The Pacific Crest Trail on Horseback
Unlike most equestrians, I had only been riding for a year when I launched off on a second PCT journey with a green horse. Green rider on a green horse: the worst combination I had been told. Yet over the next three years I would complete two solo Mexico to Canada trips using a single horse both as a mount and as a pack animal. Most important, at the end of each season Hopi Horse and I would return in better condition than we had left, still healthy, sound, and with a little less fat, but no ribs showing.
I believe that my successful horse journeys were partly as a result of my through-hiking experience, but mostly due to the judgement and outdoor skills that I learned as a successful athlete, climber and hiker.
Because I did not really know my horse's or my own equestrian strengths or weaknesses, I chose the following strategies before I ever left home or set foot on the PCT: I would use a single horse and load it very lightly (start small and uncomplicated), the total load weight would not exceed 220 pounds (go light, go far). I would walk the downhill and areas of very rough trail, ride the uphill (downhill jarring beats up the body, especially on a young horse), carry 10 pounds of feed per day, and try to graze my horse four hours a day (one and half hours in the morning and evening, an hour during the day). I would cut an hour's worth of grass and feed this grass during the night (maintain and conserve energy). I would start slowly and build up to 20-30 miles a day, but average about 20 miles a day (go slow, go far; condition slowly) and I would exit or not start from a resupply point if a serious storm was brewing.
When I was frightened, unsure, couldn't make a decision, I would "nibble," and gave myself the option of turning around at any time. I would ask myself a long series of questions in order to evaluate the messages I was giving myself and to find out specifically what was frightening me. Usually the "fear messages" were unfounded, and if the fear was real, I needed to evaluate the obstacle realistically to see if I could deal with it safely. I also kept an awareness of all possible "exit points" (I carried DeLorme maps to give me a larger perspective of the surrounding terrain and roads).
These strategies served me well, we had no mishaps on the trail and Hopi never stepped off the trail, unless there was an underlying hole or the tread gave away under his weight. An experienced horse person had told me that most trail accidents are the result of poor conditioning, and/or poor nutrition. Like a person, a horse will misstep, stumble, stagger, make poor decisions, and get easily scared if it is too tired, hungry, or not conditioned to the task. He will gulp food and choke, eat anything including toxic plants , try to graze on the trail in precarious positions, not watch where he is going, and make poor nutritional choices, if he is too hungry.
I have observed that most superficial injuries show up in the first 100 miles of a long journey. Thus, by Warner Springs, hikers and horses with poor conditioning and ill fitting shoes, saddles or packs have blisters and rub spots that while superficial can amount to a lot of damage, translate to deeper problems, and stop a trip entirely. The deeper skeletomuscular problems often show up later (200-300 miles) by the I-10 highway crossing at Cabezon or by big Bear (bad knees or gaskin, shinsplints, lameness, back and shoulder problems). These may be harbingers of other problems, and indicate that one has not yet dealt with the cost of a long term trip with this much physical demand. The problems of stress and dealing with the mind are deeper yet and may be lurking in northern California or Oregon, 1,500 miles from the start.
I started with a five year old Saddlebred mare named Cat, and at Warner Springs, I bought Hopi Horse, a five year old gelding pinto mutt who had previously been sold at auction. For a while, I alternated using them and then laid both off for three weeks when I found a small sore on the withers from a poorly constructed custom made saddle (the stirrup leathers were not seated properly). Subsequently, I used only Hopi because he was serious about eating, was more relaxed and that allowed me to relax more. Nevertheless, in the first month I found that Hopi's body language was more subtle than my other horses, that I could get injured and not see it coming or going. It took me a year to be able to respond to his language, and to act immediately if he threatened me in any way (he was very protective of his feed).
