Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Trail Riding Etiquette, Part I

I don’t need to tell you that there are no “official” rules for trail riding, like there are for, say, driving. But there are some commonly accepted practices that I think are good to remind ourselves of every once in a while. And while the word “etiquette” implies good manners, trail etiquette is as much about safety as it is about courtesy. Horses are herd animals and prey animals and this is the driving force behind how they think. Most horses do not like to be “abandoned” and can get upset if they feel this is occurring. When they encounter something which they perceive as frightening, their natural prey animal reaction is to jump (and run). Much of what is listed below comes from an understanding of these facts.

When encountering hikers and bikers

  • Ideally hikers and bikers will yield to a rider.
  • When encountering hikers or bikers, talk to them and get them to talk to you. Hikers with backpacks and bikers with helmets do not look human. Explain this to them and ask them to speak so that your horse will understand that this “thing” is actually just a person.
  • Ask them to stand off on downhill side of the trail. Once again, horses are prey animals and often attacked from above, so keep the scary looking thing down low. It can also be easier to control a horse going uphill if he spooks.
  • Stay relaxed yourself and keep talking to the hiker and your horse if he is nervous.
  • Find out if there are more in their party and tell them how many in your party.
  • Thank them for their cooperation and be kind and courteous. We are all out there to enjoy ourselves.


  • I think we all understand the problems that loose dogs can cause, so I will suffice it to say: if you can’t control your dog (with your voice from horseback) or he is ill-mannered with other people or animals, leave him at home.

Other horses

  • In theory, single riders will yield to pack strings. Be prepared for this not to be the case (see item “3d").
  • In theory, downhill riders will yield to uphill riders. Be prepared for this not to be the case (see item “3d").
  • Do not try to squeeze by other horses, you are asking for all kinds of trouble. Instead, give yourself plenty of room to go around.
  • I generally yield to anyone coming up or down the trail if I can because I know my animals and my riding ability. I don’t know their animals or their riding ability. So I take the safer route and yield myself.
  • If it is a narrow trail with no way to move off to let another pass, decide who should turn around.
  • Always turn your horse to the down hill side. He can see his front feet and won’t step off the trail. He cannot see his back feet or where he is putting them as well, so you want to keep those on the trail.
  • Unless you know the oncoming horse and rider and their abilities, it is safest to assume that the horse and rider are both inexperienced and be prepared that anything could happen as you or they go by.

You want to maintain a distance of about one horse length between horses while going down the trail. This leaves you time and space to react safely in the event of an accident in front of you.

When you encounter a short bridge on the trail, walk the horses across one at a time. Allow more than the usual single horse length between each horse over longer bridges.

For your safety and the safety of others around you, pay attention to your horse and keep him under control. Keep a peripheral eye on the rest of the horses and the environment around you. Being prepared for anything to happen can often prevent a bad wreck.

Think like a horse, especially if you are the leader of the group. If you look at objects on the trail like a prey animal (is it unfamiliar or potentially dangerous), you can help prepare yourself for anything. Once again preparation and awareness can be the difference between a controlled flight and a bad wreck.

Next time, I'll talk about some additional issues including some Leave No Trace principles. In the meantime, remember that following basic trail etiquette can help ensure the safety of you, your horse safe and others who you ride with or meet on the trail.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

How much weight can my horse carry? Part II

As I mentioned before, we are regularly asked how much weight a horse can carry, whether its the rider, saddlebags, hornbags, pack loads, etc. In Part I, I discussed how each horse needs to be individually evaluated for each ride taking into account certain conditions such as his fitness, length of ride, weather and temperature, etc. In this session, I will discuss the rest of the criteria list.

Live weight versus dead weight
It is important to remember that live weight (i.e. a rider) rides differently than dead weight (i.e. a pack load of any kind) and the 20% of body weight rule doesn't necessarily apply to live weight. A rider can move and shift in the saddle to compensate for rough terrain and can get off and walk. A good rider is also easier for a horse to carry than an inexperienced one. An experienced rider in a good fitting saddle on a fit horse could be fine on a long, tough ride, even if the combined weight of saddle and rider is more than 20% of the animal's body weight.

