A poet once wrote of the joys of spring and its effect on horsemen. April, he said, broke the drought of March, bathed the roots of plants in “sweet liquor,” and brought green to every field and hollow. And all these pretty changes awakened in the men and women of Canterbury, England a desire to get on their horses and go on a pilgrimage, to seek a little adventure horseback and break the doldrums of winter.
Although seven centuries have passed since Chaucer wrote of history’s most famous trail ride, little among the attitudes of trail riders has changed. The 29 folks he wrote about may’ve been heading out on a religious pilgrimage, but the poet makes it clear that they’re more than anything after a good ride. And they take one, too, the Knight on his charger, the Wife of Bath on her ambler, the Monk on his spirited hunting horse.
Anyone who loves time in the saddle loves spring and the itch that comes with it to put a foot in the stirrup, swing into the saddle, and head out across the countryside. But spring can be two-sided for trail riders. Along with its joys, there are hazards and cautions.
And in the high-altitude western mountains these last until July, when snow in the high country finally recedes off the trails and frost in the shaded places finally thaws. Heading out on trails not traveled since the previous autumn requires special vigilance and preparation. Here are seven steps to a safe spring ride.
Step 1: Condition your horse. First, consider your horse. Ideally, he hasn’t been idle all winter growing fat on alfalfa and sweet feed, thoughts of carrying a rider up a trail far from his mind. If he’s been idle, you have extra work to do before tackling spring trails.
Even if you’ve been conscientious about riding your horse through the winter, chances are, his muscles are soft, his trail training in need of tuning. Conflict between horse and rider is more likely with the out-of-condition horse, because saddle fit, cinch pressure, and shedding-coat itch under the blanket, headstall, and bit are all likely to be more uncomfortable for him.
These days, extraordinary attention is paid to tack and training methods labeled “humane” or “natural.” Yet, too often, soft horses are required to do hard things, to carry a heavy rider up a mountain grade, their own excessive weight and out-of-tone muscles adding to the burden.
Honest exercise and wet saddle blankets under controlled conditions before a challenging ride away from the home stable is kinder treatment in the long run.
Step 2: Get in shape. The only real conditioning for riders is to ride. Other things, such as keeping the bathroom scale close, walking, aerobic exercise, and weight training do help. But if you haven’t been riding, tackling 20 miles the first time out during spring is likely to bring some unfortunate after-effects. Chaucer’s pilgrims, lacking other sorts of transportation, probably rode frequently. Few of us do so as part of our daily lives.
Pay special attention to leg strength. Deep knee bends pay dividends both when you mount and when you support yourself in the stirrups. Walking and bicycling build tone and strength. But don’t stay out of the saddle for long.
Step 3: Prepare for any weather. Spring brings sometimes severe changes in weather, especially at higher altitude. The poet T.S. Eliot referred to April as “the cruelest month.” I suspect he was thinking of spring’s seductive ability to lure you into believing summer has arrived, then to dash your hopes with a late storm that turns dangerous.
Summer rain is one thing. Spring rain at high altitude quickly changes to spring snow. One day, you’re washing the car in 70 degree weather, wondering if you’ll soon have to mow the lawn. The next day, you’re on a mountain trail in falling snow so thick you can scarcely see the rider in front of you.
Wear layers that are easy to add and remove, favor wool over cotton, pack extra warmth, and prepare for the worst-case scenario with fire-making equipment, a bit of food, a first-aid kit, navigation gear (map, compass, and global positioning system unit). Don’t be lulled into thinking these things are unimportant because you’re only planning a short ride. Most survival situations take place very close to “civilization.”
Foolishly, friends and I once left behind our fanny packs because we were planning to cross-country ski a very short loop. I missed a curve on an icy trail, hit a tree, broke my leg, and endured a very cold wait for help when the things we’d left behind – matches, a space blanket, snacks – would’ve kept my companion and me considerably more comfortable. The fact that we were only a mile from the parked cars at the trailhead was completely irrelevant.
Step 4: Prepare to clear the trail. If you tackle wilderness trails in spring, don’t expect a trail crew to have preceded you. United States Forest Service trail crews don’t normally work until summer, and volunteer work groups, such as those organized by the Back Country Horsemen of America (and its regional chapters), will probably have waited until they’re sure the snow banks are gone.
Through winter, nature will have made some changes. Windstorms and heavy snowfall bring down trees and branches that straddle the trail. The worst scenarios, as when a major wind event has leveled a stand of lodge pole pine or screamed its way through a forest recently burned, may’ve made trails completely impassable. In more moderate situations, you may be able to clear your own way, but don’t neglect your saw.
