“Levels” Of Horse Camping

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Levels” of Horse Camping
I would love to camp with my horse, but it feels like a scary step to take. I have taken my horse on daylong trail rides, but I haven’t stayed overnight. I would like to try some trails that are too far away to ride and get home in the same day. What do I need to know as a first time horse camper? What’s different than packing for a daylong trail ride and how do I need to prepare myself and my horse so that all can go as smoothly as possible?

If you haven’t camped with your horse before, it can seem like a big undertaking with lots of logistics. If you break it down into steps and start with a simple trip, I trust that you can handle it.

In any camping environment, you need to make sure you plan for food, water and shelter for horses and humans. That’s it. How complicated you make each of those simple needs is up to you. You can keep it all simple, and have others help along the way, or you can decide to master the wilderness and pack all of your needs far into the forest.

I advise starting small and working up to a more rustic adventure. Here, I’ll share some info about how to prep your horse for overnight stays then tell you the camping progression I’d suggest.
At each “level” of camping, keep notes about what you needed to have with you and what you forgot. With every trip, you’ll figure out how you can organize more and you’ll find out what little things to bring that will help you feel more comforted on the trail.

Prepping Your Horse
No matter what type of camping you choose, the experience of being away from home will be a great lesson time for your horse. He’ll need to get used to sleeping away from home.

You’ll find out if your horse will keep his usual routine, how he’ll do if there’s an unknown horse next to him, if he’ll challenge the fencing or enclosures, and lots of other details about your horse’s habits away from his usual abode. What you learn about your horse during your first overnights will help you plan for the type of corrals and environments that will be best suited for him. You may learn that you need to teach him to stand tied; you may learn that he will challenge temporary panels. Find out how your horse reacts and choose the next step for him based on his reactions and behaviors away from home.

If you overnight in a place where your horse is stabled and near horses he doesn’t know, make sure to take some precautions. Not all horses have been well socialized, so it’s important to keep an eye on your horse if he might be housed at a place where a more aggressive horse may be penned beside him. Ask the facility manager about who your horse will be housed next to, make sure to watch your horse (to ensure he isn’t an aggressor), and don’t be afraid to ask to move if needed.

Start Easy
Plan your first overnight trip at a ranch or resort that offers accommodations (a lodge or cabins) for you and pens for your horse. This way you don’t have to think about corrals or tents and gear. You can have a 5-star experience while you practice packing for overnight needs for your horse. You’ll also get to see how your horse acts in a new environment.
This is the kind of ranch we like to work with as a place to shoot my TV show—the horses have great pens to stay in and our cast and crew get to be a little bit pampered. The Sister Creek Ranch near San Antonio, Texas hosted us and has a set up like this. In Massachusetts, the Inn at Richmond and adjacent Berkshire Equestrian Center have a similar set up. There are stalls available and the accommodations are great. The trails are accessible without having to trailer outside of camp.

At each level, we have to plan for food, water and shelter for you and your horse. At this level, you are well taken care of. Your horse’s shelter and water are easy to plan. You’ll still need to plan for your horse’s feed and get used to packing all that you’ll need to ride and care for your horse.

Camp Time
If you’re ready for a little more adventure, look for a campground that has corrals. Some of the nicer resorts also offer camping options. You’ll stay in a tent or RV, with your horse in a nearby corral.

Securing your horse overnight is one of the biggest challenges and this option still rules out that obstacle. You can build up your camping experience without worrying more about your horse. You will still need your horse’s food—just like the starting level.

The only change from the last level is packing more for your own overnight. You might start by camping in your trailer’s living quarters then step up (or down) to a tent. Make sure to pack your own food and find recipes to cook at the camp or pack pre-packaged meals that you can keep with you in a cooler.

Vehicle Assisted

In this next step, you can stay farther away from a “civilized” campground, but you’ll still have access to your vehicle. Having your vehicle nearby means you can still keep coolers with you.
The biggest change here is securing your horse overnight. You’ll be away from a pre-planned campground. You have options such as tying to the trailer, setting up portable corrals or setting up a highline.