Packing the load
Dead weight, on the other hand, does not have the ability to adjust to terrain changes and, therefore, must be carefully packed to stay put and be comfortable for the animal to carry regardless of conditions. Remember, gravity works. Once dead weight begins to slide off to one side, it has the tendency to keep going. This can upset your animal, cause soring or, even worse, cause a wreck.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules on how to pack a load. It depends upon what you are packing, your equipment, your animal and all of the other conditions listed in Part I. However, there is one rule to always bear in mind: equal size, equal weight and equal weight distribution. If you follow this rule, you should generally have less trouble packing a load.
  • Equal size. It is easier to balance a load that is the same size on each side. This is easy with panniers and saddlebags, which have a fixed size. It is more difficult with mantied loads. This is one reason I recommend panniers to beginning packers.
  • Equal weight. Any kind of load should be balanced from one side to the other. This means that if your panniers, saddlebags or hornbags do not weigh the same, you need to balance the lighter side by hanging something else off of that side such as your rifle scabbard, pack saw, camp axe or another such item.
  • Equal weight distribution. Try to pack each pannier, saddlebag or hornbag so that the weight is distributed evenly throughout. Do not pack all of the grain in the front of one pannier and your down sleeping bag in the back.
Additionally, while weight rides better and is carried better higher up the animal's sides, be careful not to make a load top heavy. Once again, gravity works. A top heavy load is more likely to slip and once dead weight begins to slide off to one side, it has the tendency to keep going. And remember that the top pack is meant for bulky, lightweight items.

Both pack saddles and riding saddles need to fit well to be effective and not cause additional problems. A poorly fitting saddle will not properly distribute weight across the horse's back. If the fit is particularly bad, it can cause sore muscles or even open wounds. Before loading any weight on your animal, be sure to double check the fit and condition of your saddle. (Also be sure to use a good saddle or pack pad and check to ensure that it is clean on the side next to the animal. Grass seeds, burrs, crusty spots of dirty sweat can all cause a sore to develop on your animal).

When loading saddlebags, the weight and ability of the rider should be factored with the horse's size and condition as well as with the fit of the saddle. An inexperienced rider can unknowingly throw the horse off balance and too much extra weight in the saddlebags (especially if badly packed) will make recovery more difficult. Additionally, poorly designed saddlebags can hang too low or constantly shift, which can irritate your horse and put extra strain on him.

No simple answer
There is never a black and white answer to the question "How much weight can my horse carry?" The answer always has to be determined on an individual basis considering the factors listed in Part I. You know, most of these items are simple common sense, but so many of the "horror" stories that I have been told over the years could have easily been prevented if the people involved had just critically and honestly judged their animals against this list. So remember, if you have any doubts at all about your horse's ability to do whatever task you want to ask of him, make adjustments, live without some things or just don't do it.

Monday, May 22, 2006

How much weight can my horse carry? Part I

We got a call last week from another up and coming Long Rider from Vermont. Like Bernice Ende, she will also be riding with just a saddle horse, so weight is a huge concern for her. Having addressed this question with her, I thought it would also be useful information to post.

We get this question in reference to all manner of weight: the rider, western saddlebags, hornbags, pack loads, etc. Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Just like humans, some horses will be able to comfortably carry more weight than others. The only way to determine how much weight your horse can carry to evaluate each animal and each trip individually.

Factors to consider
For every ride you plan, you should take the following into account when determining each animal’s load size.
  • Size and weight of animal
  • Condition and health of the animal
  • Conditioning and fitness of the animal
  • Conformation of the animal
  • Attitude of the animal
  • Age of animal
  • Size, fit and weight of the riding/pack saddle
  • Ability of the riding/pack saddle to distribute weight across the animal’s back
  • Weight of the rider or pack load
  • Ability of the rider
  • Design of the packs or horse saddlebags
  • Distance of the ride
  • Type of terrain
  • Altitude
  • Temperature and weather conditions
Many of these are self explanatory, but I do want to touch on some important points.

Percentage of body weight
When packers ask me how much weight they can safely pack on a horse or mule, I give them the basic rule of thumb of 20% of the animal's body weight, depending on all of the factors in the list above. To pack a heavy load, an animal needs to be in good health. This doesn't just refer to whether or not he has a cold, but whether his feet are in good condition and properly shod or trimmed, whether he has any bites or sores in spots where they could be irritated by the gear and whether he is well rested and prepared for the trip ahead. Good fitness means your animal should be regularly and well exercised.

