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Postby postholer » Tue Dec 15, 2009 6:56 pm

By Ed Anderson/MendoRider

I have been asked by The LONG RIDERS GUILD to write about safety tips for equestrians who would want to ride the Pacific Crest Trail. I rode most of the trail solo, virtually unsupported, from the Mexican border to that of Canada. It was a 2-spring/summer journey, in 2008 and 2009. My companion was my Arabian endurance horse, Primo. He was never injured, nor did he ever have symptoms of colic or azoturia.

I would like to point out that very few equestrians have attempted to thru-ride the PCT. My research has revealed the sad and unfortunate fact that the horses, in almost every case that I am aware of, have either suffered from colic, been seriously injured, or even lost their lives during the journey. Recognize that, as a rider, your primary responsibility is to always look out for the safety and well-being of your horse - to take care as you travel that your horse will not become injured, dehydrated, or suffer from colic. Allow plenty of time for your horse(s) to graze and drink, both along the trail and in camp. The following is a description of my approach and why it kept Primo safe.


First, I will write about COLIC on the trail. Colic can be life-threatening. On the PCT it is usually caused by abrupt changes of diet. You should take care to assure, by planning ahead, that there will be as much consistency as possible in what your horse eats. To assure that consistency, I decided to carry a mixture of three kinds of processed feed. I gradually eased Primo into that diet during about three weeks prior to beginning my rides of both 2008 and 2009. The mixture was one-third each of alfalfa pellets, Equine Senior, and cob with molasses. During the two journeys I fed an average of six pounds of this feed per day. On the trail I carried all horse feed in the pommel bags. If needed, I could carry up to 27 pounds. Since I traveled unsupported, I drove my rig ahead and cached (buried and well camouflaged) Primo's food and mine at road crossings and trailheads. I would then park my rig at some prearranged location that I would be able to ride to and then return south to where I had last left Primo in good care. This was also prearranged. Here is an important tip: To keep animals out of your caches put all food in OpSaks. This product is available from REI and on-line. It is 100% odor proof and does not allow food odors to escape. It really works! I used OpSaks in caches and also in camp. I also used mothballs in cotton tobacco sacks to repel bears). By caching, I could resupply myself without having to schedule people to meet us all along the way with whatever feed they happen to bring. If they, with good intentions, bring you quality alfalfa and grain that is not included in your horse's regular diet along the trail, there is a risk of colic. You should never feed your horse grain when he is very tired (better yet, don't allow him to become very tired and stressed). Don't try to cover too many miles per day. I only averaged about 17 miles per day. (the distance ranged from 6 miles to nearly 30 miles since I was always seeking camps with both graze and water). Take your time and allow your horse to graze, whenever possible, throughout the day. This is what horses do in nature. I usually tried to reach our camps by about 4:00 PM or sooner to allow plenty of time for Primo to graze. I hobbled and belled him while grazing (always keep an eye on your horse even when he is hobbled) and put him on his highline at night. I always set up my tent as close to Primo as possible. He got his processed feed from his feed bag, usually three pounds in the evening and another three pounds in the morning before his morning graze. I sometimes took layover days if I was in a good camp with plenty of graze for Primo. Do not allow your horse to become dehydrated, offer him water whenever possible. Also, discuss this trip with your veterinarian before starting. He or she may assist you with emergency medications such as Banamine which could literally save your horses life. Better, of course, to take care and avoid the problems.


Become aware of what your horse is eating. Be conscious that some plants are toxic to horses. An example of one plant to be avoided as much as possible is lupine. While it is not deadly, eating too much of it will make him sick. You will see it throughout most of the PCT. A hungry horse will want to eat it as it apparently smells OK. Primo never considered it to be a favorite. He occasionally managed a mouthful before I could stop him and suffered no ill effects. Also watch out for clover. A lot of clover at one time will be too rich in protein and can cause tying-up trouble (azoturia). Now, I realize that it is unlikely that others will try to do the PCT solo and unsupported, but I do recommend that you adapt your own feeding plan (what your support crew brings) to assure that your horse"s diet will include consistency similar to what I provided for Primo. It worked.


