Wilderness Horse Sense
By Ernest Doclar
Adding a horseback trip to a high adventure program provides Scouts and Venturers with both a different kind of wilderness experience and some valuable new lessons.
- Tips for Beginners
- A Philmont Cavalcade: Link to the Past, Incredible Memories
- Hikers and Horses
- For More Information
A photographer and I were hiking up a steep trail in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, on an assignment for Boys' Life. We both were huffing from the grueling ascent when the clop-plop, clop-plop of hooves on the rocky path announced that a string of horseback riders had overtaken us.
The wrangler at the lead halted his riders and mounts and then asked us to stand on the uphill side, well off into the brush, as he led the string past. We welcomed the excuse to drop our packs and kid the dudes as they rode by.
I had never given horse-trekking much thought. But at that moment, after laboring all morning under a heavy pack and a July sun, climbing from 8,500 feet to 11,000 feet altitude and then descending, I envied the riders.
And in my 50-plus years of Scouting, I've found that relatively few Boy Scout and Venturing units choose horseback when they consider high adventure.
The major reasons for this include the high cost of horse trips and the unavailability of horse strings. And raising the extra funds can require more planning, invention, commitment, and hard work.
But before you cut and run from horse-trekking, consider the pluses. Horseback trips can
- add a new dimension to high adventure, especially if your unit is tired of using the same locale or program activity.
- teach long-lasting lessons in responsibility (riders are expected to feed, water, and settle their animals for the night, then prepare them in the morning for the next day's leg).
- provide Scouts the opportunity to learn horsemanship and camping skills (and earn the Horsemanship merit badge).
You don't have to commit to a full horse trek right away. Try a local, get-acquainted ride first, to see if the Scouts or Venturers will maintain their initial enthusiasm about the idea.
Where to ride?
Take at least a year to prepare for a full outing. Some popular locations require advance reservations and a deposit.
Check if your Scout council or a neighboring council has horse programs. Also, some council high adventure programs that advertise in Scouting magazine include horseback riding.
Commercial outfitters advertise in outdoor magazines like Field & Stream, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, and Western Horseman. Horsemanship merit badge counselors, as well as local riding stables or clubs, may suggest places to ride.
Another helpful source is the Horsemanship Safety Association (see address in the For More Information sidebar).
To ensure that any commercial outfitter is a reputable, safe provider, ask for names and phone numbers of satisfied customersand then interview them.
The best choice for your first horse trip is with a BSA-associated council program or at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Staff members speak the Scouting lingo and operate under the highest standards of safety. And compared to the $150-a-day cost of a commercial outfitter, a Philmont cavalcade averages $49 a day per person ($390 for eight days).
See the booklet Passport to High Adventure (BSA Supply No. 4310) for a listing of councils offering horse-trekking programs.
Basic horse sense
Don't know a horse's withers from his forelock, or a saddle's pommel from its cantle?
Ask Horsemanship merit badge counselors if they or other local horse owners can assist you with a few familiarization sessions and rides for your Scouts.
Basic books on riding will help you master equine body and tack (articles of harness) nomenclature. A good start is the chapter "Riding and Packing" in the BSA Fieldbook (Supply No. 33200). Written by Stephen Zimmer, veteran trail rider and longtime director of museums at Philmont Scout Ranch, it offers a clear, concise introduction to horsemanship and trekking. Also helpful is the Horsemanship merit badge pamphlet (No. 33298).
The Horsemanship Safety Association's booklet, Horsemanship SafetyInstructor's Manual, notes that a person should approach every horse "with courtesy, tact, respect, and love." Horses also "appreciate a quiet tone of voice, soft touches, considerate treatment, and gratitude for a job well done."
Sounds like the way most humans like to be treated, doesn't it?
The booklet also points out: "Horses have personality, individuality, emotions, jealousy, loneliness. They show affection, suspicion, fear."
Knowing a bit about horse physiology helps.
For instance, horses can hear sounds at great distances. And a standing horse can see well at a distance, forward, up, down, andwithout swiveling its headfairly well to the rear. A grazing horse can't see objects directly over its head.
Finally, if your mount needs to urinate or defecate, there's nothing you can do to dissuade it.
BSA policy requires riders to wear helmets with chin straps. Also advisable is wearing a long-sleeved shirt and nonbaggy trousers, like narrow-legged jeans. For your feet, a sturdy pair of cowboy boots is best, but hiking footwear (without lug soles) will do.
Don't wear a canteen or other items on your belt that might poke the horse. If you need to don a poncho or other rain gear, halt and dismount to slip it on. Tie a rope or cinch a belt around your middle so the rain gear doesn't flap and spook the horse.
Is a horseback expedition worth the extra preparation and expense? Absolutely, if you ask the Scouts and Venturers from Woodville, Ohio, who participated in a Philmont cavalcade last summer.
You can read about their unforgettable high-adventure experience in "A Philmont Cavalcade", below.
A Scouting professional for 38 years [1956-1994], Ernie Doclar served as editor of Scouting magazine from 1990 until his retirement in 1994. San Francisco Bay Area Scouter Lew Gardner, as well as Bob Ricklefs and the Philmont horse staff, assisted in preparing this article.
