Backcountry Gear for Trail Riding

Here are some gear selections I've made over the years, including tapaderos/rider footwear, reins, halters/lead ropes, saddle pads, saddlebags, spurs, shoeing, and breastcollars/cruppers. Rest assured, they're direct products of the experiences I've had, the miles I've ridden, and the situations I've known.

Saddlemaker Rick Erickson was exhausted from a trying week in an elk camp high above the timberline. The heavy, wet snow had made every task more difficult, whether gathering firewood, cooking for the hunters, or packing supplies in and out from the trailhead.

Now, he was ready for home, a hot shower, and a meal cooked by anyone other than himself. His mule walked briskly down the trail, each hoof sloshing in the deep mixture of mud and wet snow, her big ears turned toward home.

“I still don’t know exactly what happened,” Rick told me. “I was cold, wet, and stiff, so I started to get off to stretch. Somehow I slipped. In a heartbeat, I was lying on my back in the slush right next to my mule’s feet.

“But that wasn’t the worst thing about it,” he continued. “My left foot was still in the stirrup, or rather, all the way through it. You hear about your life flashing before your eyes, and it really did. There was a big rocky slope just down the trail, and I was sure my mule would take off and drag me over those rocks all the way to the trailhead. I was wearing lace-up packer boots, and there was no way my left one would’ve come off.”

“Thank God she’s a good mule,” he went on. “She turned and gave me a sort of comical look, as if to ask what I was doing down there, and I got my foot free. The minute I got home, I started making me a pair of tapaderos, and I’ve put them on every saddle I’ve built since that day.”

I own one of Rick Erickson’s saddles. I’d never used tapaderos (stirrup covers) before I bought it, but his experience was so compelling and his reasons for prescribing them so rooted in powerful experience that I never argued. We learn from our own experiences, but we should learn from those of others, as well. In the backcountry, failing to do so can have dire consequences.

If Rick’s mule had been spookier and his foot had stayed locked through the stirrup, it’s quite possible he wouldn’t have survived.

Riders’ preferences for the gear they’ve chosen and the training methods they espouse are often so strong that if you advocate anything else, you risk facing wrath.

But we should all be open to another’s point of view. For instance, to tell you I prefer a particular type of reins isn’t to say that the ones you use are wrong. We learn by exploring others’ preferences with a keen ear as to why? Is the preference rooted in sound reasoning, and is it backed by experience? Or does it merely follow a fad or conform to what’s accepted by a group of horsemen whose approval is sought?

The best clinicians (and the best teachers, in general) are tolerant of challenges. There should be no sacred cows. Ask questions. It’s not disrespectful to seek a solid picture of a teacher’s experience in your sphere of horsemanship. Has he or she ridden many mountain miles, perhaps alone through adverse conditions, where a rider’s life can depend on the appropriateness of the equipment chosen?

Here are some gear selections I’ve made over the years, including tapaderos/rider footwear, reins, halters/lead ropes, saddle pads, saddlebags, spurs, shoeing, and breastcollars/cruppers. Some of my choices buck the tide, but rest assured, they’re direct products of the experiences I’ve had, the miles I’ve ridden, and the situations I’ve known.

Tapaderos/rider footwear. Tapaderos that are fully enclosed and attached to the stirrup make it virtually impossible for a foot to slide all the way through, a huge safety advantage. They also make your choice of footwear less critical. Even with tapaderos, however, choose smooth-soled boots, because they’re less likely to hang up while dismounting. Also look for boots with ankle protection.

Since my taps are large and heavy, made to accommodate a winter boot, I don’t ride with them all year. Also, they somewhat hamper my ability to give subtle leg cues. Whenever I ride without taps, I make sure I’m wearing boots designed for riding. Study the traditional Western boot. Its toe is slim to easily find the stirrup as you mount. Its sole is smooth to prevent hang-ups. Its heel is prominent to help prevent your foot going all the way through the stirrup in an accident. Lastly, its uppers extend well up over your ankles to protect from chafe against the stirrup leathers. Little wonder that boots of similar shape evolved among riders in many parts of the world.

Notice that Rick referred to his lace-up packer boots. Such boots are extremely popular among backcountry horsemen. They have all the good features of the Western boot, but note that if you ever get hung up, they won’t slip off.

Reins. I prefer smooth, light leather split reins, held in one hand. (Since I begin instilling the neck rein from the very first ride, little direct reining is normally needed by the time a young horse is ready to hit the trail.) My preference is based not just on comfort, but on safety, as well.

For most trail riders, I do not recommend the rope-rein/mecate setup so popular today. (A mecate is an extra rein originally of horsehair but often synthetic today; it attaches to the knot of a bosal situated under a horse’s chin). First, the mecate was developed by cowboys who rode long distances often alone and usually in open country. And if they came off, their first worry was that their horses would run away. This extra rope helped them keep hold of their horses, should they hit the ground.

By contrast, the average trail rider is middle aged, and few of us are so resilient. If we lose our seats, our first worry is that we’re still intact after the incident. The mecate is simply another rope with which to get entangled and dragged. We’re far safer completely detached from the horse.