Few of us are really competent with an ax, which is more an expert’s tool. Far safer and more effective for most of us is a good trail saw with case, light to carry and easily tied to your saddle strings. I prefer the type that cuts only on the pull stroke, often called the “Oregon pruning saw.”
Step 5: Watch for mud and erosion. Spring means mud and possible trail erosion since the route was last used. Be careful on ledge trails that have narrowed as freeze/thaw cycles through winter caused wet soil to leach off their lower edges.
To be kind to the environment, avoiding riding when your horse’s hooves will damage the trail. Even in drier conditions, there will often be mud in sheltered areas and on north slopes skipped by the low winter sun. Since north slopes hold moisture, they often feature the heavier timber and thus more shade that can hide the very worst footing for horses: mud over frost.
An inch of mud over frost is the one sort of footing that can make me decide to leave my horse at home. No type of horse shoe helps, because traction devices don’t penetrate down into the frost. It’s like going down a playground slide on sheets of wax paper. The mud layer slides over the frost beneath it. Worse, the top surface of such footing can look dry.
Get off and lead your horse, if necessary. If you do, walk beside his left shoulder rather than directly in front of him. If he loses traction or decides to jump an obstacle or depression, you’d be at risk for an injury if you were in front.
Step 6: Be careful on hills. On questionable footing, side hills are particularly treacherous. Slanting along on a side hill, faster than I should have been riding, my faithful gelding Little Mack hit a wet area where water had been leaking out of an irrigation ditch over a slope that was normally bone dry. I spotted the wet ground too late, just as my horse’s feet, all four of them, shot out from under him to my left, downhill. We hit the ground on my right side with a splat.
Luckily, we missed the many available rocks, falling rather evenly on muddy ground, my right side under his, but without a single pressure point that terribly injured either him or me. I did break several ribs and was sore for some weeks, but it could have been much worse.
Little Mack arose looking confused, then went back to work chasing the errant calf we had found.
If the slick slope is short, perhaps on a ditch bank or barrow pit, it’s usually better to go straight up or straight down than traverse at an angle. For a short distance, a horse can often skid safely downhill, locking up all four legs. Going up, he can usually scramble his way to the top. But sideways falls are very bad.
Try to find a way around longer obstacles, while staying wary of potentially slick north slopes.
Step 7: Watch for high water. Streams can be problematic in spring. In the Midwest and South, high water often comes early following a big snow melt or seasonal rains. Level ground makes for slow, deep, treacherously muddy streams. Crossing them with horses must be done with extreme care, if at all, because the bottoms aren’t visible and the footing under water uncertain.
In the desert Southwest, rare rains strike soils that won’t absorb water quickly, which can cause flash floods. As a Montana Marine training in the California desert, I learned to watch the mountains to the west, many miles away. If clouds were flirting with the high peaks we made our camps on the highest ground possible, away from the dry washes. Such dry washes could soon become torrents after brief rainstorms packing only a quarter-inch of moisture.
If you frequent desert country in spring, be aware of how quickly things can change. The dry wash you crossed that morning can be an impassable obstacle upon return in the afternoon.
In the northern Rocky Mountains, high water tends to come later, when the mountain snow grudgingly gives way to summer sun. Earlier rainstorms will have brought temporary rises to the streams, but true high water in Montana usually coincides, just as the old-timers told us, with the full bloom of the wild roses, normally in early June.
Here, most stream courses fall down canyons that drop rapidly in elevation. Such a drop is both good and bad. High stream flows tend not to spill over their banks, because they have a place to go – down. But the result is increased velocity.
Water in such streams may be fairly clear even at flood stage; though in the very high country it often takes on the glacial blue-green of recently melted snow. You may be able to see to a firm, rocky bottom of such streams, but the problem is velocity and the sheer power of fast-running water.
Swimming a horse may not be an issue at all, because deep streams with currents of such power can send horse and rider helplessly down the canyon if the horse’s feet ever part company with the bottom.
In powerful currents, let your horse’s belly be the guide. If extremely fast currents are much more than belly deep, you’re likely to get into trouble. When your horse starts leaning into the current and your stirrup hits water, turn around, if possible, and cross safely on another day.
On spring rides, start easy, stay safe, and keep your ego under control. You aren’t admitting defeat if you get off and lead over dangerous ground. Happy spring trails!
Dan Aadland (http://my.montana.net/draa) raises mountain bred Tennessee Walking Horses and gaited mules on his ranch in Montana. His most recent books are The Best of All Seasons, The Complete Trail Horse, and 101 Trail Riding Tips. Sketches from the Ranch: A Montana Memoir is now available in a new Bison Books edition.