I once witnessed a sight few will have the opportunity to enjoy. On top of a high plateau in south-central Montana, on a little-used trail marked only by an occasional rock cairn, I watched the late-afternoon sun touch the top of a magnificent mountain several miles to the east. The peak, fringed by velvet forest at its base, was shaped like a huge rock fortress. It was a mountain fit for a king, and it was easy to imagine one living there, perhaps in exile, untouched by the outside world.
Although I'll never forget that experience, intensified by my solitude, there are other more sobering memories of the event. I was traveling alone with two young horses, riding Major and leading Sugar (who was carrying light packs) on a trek across two mountain passes. Tired and a little dehydrated, my stomach slightly nauseous from the syndrome called acute mountain sickness, I was nearly overcome by a sense of unease that dampened my enjoyment of the striking scene.
With unease came worries, "what-ifs." What if my horse slipped, fell down on this treacherous, rocky trail, and broke my leg, or worse? The trail had just opened for the summer, and was only partially free of snow at high elevation. There was no cell-phone service. In case of injury, how long might I wait for help? What were the odds anyone else would be traveling over these passes so soon in the season? True, my wife, Emily, knew my general route, but it would be two days before she'd suspect I needed help.
Trail riding alone, like sailing alone, is exhilarating. Whether you're on a two-hour jaunt in familiar territory or on a solo wilderness expedition, going alone is a great way to get in touch with both yourself and your horse.
Free from interaction with other humans, you see more of your surroundings. All your senses come alive. The pine trees are more pungent, the bird songs more beautiful. But there's one inescapable fact: Trail riding alone involves accepting a certain amount of risk.
Yes, we could simply say (as we do with swimming), "Don't trail ride alone!" But to classify solo trail riding as a foolish activity would be to remove a great opportunity for adventure from riders so inclined.
And there's another problem. I don't consider the horse that has never been out on the trails alone - apart from other horses and the herd instinct that helps carry inexperienced animals across streams and obstacles - to be a "complete trail horse." A horse properly trained for the trails must be capable of handling such wrinkles alone. And to get him trained to that degree, someone must ride him!
So any exhortations to the contrary, horses and riders will venture out alone, one horse and one rider. Risk is involved and can't be completely removed, so we must concentrate on reducing it to what for you, personally, is an acceptable level. Going alone means observing all our normal safety precautions, then doubling them.
Check Tack & Apparel
The nightmare scenario for any rider, but even more worrisome when riding alone, is being bucked off (or falling off), then somehow getting hung up and dragged. Look critically at your saddled horse for anything that could glue you to the saddle in any fashion.
Are there any hanging rope loops, perhaps a lead rope carelessly draped in a large coil and hung from the saddle? Is your gear strapped on in a high bundle behind the cantle, ready to snag a spur when you dismount rapidly and forget the bundle is there?
Do you ride with a mecate (an extra length of horsehair rope tied to a traditional bosal), and if so, why? Some who favor the buckaroo tradition use them, but I don't recommend an extra rope coming back to your beltline for trail riding. It's another potential hazard to be caught on brush or to strangle you in case of a wreck.
If a wreck must happen, it's far better to fall off (or be bucked off) cleanly, with no attachment to your horse. Yes, you might have to walk home, but that's far preferable to being dragged. The safest place for your detached lead rope is either tied to your saddle strings tightly coiled (so that your foot can't go through it during a wreck) or stuffed into a saddlebag.
Do your stirrups have tapaderos? "Taps" of the solid-floored type prevent that worst-case scenario, that of being dragged because your foot slips completely through the stirrup during an accident. If you ride alone, install tapaderos. An alternative might be a breakaway stirrup system. I haven't used them personally, but some have received rave reviews.
What sort of footwear do you favor? It's hard to beat a traditional boot with enough heel to discourage your foot from slipping too far forward and with a smooth sole that slips out of the stirrup easily as you dismount. Sneakers are terrible footwear for riding, yet I see people wearing them. Lug-sole hiking boots are designed to grip, not to slip easily out of a stirrup.
If, like many of us, you're on the fence regarding riding with a helmet, perhaps now, when contemplating riding alone, is the time to take the plunge. There's simply no denying that your survival chances improve markedly in any sort of accident if you can protect your head.
Check Personal Gear
The gear you take along when riding alone is determined by the terrain and length of time you're planning to be gone. But it's always best to be prepared.