Secondly, most of the rope-rein/mecate setups popular today rig into a single (loop) rein. Split reins are always safer. If you use loose, looping reins and become unseated, your leg can come down through a loop, which can lead to serious injury.

Thirdly, if you become entangled in strong synthetic rope reins, you’ll break long before the rope will.

I realize that my opinions differ from those of many respected clinicians. Advantages of the rope-rein/mecate setup are one, you’ll have a long lead rope, and two, you can change reins quickly, useful for training. But I do notice that many seasoned backcountry horsemen eventually return to the comfort and safety of leather split reins as their horses become finished mounts.

Halters/lead ropes. My tastes here are rather simple. I use both the flat nylon type and the rope type. While riding, I usually keep a flat-nylon halter under a leather headstall, for the horse’s comfort.

I always tie with the lead rope, never with reins. If you tie with the reins and your horse pulls back, the bit can injure his sensitive mouth tissues.

I do use lead ropes with snap closures some of the time, but an eye splice at one end, easy to tie in any three-strand rope (see below), makes the lead rope stronger and lighter.

To attach, simply thrust the loop made by the eye splice through the halter ring, then put the end of the lead rope through the loop in the rope, and pull it tight.

How to Tie

Start by unraveling the end of a three-strand rope for about six inches.

Tuck the middle strand of the portion you’ve unraveled under a strand in the standing portion.

Tuck the second strand under a different strand in the standing portions, and continue this process, alternating among the three, making sure no two emerge in the same place.

Continue until the eye splice is complete.

Saddle pads. Clinician John Lyons notes that a properly fitting saddle needs very little padding, and I believe that’s true. Unfortunately, those of us who ride many horses with the same saddle have no choice but to buy a saddle that’s on the wide side, then pad it as necessary for narrower horses.

But I believe many riders use too much padding, which lessens the contact with your horse – contact already limited if you ride in a Western saddle. I’ve climbed onto saddles so padded underneath that they felt as if they were precariously balanced on a stack of pillows. I doubt whether such an approach is any more comfortable for the horse.

Saddlebags. Smaller is better, and not at all is best. A good friend once built me a beautiful set of saddlebags. He used the heaviest skirting leather available and finished by tooling our family’s Montana livestock brand into each flap. I treasure these, but I rarely use them any more. Even empty, they’re heavy.

In “How to Ease the Burden,” I discussed the problems of carrying excessive weight on your horse’s back. The loin area behind the saddle is the worst place to pile on additional pounds. Keep weight close to your horse’s center of gravity, which is normally fairly far forward. Heavy and bulky items, if they must be carried, should go into horn or pommel packs. Oversized saddle packs – those made to fit behind the saddle and intended for overnight camping with only your saddle horse – should contain only extremely light items, such as a down sleeping bag or a change of clothing. I avoid them completely. There’s too strong a temptation to load them up with unneeded items.

Spurs. I ride with spurs most of the time. This has little to do with impulsion; my horses have plenty of go. Spurs are tools of finesse. Why press hard with a bare heel when an ounce of pressure with a spur will do? That ounce of pressure causes no more, and probably less, discomfort for your horse, but it’s a clean, isolated signal he easily understands. If you’re using spurs, your horse is less likely to confuse a weight shift or leg stretch with a leg cue.

Virtually any rider athletic enough to mount a horse can develop a soft touch with his or her heels. It’s a step up in horsemanship worth pursuing.

Horseshoes. I often ride barefoot horses here in Montana, where most of the dryland hills are sandstone and shale, and our horses run out all year. However, as summer progresses and I make frequent trips across river-bottom cobblestones, I call the farrier. I’d never take a barefoot horse on a pack trip into the Beartooth Mountains, where trails are chiseled from solid granite.

True, I breed for good feet, and the fact that our horses run outside all year on rocky ground does indeed toughen them. But that’s not enough. Domestic mountain horses are called upon to do a more challenging job than their feral counterparts, as they must carry their own weight and yours, and they must have the traction to keep you safe on treacherous trails. For the mountains, we shoe with toe and heel caulks, at least on the front feet where traction is most crucial. Consult your farrier for the best footwear for your trail horse.

Breastcollars/cruppers.A cavalry general once asserted that a horse with proper conformation needed neither a breastcollar nor a crupper. However, the same general would probably consider many modern horses to be less than perfect. A low-withered horse really benefits from a crupper. He’ll learn to tuck his tail, holding back the saddle on steep descents.

As for breastcollars, I’ve become convinced that most of them attach too low on the saddle, where they tend to rub the horse’s shoulders. The old type, which we called a martingale, rings the horse at the base of the neck, about where a draft horse’s collar fits. This configuration allows more freedom of movement. If you have the lower, breast-strap style, add higher D-rings to your saddle to raise it up and out of the way of your horse’s movement.

Whatever your choices in trail gear, keep an open mind, and listen to those who’ve paid their dues. Their ideas may not always mesh with the ones you’re used to, but they’re probably backed by experience, the best teacher of all.

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