Tips for Beginners
The staff of veteran wranglers at Philmont Scout Ranch offers these suggestions for novice riders:
A Philmont Cavalcade: Link to the Past, Incredible Memories
A horse string is a herd of horses from which ranch hands select their mounts. It's just one concept used in the description of the horse cavalcade, a special wilderness trek program available at Philmont Scout Ranch, the BSA national high adventure base in northern New Mexico.
For Don Rozick, assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 329, Woodville, Ohio, the idea of choosing a steed and seeing the backcountry on horseback rather than on foot sounded appealing.
"When I saw the information on the horse cavalcade," says Rozick, "I thought it would be a great program to keep the older kids involved." The co-ed crewthree adult advisers; six Scouts from Woodville's Troop 329 and Elmore, Ohio's, Troop 314; and four Venturers from Venturing Crew 329 in Woodvilledidn't realize it at the time, but by participating in a cavalcade, they were establishing a kinship with Philmont's first Scout trekkers of some five decades ago.
According to Bob Ricklefs, ranch superintendent, trekking by horseback was a standard program when Philmont opened in 1939. As backpacking become more popular, however, the horse cavalcade faded to extinction, until it was revived in the mid-70s.
The revival was no surprise to Ricklefs. "Seeing the backcountry while sitting on the back of a horse is the only way to go," he notes.
The Ohio Scouts used the 18 months between reserving a spot and the date of their trek to prepare for the rigors of riding three to eight hours at altitudes ranging from 6,500 feet to 11,000 feet.
Cavalcade Guidebook to Adventure, available only from Philmont, recommends completing the Horsemanship merit badge as a primer, so the crew contacted a neighbor who had a stable and indoor riding arena.
"We went through 10 hours of instruction," says Doug Sparks, an adult adviser. "They showed us how to put saddles on, what to do with feed bags, and which pants and boots work best."
Camping and riding in central Ohio's Mohican Wilderness Campground allowed them to condition new boots and pants, practice loading packhorses, strap on feed bags, tend their saddles (and saddle sores), and log some valuable "rein and mane" time. In the process, the Scouts completed their merit badge while the Venturers earned the Equestrian elective for Venturing's Ranger Award.
A great difference
Philmont's guidebook warns, "There is a great difference between eight hours in the saddle at Philmont and one or two hours of practice at your local stable."
On the cavalcade, the Ohio group realized how great the difference was when trails took their horses close to the edges of 1,000-foot cliffs. They also learned that rest came only after horses were fed and brushed and saddles stowed away. Novice equestrians, like Scout Adam Thieroff and Venturer Carrie Litten, were not known as early risers, but they became accustomed to getting up at 4 a.m. to strike camp, cook breakfast, and load packhorses. On the trail, a typical lunch of beef jerky, cheese, and cookies would tide the riders over until dinner.
Trail camps offered a variety of experiences. They tied their own fishing flies and landed trout from a cool stream. They panned for gold, though no one discovered enough to retire on. They practiced roping stationary "dogies" in preparation for the gymkhana, a Southwestern rodeo that concluded their cavalcade.
The rodeo provided a nice change of pace from the miles of trail-riding, as the crew members herded cattle and raced their horses in a figure-eight pattern around barrels. Venturer Ashley Harr won the figure-eight competition.
Experiences like these allowed the Scouts and Venturers to bring home much more than the traditional Philmont brand burned onto their hats and boots. Other brandsthe unforgettable moments and personal triumphswill be forever etched in their memories.
Hikers and Horses
You should know how to act while riding as you meet hikers or as a hiker when you encounter riders.
Riders. Follow the advice of the wrangler. Don't overtake another horse and rider unless the wrangler O.K.'s it. Loaded horse strings headed uphill usually have the right-of-way over strings headed downhill.
Wranglers will usually ask overtaken hikers to stop walking and wait alongside the uphill side of the trail as the horse string passes.
Hikers. Stand well off the trail, keeping quiet so as not to alarm the animals. Do not pet or startle the horses in any way.
If hikers want to overtake the horse string, the lead hiker should ask the tail wrangler's permission to do so.
For More Information
Additional information on safety around horses and riding instructor education/certification is available from the Horsemanship Safety Association, Inc., 517 Bear Rd., P.O. Box 2710, Lake Placid, FL 33862-2710; phone (800) 798-8106, fax (863) 699-5577. Its Horsemanship SafetyInstructor's Manual costs $8.25 postpaid.
Also check Backcountry Horse Use, part of the Leave No Trace Skills and Ethics Series, vol. 3.2, July 1997, from the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), 288 Main St., Lander, WY 82520-3140, (307) 332-1292. Call toll free (888) 332-3636 or order electronically at http://mailorder.nols.edu; price is 75 cents.
Soft Paths: How to Enjoy the Wilderness Without Harming It, by Bruce Hampton and David Cole, from Stackpole Books, 1995, has information on low-impact horse packing; check local bookstores. The book is also available from NOLS, as well as Leave No Trace (LNT), for $14.95. LNT can be contacted at (800) 332-4100; its Web site is http://www.lnt.org.
Finally, your Scout council service center can tell you how to arrange a council or Philmont cavalcade (horse) trip.
May-June 2000 Table of Contents
Copyright © 2000 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.
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