For many years I
have been working in technology, writing about architectural computer aided design programs and geographic information systems
and why these things work or don't work; how they change the way people work or don't. Although these are all very important
to those people who use them, I am on the outside, reporting, viewing, synthesizing information so that it can more readily
be understood by people who are eager for this type of knowledge.
All the while, my interest in mapping the interior
of my soul, and being part of the outdoors, has been a stronger pull than the demands of my computer and my desk. I have felt
trapped at my desk at times, daydreaming of places I would rather be, although I have always enjoyed writing. The quiet solitude
of writing, as it once was, has been interrupted by the Internet, advertisements, email, and even now stereo speakers.
It is no longer a simple process of putting words on screen.
For those who know me in the capacity of Editor
and Writer of technology journals, it may come as a surprise that I don't dream of computer aided design or 3D graphics cards
while I'm not working. Or perhaps for those who share my interest in the outdoors, they can see how it's a balancing act:
technology vs. nature. For many people involved with geographic information systems, this is their life. They became geographers
because they loved the land, and they got into geographic information systems because they were geographers and needed a way
to map the land that they love. They lament that they spend more time at their desks than in the great outdoors now.
I know gurus of computer aided engineering who
love to write poetry, who play music, who play in rock bands, who visit art museums whenever they can. The mind that embraces
the mystery of technology is also the same mind that embraces art, nature, music, the written word.
For months I have wanted to go back to where
I was once, although I knew I could never return entirely to that place. Technology has taken us too far. I was once a writer
of children's novels; I wrote over 35 of them. I began by working at a manual typewriter, and from there went to an IBM memory
typewriter, which was quickly replaced by a computer.
Early computers were simply typewriters that
allowed you the incredible grace of erasing everything you wanted to erase and start again on the same page. Revisions became
incredibly easy. We couldn't think any faster, but we could definitely save time in retyping pages to accommodate the new
thoughts, and sometimes in the retelling, other thoughts would enter in to make more changes necessary.
The flow of creativity was at its finest then.
The biggest interruption was having to insert a floppy disk and then back it up with another one when you were done working
for the day--or the phone ringing.
Now the phone hardly rings. Email has taken its
place to a large extent. It is a world that requires that you fight to remain centered, focused and alert. I am not surprised
that so many people have been diagnosed with attention deficit syndrome in the past 20 years, as computers and television
have robbed our psyche of its attention, and scattered focus like so many leaves blown from a tree.
Perhaps it seems strange
to begin a book about horse trails by discussing technology tools, but tools are what we work with, and when they interrupt
the flow of our work, then we must question if they are indeed, tools. What changes must be made? This has affected me deeply,
and has made me want to return to more basic work. Lack of attention has caused me many problems in my life, and so the writing,
horses, trails and painting (another love) bring me back to my center.
People today are quickly relinquishing the real
earth for a virtual one, through television shows, vicarious experiences instead of actually getting their feet dirty in the
real outdoors. At one time people lived close to nature, they had farms, they grew livestock, they knew horses intimately.
Today many people own horses that they never ride. Others own horses that they ride in an arena only, afraid to venture out
into the unknown. For some, this is not a yearning; for others, like myself, it is like breathing. I want to go back to that
time when what is basic to mankind is the essence of life, when what happened in a day can be remembered. This is why I ride
horseback, this is why I ride trails, and why I decided to write this book.
The Trails of the Southwest
are numerous and I'm sure that I can write volumes about them. Horses have been a major part of the livelihood of the residents
of this country for a long time. Three basic cultures have settled here: native Americans, Spanish, and Anglos. It is as important
to know the cultural terrain as it is to know the topography in this part of the country.
I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From Santa Fe,
I still ride on BLM and National Forest lands from where I keep my horses. I can pop them in the trailer and drive an hour
in almost any direction and find excellent trails.
I'm writing this book for all those who love
to ride trails -- from the Sunday rider to the diehard person who seeks the most remote backcountry trails. My hope is to
provide a starting place for exploration.
For years I've wanted to write this book, but
been afraid I might encourage people who were unprepared for trail challenges, or who would populate beloved trails in droves.
Then I realized this is unlikely. The amount of energy it takes to put a horse in the trailer with all its stuff, drive for
an hour or two, tack up in a strange place, and ride for four to nine hours is not something everyone is just dying to do.