I would also like to advise those who would do the PCT regarding distance per day and how it relates to safety. I recommend that you take your time and enjoy the scenery and the entire wonderful experience. If you try to ride the entire PCT during a single season it will require that you average more miles per day than I did. Averaging too many miles per day at high elevations and on some of the more challenging trails of the PCT means greater stress, less graze time, and less rest time. This will definitely require your taking the kinds of risks that I was careful to avoid. If you feel compelled to reach a certain resupply point on a certain day and time (because someone is scheduled to meet you there with supplies), you might take risks that you should not. Suppose that you are only a few miles from a resupply location and come to an obstacle blocking the trail. Perhaps it is a fallen tree (I sawed out many trees up to about 15" in diameter), or a large boulder, a scree slide on a sandy or rocky slope, a questionable snow crossing on a slope, a difficult stream crossing, or a washed out part of the trail (there will be many of all of these) - and you can see a quick way across or around that is obviously very risky. A safe way to get past and beyond obstacles might take minutes or even hours - one detour that I took ended up taking a day and a half, but didn't involve risks to Primo. If you are determined to stay on a schedule, and/or to meet someone who might be very worried about you if you don't show up as scheduled, you might be tempted to take the risk and hope for the best - but instead you could end your journey by injuring or killing your horse or yourself. Don't rely on being lucky or on prayer to get you past a risky situation. The PCT is often very beautiful and even spactacular. It's trails are usually quite safe for horses. But, parts of it can also be tough and unforgiving - don't underestimate the trail, or overestimate your ability ( also consider your horse's capabilities) to ride all parts of it. And especially, take your time and don't be on a tight schedule.


Hikers do not have to do nearly as much research on trail conditions as the rider should. It is much easier to hike the PCT than it is to ride it. In addition to the research that I did at home prior to leaving, before starting each new Section, I rechecked conditions for the Section ahead when I reached my rig again. I called Rangers, Packers, PCTA local representatives, Backcountry Horsemen and other local equestrians to try to get current information on trail conditions. I always tried to talk to people who had ridden on that part of the trail recently. ( I have found that information coming from hikers is usually unreliable for an equestrian. (They do not see trail conditions through the eyes of a horse and rider.) Through your research you can find out about scheduled work crews who have already, or will soon, remove last years' fallen trees and have done trail damage repairs. You can also find out about areas that might be unsafe for horses due to known hazards or to deep snow not yet melted. You will lose the trail in deep snow - and you don't know what is under snow - while hikers might be able to cross, the much greater weight of a horse and rider might break through. It is always risky to try to ride through deep snow - especially if it is on a slope or bridges a stream. Trail crews won't go up to clear down trees and repair trail damage until most of the snow has melted. It might be necessary (and smart) to bypass some areas if they are still considered impassable or unsafe for horses. (You can return and do that part of the trail at a later date.) Keep in mind that trees can, and do, fall at any time of the year - so, expect the unexpected. When you do ride around a corner on a narrow trail with steep drop-offs and come to an obstacle - just stop, pause, don't do anything until you have carefully considered your options and the possible consequences of each. Especially important - don't be influenced by the extra time it might require to take the safer option. Your priority must always be the safety of your horse. Bring along a small saw capable of cutting through at least a 15" diameter tree. I brought along a Silky brand folding saw with a 14.5" blade that could cut from the tip - the model is called "Big Boy". Using wedges (I made mine on the spot and out of wood), and time, I could cut a tree up to about 18" if necessary. Using your saw, you can open a blocked trail. I cut and removed many trees during my PCT ride with Primo. I also brought a metal digging trowel with a 3.5" wide blade. I used it a couple of times to do trail work where a shovel would normally be used. A shovel would have been too large and heavy for a solo rider with just one horse, to bring.


Recognize that not all horses (including mules) are equally suited to face the challenges of the Pacific Crest Trail. As for breed, an Arabian, a true Mustang, or possibly a Morgan, would be favored. Individuals of other breeds might also be good choices. You want a horse that is not too large or heavy, and that is strong and in good condition. You want a horse that has as much trail experience as possible - I mean rough and challenging trails, not smooth, well maintained trails. Do not choose a horse that has spent his life in a stall and paddock with access to only a smooth pasture. Look for a horse that has been kept on very rough terrain with holes, mud, steep and slipery slopes, rocks, down trees, etc.. This fine-tunes his sense of balance and, from experience, teaches him how not to fall - where to place his feet. It teaches him to watch where he places his feet. Your PCT horse must have good feet and be athletic, sure-footed, and agile. He should not be a horse who often stumbles. You do not want a horse that spooks easily along roads or when confronted by unfamiliar animals. What will he do if he is unexpectedly confronted by a horse-eating stump or boulder, or a dumpster or plastic blowing in the wind. How about a bear, a deer, an elk, a grouse suddenly taking flight, a goat, a rattlesnake, a llama, a bicycle, a motorcycle, an ATV, a windmill, or moving shadows across the trail from a windmill, or a truck? You will see all of these and more during a PCT ride that crosses several Sections and hundreds of miles. Try to introduce your horse to as many of these as possible before taking him on the PCT. It is true that you aren't likely to find the perfect horse for the PCT - but try. Primo's nemesis turned out to be the side view of llamas. We came upon three of them unexpectedly in Washington - and he was terrified. He went ballistic! Fortunately, I had time for a quick dismount. He ran in circles at the end of his extended reins, snorting loudly. He knocked me down, pulled me down, and then broke loose. He fled cross-country at a full gallop. Fortunately, I was able to track him down within about two miles. He could have gone much farther . . . So, try to be prepared for the unexpected. It does happen!