I made my own packs out of Spectra cloth, a type of Kevlar, which is expensive but lightweight and very strong. They fit within the length of the saddle so that they would move with the saddle and would not rub on the withers or rump. The packing load mathematics are these: My riding saddle weighs 22 pounds; the blankets, halter, bridle, lead and reins weight about 5 pounds; my basic pack and contents weights 18 pounds (rain gear, flashlight, first aid kit, titanium pot, alcohol stove and fuel, hat, tarp with stakes, air mattress, Tyvek ground cloth, ditty bag with repair and personal hygiene items, fleece jacket and pants, pillow/small Thinsulite vest, warm underwear, bug bivy, maps, 1.5 lb. down sleeping bag, hobbles, bell, water purification, 2 water bottles, hoof pick, brush cut in half, highline, collapsible bucket, saw, nose bag for feeding, easy boot). Since I weigh about 135 pounds myself, that brings the total basic load weight to 180 pounds (does not include feed or water). This means I can carry 40 pounds of food and feed bringing the total load weight to the maximum 220 lbs., which is roughly equivalent to four days. If I camp where I resupply, I use up most of the 10 lbs. of feed and food for that day, and that increases my range to five days or roughly 100 miles. Later when Hopi was in better shape, I found that I could stuff 2-3 more lbs. into the feed tubes, shorten the pellets to 8 lbs/day, cut more grass, graze more during the day, beg hay from any horse trailer folk I found, and I could then increase my range to 150-170 miles. I did not use these measures two sections in a row, or I rested Hopi at a corral or trailer with unlimited hay, to give him more nutrition in between. (For feed I used equal amounts of beet pulp, alfalfa pellets, and COB. The first thing I did in camp was to start the beet pulp soaking in the collapsible bucket).
It was difficult to get my basic pack weight down to 18 pounds, and it took a lot of experience. It required making or modifying most of the gear to do this. But now more then ever before, very lightweight gear is being manufactured and is available. I rarely used the hat, long underwear, bug bivy, tarp, and rain gear. I never used the horse first aid kit or easy boot (an emergency measure in case Hopi threw a shoe). Sometimes I carried a cell phone but found it useless for the most part. More often I resorted to asking someone walking out to a trailhead to call and sent a WRITTEN message. These people never failed me.
I used a lot of different resupply methods: I sent packages of supplies to post offices, resorts, outfitters, or to individuals that brought them to the trail. People drove my well stocked truck and trailer to trailheads or picked me up. I also corralled or tied Hopi, hitched to my trailer and drove it back; people brought hay, water, and feed; there were two week-long sections where somebody drove my rig forward and met me at specified points. People hosted me "in town"- offered a much needed corral, shower, laundry, resupply, or rest period. My journey was dependent on the energy and goodwill of others, often strangers, and it forms an integral part of the trip. The people that I met are just as much a part of these trips as the mountains, the PCT, and the experience of the goodness, devotion, strength, and support of all those persons that helped me was the most valuable of the trip. Giving a belief in the beauty and goodness of humankind can never be repaid.
How does the horse journey compared with a through-hike on the PCT? The hiking journey is definitely more strenuous, but it encompasses much more freedom and much less responsibility. It depends on your disposition, experience, and your horse. I found that I was much less relaxed, and more distracted with Hopi than when I was alone walking. Mostly the logistics of resupply with a horse take a tremendous amount of planning, goodwill, time and energy. With a horse, options about where to camp or stop are fewer (you need water and grass, and a place to Highline). I would spend the first hour in camp taking care of Hopi before ever unpacking my gear. If anything goes wrong, you can't just get to a Trailhead and hitchhike or walk down a steep winding mountainous road with a horse. Even if you have somebody and a horse trailer to call, calling is not necessarily very easy. If I was in town, Hopi was frequently in a hot trailer, and shopping became frantic; eating in a restaurant or staying in a motel was out of the question (I was lucky to get a shower and laundry every two weeks). Feed or hay was rarely available, even in most towns with a good grocery store there rarely is a feed store.
But there were magic moments and there was the wilderness. Much of what I have talked about is the how and the numbers. A trip such as this does not really consist of that, but of all the unexpected things; small moments that one remembers so clearly, the large feeling of being out there, trusting yourself and your horse; and going forward together. I can not think of another adventure like it. I wish you all such memories and a horse like Hopi.
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