I’m presuming that you have a well-trained trail horse that ties well without pawing or carrying on; if not, you have some work to do at home. You can leave your horse tied to the trailer overnight. You’ll give him just enough lead line to allow him to lie down and allow him to get his head down to eat hay. By putting his head down to the ground to eat, you’ll find out how long to leave the line—if the line is long enough to allow him to eat, he’ll also find that he can lie down. While you shorten the lead while you’re saddling or working with your horse, it’s not good for your horse to leave the rope so short overnight.

A high line is just that—a line tied between two trees or poles (make sure to attach with tree-safe methods). This is required in many national forests where you can’t tie to trees (horses often chew on and destroy bark and roots).
You can build a temporary corral with panels designed for portability. If you’ll always stay near your vehicle, you can even take full-sized panels. I’ve also seen electric fencing used—if you choose this, make sure that your horse is very comfortable staying in electric tape without challenging it. Find the containment system that works well for your horse and make sure to practice that containment at home first!
In the Open

Now we switch to multi-day trips into wilderness areas—I consider this the pro level. You’ll need lots of experience under your belt before you approach this level. You’ll need permits, sometimes insurance, you’ll need to file your trip plans. There might be restrictions as to the number of heartbeats allowed in a specific camping area, counting humans and all animals.

Camping in the open is a big step because you need to know about backpacking and pack animals. You need to decide how much you’ll need with you and if you’ll need an extra animal with you to help pack the gear. It is possible to start out small and for one horse and human to carry what you need, but it’s very important to not overload your horse—especially if you’ll be going over tough terrain.

You’ll need to ask your veterinarian how much weight your horse can carry comfortably then decide if you can pack all that you need and stay under that number.

If you do need a packhorse with you on your trip, it’s best to go along with a practiced guide at first. Learn all you can about packing from a pro who can show you what to do along the way. There are many mistakes to be made!

Since you won’t have access to a bale of hay in your truck, you’ll need to know the trail well—and know what grazing areas and water sources are available. All of those factors will tell you how much you need to take with you. If you have to pack in your horse’s feed (like cubes or pellets), you’ll probably need more pack animals.

The farther you are from civilization, the more planning you’ll need to do ahead of time. If you go to a state park or national park, consult the rangers. If you’ve never done this kind of camping, go with a professional outfitter first. You’ll be with someone who has ridden that trail and knows just what to do. When you see how the outfitter works, you’ll be more comfortable with what you need to learn to do. After you have some experience built up, you can probably talk to a ranger or guide to find out what you need to know to go it alone.

Stay as comfortable as you can, but don’t be afraid to move out of your comfort zone so that you can grow in your horsemanship experiences.

Gears Of The Seat

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Gears of the Seat

Question: Hi Julie,

I got to watch one of your clinics at your horse expo last weekend about using your natural aids and how your pelvis has 3 gears: forward, neutral & reverse. I just read your article about “How to open your pelvis for smoother riding”. I guess I have a couple of questions I’m trying to sort out in my head.
1) I’m working on my Parelli Level 1 right now. He says we are to “smile with all 4 cheeks”. Is your “forward gear” & opening your pelvis basically the same thing?
2) When I use my psoas muscles like you described that feels more like what I would call a “driving seat”. Is that correct?
3) Is your opening your pelvis similar to Centered Riding? I want to be a better rider for my horses and I want to be as natural as possible. Sometimes some of these things seem contradictory, but maybe it’s just the way they are worded. I really enjoyed your clinic and thought you were a terrific clinician. Keep up the good work!
Jane Cozad

Answer: Jane,

Thanks for your questions and I think I can help clarify things for you. As for your question regarding Parelli’s teaching technique of having riders “smile with all four cheeks,” I am not sure exactly what he means. Although it’s a clever and amusing thought, it does not really explain what specifically you’re supposed to do with your seat when you ask a horse to move forward. To me, it implies clenching your buttocks muscles, which you definitely don’t want to do. Clenching buttocks muscles sends a message of tension to your horse and it will often cause a horse to tense (butt clenching riders make for butt clenching horses). I think that what he may mean is to increase the energy in your seat and legs to ask your horse to move more forward, and in this regard, it’s similar to what I teach.