Individual Assessment
I can not stress enough that you have to know your animal and for every trip you need to evaluate at least the animal’s condition as well as the temperature, distance and terrain of your ride and base your load weight on those factors. A long ride on uneven terrain at the height of summer requires animals in peak condition. An animal should also be given time to acclimate to a change in altitude. Humans are not the only ones who can suffer from altitude sickness. If your animal is not up to the task you are asking of him, you may be endangering not only his life, but yours as well.

As examples of individual assessments, I once owned a tough, raw-boned mule named Henry. Henry only weighed about 1100 pounds, but he could pack a 250 pound load for 15 miles in hot weather and dance the whole way. However, I currently have a mule, Daisy, who is pushing 35 and would be retired if she didn’t pitch such a fit when she gets left behind. Daisy’s loads typically weigh in at maybe 15% of her body weight. We all walk a little slower to accommodate her and I keep her in mind when deciding how far we’ll go each day.

The animal's conformation can be a factor in how well your pack load or horse saddlebags ride. For instance, a low withered animal will need to be packed carefully and evenly because even a minor difference from one side to the other can cause the saddle to constantly shift as you go down the trail. At best, this is an inconvenience causing you to constantly adjust. At worst, the saddle could slip completely and cause a wreck. In another example, a short-backed horse may not be able to carry large western saddlebags as they will sit uncomfortably too far back on the horse's rump.

In the next blog, I will touch on the other points in the above list, including differences between live weight and dead weight and some points on successfully packing a load.

    Wednesday, May 17, 2006

    Comfortable Trail Saddles

    I was thinking about that ride that I took with my wife and her daughter, Allyson. Allyson has ridden horses for years, but more as a competing hunter/jumper. Trail riding in a western saddle has been a rarer experience for her. She used my wife's Circle Y Flex Lite Trail Saddle and loved it. I told her she should share her experience with other people and that she could use my blog to do it.

    Hey, Everyone! It's Allyson. I just wanted to tell you about this last trail ride and especially the saddle because it was so comfortable for me. I am currently in the market for a western trail saddle and thought I would share my experience in case any of you are going through the same thing.

    As Russ said my background with horses is mostly as a hunter/jumper, but since moving to Montana and mostly riding trail, I have been riding western saddles. I have not bought my own yet, but instead ride whatever is on the horse I am riding. Well, since my mom got a new Tucker Equitation Endurance Saddle (that she absolutely will not share, by the way), I was allowed to ride her Circle Y Flex Lite. What a super comfortable saddle. I think it was so comfortable for me, not so much because of the padded seat, which was great, but because I could sit in a more upright position, more similar to an English position than other western saddles have allowed me. And I wasn't stuck there, either. As the day progressed and I got tired, I was able to sit back more on my pockets (as my western riding friends would say) and was still as comfortable as before.

    The seat in the Flex Lite isn't really wide either. That has been another complaint of mine with other saddles. Sometimes they are just so wide and flat that they "get me" right on the inside of my upper thigh. But this one was great. Still wider than my English saddle, but really comfortable and so much more secure.

    And I could saddle the horse myself. I am not a wimp or anything, but sometimes the western saddles that people have had for me to use have just been so heavy that is was miserable to saddle the horse. But this one is light enough that I could get the saddle up on Rusty (Russ' old trail horse) without any trouble. So this Circle Y Flex Lite is now the front runner in my quest for a western saddle.

    Now, if I could just get that Tucker away from my mom to try....!

    Friday, May 12, 2006

    Bernice Ende makes it to Big Sandy

    Bernice called us today to say that she rode into Big Sandy last night. They are taking a well-deserved, three-day break. She sounded very happy and upbeat, although excited about a shower and a bed.

    During our conversation, she told us that since she left Badger Creek, she was not been able to find natural water along the way, so she had to stop multiple times during the day to ask people for water at their houses. But she said, "People are so nice!" Everyone she has met since she set out has been interested in what she is doing and very supportive. She is often fed and watered as well by people she meets.

    She also mentioned that all of her gear is working so well and she couldn't be happier. We had tried to address all of her concerns and problems from last year with her saddle and saddlebags with a new Tucker High Plains Trail Saddle and a set of TrailMax Saddlebags, but until the gear is truly put to the test, it can be hard to know whether everything is just right. Bernice says that the saddle is so light and comfortable for her. There are no sores or rub marks on Honor. She had no idea that the Tucker would be such an improvement over her old saddle. And she is really excited about being able to trot a lot in perfect comfort.

    Wednesday, May 10, 2006

    Postcards from the Trail

    We received our first postcard from Bernice today. Check it out.

