, too. If you're camping out of your horse trailer, you can usually have a water tank installed in your tack compartment or dressing area.
5. Prepare for Departure
When traveling, you should always carry papers that prove your horse ownership, plus any health certificates and current Coggins results required by states you plan to drive through.
In some eastern states, health certificates are required to get into state parks or private horse camps.
Also plan vaccination boosters for your horse around camping season, so you know he'll be protected from communicable diseases. And don't forget to update routine vaccinations (West Nile virus, tetanus, flu, rabies). Ask your vet what else may be recommended for the regions in which you may be traveling, such as Potomac Horse Fever, etc.
Before you head out, schedule an appointment with your shoer. Horses should be shod at least one week before a trip. This allows the shoes to seat themselves on the hooves, and for you to get a couple of rides in at home. Ask your farrier what he recommends in case a shoe comes loose or gets pulled off. If you're capable of resetting a shoe yourself, have your farrier make an extra set of shoes to take with you. Just be sure to label which hoof each shoe goes on-left front (LF), right front (RF), left hind (LH), right hind (RH)-and get some nails to fit the shoe holes. If you're not comfortable hammering on a set of horseshoes, no problem. Just carry along a set of emergency hoof boots.
6. Make a List-Check It Twice
Your horse-camping checklist should include everything required to keep your horse healthy and comfortable. Think "necessities"-feed, water, buckets, blankets (both summer and winter, rain and snow), halters, lead ropes, hammer, nails, fly sprays, saddles, pads, bridles, brushes, first aid kit, medications, food, water, and so on. Write it all down, so you can check off your list as you pack your rig.
Do the same for yourself, so you make sure you've got the essentials: clothing, extra socks, outerwear, boots, food, emergency equipment, spare tire, tire jack, firewood, toothbrush, medications, books, camera, toilet paper, bath towels and soap, etc. Check off this list, too.
Once you and your horse settle into a camping routine, you'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner! Plus, as trips expand, you'll discover other camps and hear of this or that great spot. You'll find you're enjoying one of the fastest growing recreational trail riding adventures: horse-camping!