Only those who are truly dedicated to trails will attempt it. The others will go to a dude ranch, rent a horse, and have a
guide take them out on a quiet ride to view tame beauty. And for those truly dedicated ones, who are my compatriots, this
book is for you.
The book is arranged first by sections of the
country, then by trail. I also plan to list trails in order of their complexity.
For most of us, embarking on a mid-week ride involves tacking up, leaving the barn and riding out for an hour or two.
You don't need to worry too much about a water source or food for you and the horse as you're not going to be gone all that
long. On the weekend, if you want to stay out for four hours or longer, youll probably want to make sure youve got a water
source somewhere along the trail for your horse, and that you've packed a lunch for yourself and have plenty of water onboard
A medical kit for you and your horse (many items
you can share) is a good idea from this point on. Whether you're riding close to home or not, certain items should be in your
medical kit just in case. A list of those items will appear at the end of this chapter. Just writing them down will force
me to update my own personal medical kit.
A collapsible bag that will hold water is also
a good idea. I can't count the times I've seen water on the trail but been unable to access it because of the terrain, and
needed a water bag to offer my horse water.
I can spend an entire chapter on equipment for
those who are shopping. I expect most people who want this book will have equipment they're happy with, but I'll go into it
all the same. For right now, I'll just suggest a pommel bag that fits your particular saddle, and a cantle bag, both of which
should have water bottle holders or you can buy water bottle holders separately. This arrangement works fine for most rides.
Saddlebags are probably useful for a longer ride where you're camping out and want to bring cameras, lots of water. I could've
used one in Canyon de Chelly, but actually my little packs were adequate. Basically, I don't like a whole lot of stuff flopping
around on the saddle. I want packs that stay tied down and don't bump the horse. Minimum bounce, I think they call it. Think
of it like the prerequisites for picking out a bra.
Which brings to mind another important issue
-- preparing your horse. I know there are horses out there that refuse to drink from strange tanks and probably wouldn't dream
of dipping their noses into a collapsible water bag. They are a worry on the
trail -- horses need to know how to take care of themselves and drink when and where they get the opportunity.
To teach your horse to drink, give him every
opportunity on the trail. Every time you get to water, let him drink. This may get aggravating to the people you ride with
but do it anyway. Eventually the horse will probably want to drink. He'll know this is the water source, and figure out it's
not going to come from a clean bucket straight from a tap. That is in another world.
Keep in mind that horses come from various environments.
My mare lived wild for the first six years of her life, before moving to New Mexico to live with me. She drinks from
anything and often. I never had to teach her, she knows that she should take advantage of mud puddles and dirt tanks where
ever we are. Horses that have never had to take care of themselves tend to be more fussy, but I believe they still can be
Relationship with your Horse
I'm not going to wax eloquent
on how to have a better relationship with your horse. There are many people better equipped to do that than I. But in order
to ride trails you need a good trail horse, and in order to have a good trail horse you must have a good relationship with
your horse. If it's a borrowed horse, then you come ready to learn what this horse has to teach you. The attitude of my horse
won't do this, or that will not work well on the trail. Remember you are partners and the focus you bring to the activity
of riding and taking care of the animal is invaluable. Be specific with your horse. You figure out what the horse needs and
go from there. The horse will learn to trust you and you will learn to trust the horse. The horse needs to know what his responsibility
is to you, and vice versa.
This is just the beginning. It takes awhile to
make a good trail horse. People who buy one ready-made don't realize how many years that horse has been riding trails, seeing
and hearing strange things: wildlife, people on three-wheelers, huge backpacks, kids in packs flopping above their parents
heads, dogs, weird looking tree stumps, snakes, etc. If they've been pastured or ponied for the early part of their lives
then they've seen some weird stuff already. My mare has very little fear of the natural world, but could not bear to see people
in her mind "out of context" just walking towards us down the trail!
Instead of saying "Oh, my horse wont go down
the trail if there are people on it" we just rode trails more, and eventually people on the trail became commonplace.
horses who don't want to walk in sand, who won't step over a log, who won't cross streams. My advice is to get this stuff
worked out before you go on a major trail ride with a bunch of other riders. Find a trail that has a stream and go with a
friend who is tolerant of how long it will take you to teach your horse to cross it. Or, during winter, take advantage of
mucky ground and puddles and take your horse through them until he is completely fearless.
