Do you dream of days wandering remote mountains on horseback, nights under the stars with your horse beside you?
Have you assumed that you can't do this, because you are not in good enough shape, a good enough rider, or because you have a disability which makes riding difficult?
I have an illness which regularly prevents me from being able to lift a saddle, makes it difficult to sit up for more than a few hours at a time and leaves me in danger of passing out when I push myself too far. This does not seem to be the ideal situation for taking overnight trips into wilderness areas on horseback, but that's what I do.
I want to stress that I take risk when doing this. Any kind of trip into the wilderness is dangerous. How dangerous depends on your planning and your situation. Add horses to such a trip and you've just upped the risk. (All riders know that working with horses can be dangerous). Add physical challenges or health problems and most people would assume you can't do it. But there are ways to mitigate the risk, and get yourself out there if you are willing to proceed with a great deal of caution and preparation.
So, how do I determine if horse packing is reasonable goal for me? There are times when I simply must accept that I can't safely do a trip. But they are fewer than you might think.
First, assess your horse skills. Do you ride confidently out by yourself? Do you know how to troubleshoot problems with your horses? If you answer no to either of these questions, then you should do your first horse packing trips with another horse person. It would be best if you could find someone who has experience horse packing, but that is not necessary if at least one of you (or the two of you together) feel comfortable riding on unfamiliar trails without outside help.
Second, assess your horse. Is your horse reliable in unfamiliar situations? Safe to take on new trails? Able to handle steep climbs, narrow trails and sharp drop-offs? Does your horse stand calmly when tied? Is your horse able to spend time alone, without its herd mates? All of these attributes are essential in a horse packing companion. And if you are going to take a second horse with you (to carry your gear) then both horses must be comfortable "ponying" with each other without fights or flights.
Third, assess yourself. The purpose of this assessment is to determine what kind of help you need and where you need to get creative. So be honest with yourself. What is the longest trail ride you can comfortably go on? Can you comfortably tack up your horse yourself? Untack and care for your horse after a long ride? Have you ever been backwoods camping or backpacking? How do you do sleeping in a tent? How does sleeping in a tent effect your abilities the next morning? Do you have the energy to go on a long ride, care for a horse, make your own camp and take care of yourself? Do you have any health dangers you need to take into consideration (seizures, diabetic issues, fainting spells, etc).
Fourth, assess the trail. Where you go can have a big effect on how much you are able to do. I love to go deep into the most remote wilderness areas of Montana but I can only safely do that in very specific circumstances. On the other hand, I can often handle going to my favorite local hiking trails. Only 15 miles from my home, often crossing drivable roads and well known by me and my family, I can easily spend a day or a week riding those trails and camping in their familiar meadows.
Your Horse Skills - If you could honestly answer that you were comfortable riding out alone and trouble shooting unexpected horse situations by yourself, then you are ready for horse packing. If you could not, then take a careful look at your desires. You have two choices: One, get more experienced before taking on a horse packing trip. Go on rides alone and with other people. Ride new trails and try some wilderness trails. Get the experience you need to build the skills you need.
Two, if your heart is determined to go packing now but you aren't yet an experienced enough horseman, find someone more experienced and go horse packing with them. This might be an outfitter you hire or a friend you go out with, but it needs to be someone who is truly able to handle the horses in the variable, often extreme situations you will find yourself in when horse packing. If you can afford it, you might want to sign up for a horse packing trip with a commercial outfitter who specializes in taking beginners out. Find one who is happy to teach you everything they can about horses and horse packing and have the time of your life.
If you want a more casual experience or can't afford a professional trip, think about joining your local chapter of Back Country Horsemen. This is a group of avid horse people who ride and pack into all kinds of country. Get to know some people there and let it be known that you want to go on a packing trip with someone who is more experienced than you. See what you can arrange.
And in the spirit of getting creative, do you know somebody who is an experienced rider but doesn't have a horse right now? Could you offer them a trade - they use your horses to go horse packing with you in exchange for their help along the way?
Your Horse - Is your horse ready, according to the above questions? There aren't a lot of ways around this one. The horse you take needs to be able to safely handle both the trail and the camping. If your horse isn't that horse, consider getting it trained until it is. If that isn't possible, then you need to find a way to take a different horse. Borrow from a friend, rent from an outfitter. Your horse needs to be able to safely handle the environment before you take her out.
Yourself - I have the experience to handle unexpected situations with my horse. My horse can do all the things it needs to do to safely go horse packing. My stumbling block is my body. Each time I start planning a trip, I assess my body's abilities.
At times I can ride 3 hours at a time before I become too tired to be safe. Other times I can only handle one. Tacking up my horse myself often takes too much of my energy and leaves me able to ride a lot less. I am not always able to take care of my horse when I get to the end of a ride. I have lots of experience backpacking and I know that sleeping on the hard ground leaves me too exhausted to function the next day. And finally, I am in danger of passing out or becoming disoriented and confused when I push myself too far.