    Camped outside Valier. Corrals just 1/4 mi. W. of town. Walked into town for supplies - looks like long stretch of not much but open vast prairie ahead. Passed through Bl. Feet reservation - many stopped - very curious - fed me - beer for each night - Holding up well - going slow - tired yes but finding plenty of grass and water. B

    Bernice promised us as many postcards as she can, so we'll post them as we get them. If you aren't familiar with Bernice and her journey, you can find out more on our website at www.outfitterssupply.com/long_rider_bernice_ende.

    Monday, May 08, 2006

    Testing the new trail horse

    I took a trail ride with my wife, Maxine, and her daughter, Allyson, last weekend. This was my second ride out on my new trail horse, Marley. We started out from the Buffalo Bridge across the Flathead River on the Salish-Kootenai tribal land. I think you can take the trail probably 40 or 50 miles downstream, but we only went about 4 or 5 miles. Then we turned off the trail and followed cow trails and game trails through open country back to where we started. We past a couple of old homesteads on our way. It was a beautiful day.

    But, the point of this was to tell you about Marley. I was only half-seriously looking for a new trail horse when a customer of ours came in and told me about Marley. He was being sold by a neighbor of a friend, so we went over and checked him out. As hard as I tried, I couldn't find a reason NOT to buy him. He has so many of my qualities of a good trail horse that it was hard to pass him up.

    Our first test was working cattle with a friend who runs his cattle on 80 sections in eastern Montana. As an ex-roping horse, I knew Marley had had experience with cattle, but I wasn't sure what to expect. He was great. He worked the cattle all day, he rode away from the herd and the other horses to fetch strays, he loaded in the trailer and was calm and level-headed about all of it. I don't have cattle of my own and don't really need a cow horse per se, but it is great to be able to help a friend and to have a horse that is willing and capable. That is a real bonus with Marley.

    Back to the trail ride, Marley was great there too. He has a nice trot that is easy to sit and he was content to be in the front or in the back. I am still looking for the hole in him. Which reminds me of a story. I met an old guy once who had been riding and training horses for close to 70 years. And I asked him if, in all those years, he had ever had the perfect horse. He thought for a minute and then said, "Boy, he'd be a good one, wouldn't he?"

    Friday, May 05, 2006

    Long Rider Bernice Ende Embarks on her 5,000-mile Journey

    At 10:00 this morning, Long Rider Bernice Ende mounted her Thoroughbred mare, Honor, whistled to her dog, Claire, and they set off down Heart Butte Cut Off Road outside East Glacier, Montana. They are bound for Waconia, Minnesota, where they will take their first break on this 5,000-mile journey around the western United States. Bernice has given herself 11 weeks to get to Waconia so that they can take their time on this first leg. She figured this averages out to 100 miles a week or about 16-17 miles per day, which is a little more than half of her average last year. But she wants to give everyone time to work up to that level. And she wants to have plenty of extra time in her schedule in case they find a beautiful spot where they would like to spend a couple of days.

    I met Bernice when she walked into the store to trade her old saddle for something lighter. We talked for a long time and by the end of the afternoon, we had her outfitted with a Tucker Saddle and our TrailMax Saddlebag system. She is so pleased with her new set up. It has solved several problems she had last year. The Tucker Saddle weighs at least 10 pounds less than her old saddle. And the saddlebags that she used last year were too wide, causing her load to be sloppy. She had to hold it snug with multiple bungee cords. Now she has saddlebags that can be secured to the saddle quickly (one of her requirements) and will stay completely balanced and in place.

    Anyway, Bernice has promised to keep us posted on her progress with postcards from the trail. I'll let you know when I get the next one.

    Thursday, May 04, 2006

    Dragged into the 21st Century

    I have officially joined the online revolution and become a blogger. If you had asked me 2 years ago if I wanted to have my own blog, I would have first asked you "What's a blog?" and then immediately said "no". But, so many people are getting information and advice online. I thought this could be a great forum for people like us who love to get out into the backcountry with their horses and mules.

    So I am hoping to use this forum to share with all of you things that I have learned after 20+ years of packing and trail riding in the Bob Marshall Wilderness area and other places around Montana and the Pacific Northwest. Invariably, this will spark a comment from someone else who had a similar experience, or even a completely different one. Which is what makes this blog such a great forum for us. Join our Outfitters Supply blog and you can contribute as often as you like.