A lot of people attach a lot of fear to trail riding.
Their fear is probably healthy, because unless you invest the time and energy into problem solving on the trail, you will
not feel comfortable there. If you don't feel comfortable the chances are your horse won't either. Horses need to feel safe,
and if they have only achieved that safety within the confines of an arena they often aren't going to do well on the trail
unless you make that part of their training. A Western Pleasure trail class will not do it. There are no switchbacks in such
a class, no backpacks, no steep inclines. The discipline of learning to back up, sidestep, and open gates is useful, but those
skills are only useful when applied to the real trail world. A Western Pleasure horse who has never been on the trail may
be totally out of his comfort zone if you take him on a trail ride. I've seen beautifully trained dressage horses that have
never been on the trail go ballistic once another horse starts moving out ahead of them on the trail.
There is a popular belief afoot (excuse the pun)
that horses no longer need shoes. They've never needed shoes and it's not good for their feet to wear them.
Well, I can't disagree that it probably would
be better for all of us to not wear shoes ever, and grow huge calluses on our feet to protect us from stuff. But the world
we live in now is not the same as it once was. Horses that run just on soft ground or in arenas or on sand may never need
shoes, but my experience and the advice of a good farrier shows me that it depends upon the horse, and the terrain.
My first mare Opal went without shoes for five
months a year, because she had such hard feet and we weren't riding much during the winter months. She never wore her feet
down from having no shoes. A great candidate for au naturel. My gelding wears his feet down too much and gets sore heels,
so he needs shoes all year round.
The terrain around my place is rocky and sandy,
and sometimes you run across human garbage such as glass, so I prefer to have shoes or easyboots on my horses for foot protection.
Conditioning Your Horse
In endurance circles we tend to believe that you can take just about
any horse over the age of four out of a pasture and put him in a 25-mile ride and he can complete it. Thats true if the horse
has truly been on pasture, uses that space to roam around freely, is in relatively good health and not overweight. It's true
if, on the first 25 mile ride, the rider doesn't allow the horse to run hell-bent-for-leather for 25 miles.
I enjoy taking horses out for an hour or two
first, a steady walk and trot, just to keep them moving and see how they do on the trail. I do this every other day or as
weather permits when I'm starting a horse, then slowly crank up the amount of time in the saddle. LSD or long slow distance
is the key with any kind of trail conditioning.
Once I get them up to about 20-25 miles of steady
conditioning once a week, and maybe a couple of three to ten mile rides during the week, they can do just about anything I
want them to do. Sometimes I'll do a 10 or 15 mile mountain ride that requires a lot of climbing and negotiating terrain,
which is the equivalent of about 25 miles on a straight track. Sometimes I take them out for an hour of fast work if I don't have time to put on the miles.
Other excellent options if time is of the essence are ground work and arena work, just to keep your horse supple and your relationship
active. I have always been one of those people who wants to just jump on and go, but I've learned that the slower work is
very helpful to keep me connected to my horses, which helps when the going gets tough in challenging situations on the trail.
Most people with horses have full time jobs because
otherwise they wouldn't be able to pay for the hay, board and vet bills. So conditioning is dependent on when you get off
work, how much weekday time you can put in and whether you prefer to clean house or do home improvements on the weekends instead
of ride. Because of this conditioning programs must be flexible, but also be aware that if you haven't had the time to put
on the miles, your horse isn't going to be fit enough to enjoy a lot of trails.
I realize that the goals of many trail riders
are to simply see scenery, to walk their horses for the majority of the trail. For those people, pick one of the trails closer
to home that doesn't require much of you and your horse. This type of trail rider is not going to go on a regimen of training
in order to cover a lot of ground in four to six hours. That's fine. But some of the rides in this book are tough and long.
Of course you can opt to do only part of a trail
and turn around. However, one of the joys of trailriding, at least for me and many of my friends, is being able to see places
that take days to get to on foot. I can get way into the backcountry on a horse, in a matter of a couple of hours sometimes.
I can ride out onto a mesa and there is NO ONE else there. If I am walking my horse, then I am limited to the trails near
the trailhead, or just a short way out. Those trails are likely to have a lot of hiker and bike traffic.
copyright (c) Susan Smith 2002