Many years ago, on a pack trip with my two young sons, the importance of careful horse restraint in the backcountry was drummed into me with the sudden sounds of pounding hooves and crackling branches.
Camped in a spacious clearing a quarter mile above a United States Forest Service cabin, we'd done just one thing right, and it saved us a long walk to the trailhead
Access to the cabin and park (Montanan for "clearing") was a bridge across a whitewater river. To contain our horses, almost as an afterthought, we put in place the pole left there by other packers. That single pole across the bridge rails, secured by baling wire, blocked the only feasible equine exit from the park.
What had we done wrong? We'd hobbled all our horses. They'd rolled, gratefully free of their saddles, and commenced grazing on the ample meadow grass. But we'd purchased old Mona, clan matriarch, from an outfitter who used this very drainage. She knew the ropes. And after taking the edge off her hunger, she suddenly loped down the trail, hobbles or no.
Panicked at the exit of their leader, the other horses followed frantically. The boys and I, equally panicked, sprinted toward the bridge. Mona beat us there. Chest against the pole we'd put in place, Mona stood, the other horses behind her, ready to cross and aim her herd toward the trailhead.
Never hobble all your horses. Keep at least one competent saddle horse tied short, preferably to a highline, at all times. Even seasoned mountain horses are homebodies, and sooner or later they'll decide they're tired of the trip. The result can be a long, long walk.
See you on the trail-hopefully with all your horses!
(For a feature article from Dan Aadland on horse restraint in the backcountry, see "Hold Your Horses!" Sketches from the Trail, The Trail Rider, May '10.)