Okay, this seems like a lot. Let's take it one point at a time.
First, I figure out how far I can go. If I am up to riding three hours I should assume that my maximum ride is going to be 6 miles. If I can only ride an hour, then it will only be more like 3 miles. I choose a trail which I know (or can be reasonably sure) has a suitable camping spot 3 (or 6) miles in. That is hard. Most riders go ten to twenty miles a day, not three to six. Most backwoods trails don't have suitable camping spots that close in. And if you haven't been on the trail before it can be hard to tell where you are going to find a suitable camping spot. Maps can be deceiving. You need relatively flat ground, two trees to tie a rope between and clear space under the rope. You need to be near running water unless you are able to bring enough water for you and your horses. Ideally, you should have grass for grazing, though this can be gotten around. Your best bet is to find someone who has ridden that trail and can advise you (or to ask a friend to ride it and assess it with these needs in mind).
Second, I need to deal with the fact that using my energy to tack up and untack my horse pushes my energy beyond what is safe for me. This means one of two things: plan for a much shorter trip than I would otherwise do or go with a friend.
If I am going alone, then I need to look at how far I thought I could safely ride. Three hours? Then plan a trip that only goes two hours and save the extra energy for tacking up. One hour? Then I had better only go half an hour so that I can still take care of my horse. (In fact, when I am only able to ride one hour I often change my horse packing to horse camping. I set up a basecamp I can drive to and do short day rides out of that.)
The better choice is to find someone else to go with. Sometimes friends will offer to take care of my horse as well as their own just out of the kindness of their hearts. But over time that can become too much to ask. That is when I have to get creative.
I have five horses. I find a number of people who don't have horses but would like to go on a horse packing adventure and offer to take them if they will look after the horses and me. Or maybe I have some friends who really want to learn horse packing, so I offer to to teach them everything they need to know in exchange for them doing all the physical work before and after each ride.
Or maybe I don't have that many horses abatable, but I have lots of friends who are avid backpackers and love hiking into the wilderness. I offer to show them some amazing trails, if they help take care of my horse. A walking horse keeps pace with a backpacker quite well, so I have found that mixed trips of hikers and packers are actually quite easy to do.
Next, I recognize that sleeping in a tent can be exhausting and I can't afford that. So I do some practice nights using different sleeping gear until I find some that gives me a good night's sleep. (For me the key is finding the right sleeping pad.)
And finally, I need to address my tendency to become more disabled if I push my energy too far. I always plan an extra day or two for every overnight. I ride, set up camp and sleep, then spend the next day resting. Then I ride on if I can or do simple day rides, if my energy is already flagging. I always bring enough food to allow me an extra, unplanned day or two to rest if I need it. Flexibility. That is one of my keys.
Another one of my keys is an emergency beacon. I saved up and bought the InReach Explorer by Delorme, now Garmin. This is a cell phone sized device which gets a signal anywhere in the world as long as it has a clear view of the sky. It allows me to send texts without a cell signal and I use that to communicate with my husband at home. Our deal is that I contact him at least once every 24 hours. If he doesn't hear from me he assumes I am hurt and sends in help. Additionally, if I do get into trouble, I can press a button on the device and it will send my coordinates to a dispatcher who will call in search and rescue. The device costs $500 and a mostly fee but I conducer it an essential pice of equipment if you have health problems and want to spend any time in the back country.
Also, I make a number of concessions to my health in how I plan and execute a packing trip. Take a class from your local outfitter (something I highly recommend) and you will find that they approach packing much like car camping. They bring everything, often including a literal kitchen sink. If you are dealing with energy issues, you can't afford to do that.
I practice Minimalist Horse packing. I pack as though I were a backpacker. I take only the absolutely essential gear and everything I take is a lightweight and small as I can possibly afford. It doesn't matter if my horse could easily cary a heavier load. I need to save my energy for taking care of myself and my horse. Dealing with a lot of gear only takes away from that.
The Trail - There are some trails I have dreamed of going on my whole life which I have not yet done. That is because they require something I cam not up to yet. Maybe they don't have any good places to camp until you get 10 miles in. Maybe they don't have any water and I know that carrying all the water I and my horse will need will end up being too much for me to handle. That doesn't mean that I can never do those trails. It only means that I have to wait until I hit a really good energy year and plan them for that year. In the mean time, I choose trails that I know have good camping spots close in and water that will be running at the time of year I will be out. And, before I go, I call the local rangers and members of my local Back Country Horsemen group to find out the most current conditions of that trail. The one time I miss read a map and chose a trail that didn't have a suitable campsite for the first eight miles, I ended up being brought out by search and rescue. I have learned that no matter how much I want to explore that new, unknown trail, it is essential that I know at least basic information about a trail before I choose it.
With careful planning and creativity, you can get out into the backcountry with your horses. The key is to be realistic, be creative and be flexible.