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Susan V Smith

New Mexico Trail Book - Foreword
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             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.



Happy Trails


            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 for you.

             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 taught.



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.

            There are 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.

 Enough said.



             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

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