I use the “gears of the seat,” as a simplistic method to teach people to use all three of their primary natural aids: seat, legs, and hands, in a consistent and coordinated fashion to signal your horse to slow down or speed up. It’s also a technique that teaches people to use their seat/weight aid first and foremost and to use the legs and hands secondarily, in response to what the seat is doing. Your seat/weight aid is the most important natural aid, the aid that is in the most contact with your horse, but unfortunately the least likely to be used since most riders rely on their hands and legs. So often, riders are confused in their aids and are giving conflicting signals like pulling back on the reins to stop at the same time their weight is moving forward, which causes their legs to move back and close on your horse. So the hands are saying, “stop,” while the seat and legs are saying, “go.”

I like to teach people to ride in neutral gear, in the vertical position with the pelvis open (back flat), which tells your horse to keep doing what he is doing. You ride in neutral gear almost all of the time, using forward and reverse momentarily when you want your horse to speed up or slow down. The “gears of the seat” technique gets your horse and rider both to feel the rider’s center of gravity move as the primary signal to stop and go (forward and reverse gear). For instance, when you shift into forward gear and you relax your stomach muscles and let the top of your pelvis tip slightly forward so that there’s a little bit of weight on your crotch, this moves your center of gravity forward, a clear signal to your horse that you want him to move more forward (at the same time your hands move forward giving a release on his mouth and your legs move back, closing on your horse’s sides). When you want your horse to stop and you shift into reverse gear by exhaling and compressing your shoulders down toward your spine, it moves your seat bones forward and down at the same time your center of gravity moves back and this asks your horse to slow down and drop his back, bringing his hind end up underneath him and stopping on the haunches (at the same time your legs will relax on your horse’s sides and your hands will come slightly up and back, applying resistance to your horse’s mouth). As a rider advances in her riding, she will learn to use her aids in other combinations for more specific transitions, collection and lateral movements.

Using your psoas muscles to engage your pelvis is basically the same thing as using a “driving seat,” because it’s asking your horse to engage his hindquarters (which he needs to do for both speeding up and slowing down) but it depends on what you do with your other aids (legs and hands) that will cause your horse to move more forward, to move into collection or to stop. In other words, once you engage the seat, you could apply resistance with your hands and relax your legs and your horse would stop. Or you could apply legs and resist with the hands and your horse would drive up into the bridle in collection. Or you could apply legs and release slightly with the hands and your horse would drive more forward. The important thing to keep in mind is that you do not use your buttocks muscles (or cheeks) to engage your seat bones. Instead, you use the abdominal muscles, more specifically the psoas muscles (similar to the muscles you use to cough).

You will find the technique of opening the pelvis in many riding theories because it’s an essential part of proper riding position; it’s not necessarily a cue. It’s only through an open pelvis (opening the angle on the front of your hips between your hips and thighs) that you can learn to absorb the motion in your horse’s back and learn to use your seat aid to communicate with your horse. Some of the confusion you’re having has simply to do with semantics. If you tip the top part of your pelvis forward, the bottom part goes back; if you tip the top part of your pelvis back, the bottom part goes forward. So sometimes people refer to moving your pelvis forward or moving your pelvis backward and they actually mean the exact same thing, they are just talking about opposite ends. When you tone your psoas muscles, it will cause your pelvis to open and your seat bones (the lower part of your pelvis that is in contact with the saddle) to push forward and down. When you relax your psoas muscles and push your stomach out, it causes your seat bones to lighten and weight to come onto your crotch.

Although there are varying techniques in teaching riding, for the most part clinicians are saying the same thing, just explaining from a different perspective, some more clearly than others. My approach is always first and foremost to help riders understand the theory behind what they are doing and how to use their aids in a natural and relaxed manner. The most important thing to keep in mind when you’re studying a variety of techniques is to keep your mind open, try new things, but come back to what works best for you and your horse. Good luck!

Julie Goodnight, Trainer and Clinician