The one accident I've ever had in the backcountry occurred only a mile from a trailhead. It happened on cross-country skis, not horseback, when I miscalculated a curve, hit a tree, and broke a bone in my lower leg. I was with good, strong companions, but still had a long wait for the rescue sled.
As a former Marine winter-survival instructor, I was more than a little embarrassed. Why? Since we'd elected to ski only a very short loop, we'd all left our fanny packs back at the vehicles to make the upgrade part of the trail easier and quicker. We were without even the most elementary survival materials, so my companion and I both paid for my folly by shivering in darkness and pain for several hours.
That's not a mistake I'll make again. Had I been alone, it could've been a fatal one.
Your basic gear even for a short ride should include drinking water, snacks, matches, extra warmth, and a cell phone with freshly recharged battery. True, cell-phone reception still isn't universal, but it has improved markedly since I last wrote about this subject.
Do, for your serenity, keep the cell phone turned off while you ride, but keep it on your person. If your horse gets away from you, a cell phone in your saddlebag is of little use. Fishing vests with many pockets are wonderful for the trail rider. Everything you need can be on your body, which means it's always with you.
Include, too, a small first-aid kit, so that you could stop the bleeding of minor cuts and abrasions. Both a compass and a GPS unit also go along with me, plus a map of the area. Incidentally, modern cell phones already contain some GPS capability, required by a federal law mandating that calls to 911 identify the location of the caller. Cell phones that act as full-fledged GPS units are common today, and worthwhile for the trail rider.
More powerful and reliable for true wilderness jaunts are emergency position-indicating radio beacons and personal locator beacons (available from REI, 800/426-4840; www.rei.com). These are powerful GPS/radio units that, when tripped, send a signal reporting your precise location.
But be advised that their use carries with it great personal responsibility. A physician friend told me he carries such a device in the backcountry but that "it would take more than a broken leg" to make him use it. His ethic includes being responsible for his own safety and not relying on others. He'd use the device only if it were necessary to save his life.
And that's the downside of this wonderful technology. Rescue responders are coping with an increasing number of calls they consider frivolous. People who sustain relatively minor injuries in the backcountry are too often calling for rescue.
Should you use a beacon simply because you have a sprained ankle, expect to pay a hefty bill for your rescue. Further, your conscience will have to cope with the fact that you may have deflected rescue forces from far more crucial missions, perhaps causing pain and suffering for others.
Make Wise Choices
Cutting down the risk while riding alone means refraining from some things we might enjoy while riding with a trusted companion. Yes, it's tempting to lope across that field of flowers, but there may be woodchuck holes hidden in that lush spring grass.
Your horse at the lope is in a suspension gait, out of contact with the ground a portion of the time. His odds of falling may be very slight, well within your comfort zone - were you not alone. The "alone factor" changes everything. It might be better to proceed at a walk, running walk, or trot.
When my wife, Emily, and I rode in Spain, we were surprised at our guide's level of caution while riding downhill. Growing up riding in tough Montana terrain, we'd both become accustomed to riding virtually anywhere we could walk, including down slopes of nearly "Snowy River" pitch. But on steep downhill trails, our guide, Dallas Love, frequently dismounted and signaled for us to do the same.
We were aware that as a professional outfitter she had to be extraordinarily careful to protect her clients (and also her license and liability insurance). But we also realized we'd grown somewhat careless. A horse's surefootedness while progressing down a slope is considerably hampered by weight on his back. When alone and in doubt, get off and lead.
Prepare Your Horse
If simple enjoyment is your primary purpose for trail riding alone, and you own several horses, safety dictates that you take your "old reliable." But again, we run into the paradox: You probably won't consider your young horse fully trained for the trail until you've taken him out alone.
But you shouldn't do so until you've at least met some basic training objectives. Don't go out alone unless you're certain you can curtail an attempt to bolt or buck with the one-rein stop. Don't go out alone with a horse that's still extremely quick to spook and whose spooks result in dangerous behavior.
And don't go out alone on a given horse's first trail ride. Ride first with a trusted companion on a steady horse (not with a large impatient group). Take turns leading your companion, as well as following behind. Expose your horse to trail obstacles while he has this moral support.
Riding alone is one of my own great joys, and I don't intend to give it up soon. But as I age, I try to adjust my level of acceptable personal risk.
You'll have to determine your own level. But the mere act of being out there alone on the back of a strong animal that's capable of unexpected reactions, no matter how perfectly trained, dictates extreme care.
Next issue, I'll take this scenario on to greater adventure, that of traveling light and alone on treks of several days.