For your own safety in the wilderness, especially if you ride alone and ever become separated from your horse (realize that this can happen, and you might also be injured and alone for some time), I feel that it is a good idea to always carry a knapsack on your own back containing what you might need to survive in an emergency. ( When Primo was frightened by the llamas I had my knapsack). Among the things that I pack in my knapsack are a few energy bars and water (up to 80 ounces). I carry my sleeping bag, and extra clothes in a trash compactor bag (to keep them dry in case of rain), wind-proof/water proof matches, my first aid kit, a whistle, a small candle, knife, compass, my l.e.d head lamp, two large garbage bags (to make an emergency shelter), my SPOT, etc. ( A SPOT is a satellite messenger/locator. It even has a 911 button). All of this totals about 19 pounds. It becomes part of rider weight and, therefore, is easier for the horse to carry than if it were "dead weight" packed in your saddle bags. I also wear a riding helmet.


Primo, who stands 14.3 hands and weighs about 900 pounds, never carried more than 255 pounds - usually 10 to 20 pounds less. If everything to be carried, including me, would exceed 255 pounds, I walked - which I often chose to do anyway. An advantage of the Arabian breed is that they have very strong hind quarters and their backs are short and also very strong. They have one less vertebra and two fewer ribs than other breeds. They can carry more weight. My saddle bags and the large cantle bag, packed, including five days of my food, weighed up to 45 pounds. Primo had no problem carrying that much weight behind the saddle. He also carried up to 27 pounds of processed horse feed (weed free) forward of the saddle in the large pommel bags with a smaller cantle bag strapped on top. My saddle, saddle pad, and all tack, weighs 25 pounds. The total of these is 97 pounds. My weight, including the 19 pounds of my knapsack, is about 169 pounds. That adds up, fully loaded, to 266 pounds. If water will be available on the first day along the trail I can reduce that by 2.5 pounds by carrying 40 oz of water instead of 80 oz in the knapsack. (I also carry 44 ounces in the canteen, packed in the saddle bags). Starting out, with that much weight, I would be hiking until the weight carried would be less than 255 pounds.


If you decide to travel with a pack horse or mule be sure to get qualified instructions on packing from someone who is very knowledgeable. Never hard-tie your pack animal to the back of the saddle of your riding horse. You must always use a break-away. A rider who didn't use a break-away killed both of her horses in 2009 - a very sad tragedy that was was avoidable. She (A brave, bold, risk-taker type - - -. ) was attempting to ride a part of a detour (the Little Giant) on Section K in Washington that was notoriously dangerous for stock. The beginning of that trail was signed. She ignored all warnings. I had pre-arranged to trailer Primo around that part of the detour. I have no experience using a pack animal. It is my opinion, having ridden almost all of the PCT (In addition to my 2008 and 2009 PCT rides, in 2011, I rode south from Sierra City to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite. In 2012 I plan to ride the Sierra from Horseshoe Meadows north to Tuolumne Meadows. From there I plan to ride west to Wawona to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias - to see the Grizzly Giant, which is 28 feet in diameter.), and having seen many challenging places along the trail and on necessary bypass detours, that having a pack animal along might become a real hazard. That's my opinion. I want to describe an accident that happened in 2008. This happened on Section C in Southern California. The trail there, as described by the rider, was about 3" wide and crossed a scree slope, the scree laying at the angle of repose. She was riding a large and heavy horse (about 1200 pounds). She came around a bend and there was an obstacle blocking the trail. She tried to turn around - and slid 50' down the scree slope. They, luckily, landed on a fairly wide ledge. They were not hurt. But, the horse was badly hurt while she and others tried to get him back up to the PCT over a steep talus slope. He fell over backwards three times. He could not continue the ride. She had to bring him home. I mention this because, had she been riding a smaller, lighter, and more agile horse, she might have been sucessful in turning around. Had she also had a pack animal the "turning around" problem would have been even greater. I should add that the rider had not obtained current information on whether Trail Crews had yet cleared that Section of the PCT for stock. They had not - and the information would have been available from the PCTA person in charge of Section C. So, my recomendation is to always try to get current trail information prior to riding a Section.


Before starting my three PCT rides I took overnight and multi-day check out rides to test everything - the horse, the pack fit, and all of the equipment that I would be bringing on the PCT. Before starting your PCT ride, you should practice setting up camp, highlining your horse at night, and getting him used to that, and also to being hobbled. Such rides will also help you decide what you really need to bring along.

NOTE: If you are planning a PCT journey by horse and have questions, please contact THE LONG RIDERS GUILD on the
web. You will find a lot of valuable information and inspiration.

"What connnects us all is a love of the out-of-doors, a spirit of adventure, and a passion for horses". This is a quote from Lari Shea.
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