by Marilyn Munzert
Exploring scenic areas horseback, sitting around the campfire at night and sleeping under the stars makes camping with horses sound fun to many riders. However, if the horse and rider are unprepared for spending the night, or several nights, in the wilderness, an enjoyable activity could quickly become unsafe.
If you are considering a horse camping trip, one of the most important decisions to make is where and how you will keep your horse safely contained when you are not riding. Factors to consider are whether you are packing into a backcountry campsite or staying at a trailhead or developed campground; your horse’s training level; your own experience with handling horses in camp; and forest regulations concerning stock containment and grazing.
If you will be riding deep into the backcountry and setting up camp, a highline is one of the simplest and most lightweight options for restraining your horses. Used properly, it also has the least impact on the environment and is a comfortable option for some horses. However, it is not a good choice for those who ride in treeless areas, and you have to make sure you regularly lead your horse to water.
With a highline, you stretch a length of rope between two trees or other stable objects, such as trailers, and secure your horses’ halters and lead ropes to the line. Most wilderness areas require placing tree-saver straps around the trees to prevent them from being girdled, or having the bark stripped away, by the rope.
When selecting a location for your highline, you want an area with trees that’s away from the trail, road or immediate campsite. You need trees not only to secure the highline, but also to shelter the horses from inclement weather. Make sure the ground is clear of brush, branches or other debris that could entangle or injure your horse. For the least environmental impact, find an area with hard-packed ground.
Secure the highline to stout, sturdy trees that won’t fall or be pulled over; avoid using dead trees. Most backcountry horsemen prefer nylon rope with knots or metal swivel attachments to which they tie the horses.
Place tree protectors and line about seven feet from the ground, above the horses’ heads. This prevents a horse from getting its foot over the line. Having the highline on a ratchet, allows you to pull the line taut to keep it from sagging.
When tying horses to the highline: separate mares and geldings, horses that kick, and aggressive horses from those lowest in the herd’s pecking order. This sometimes means putting up two highlines. Space the horses nearest to the trees about 10 feet from the base of the tree so they cannot dig up the roots. Space the horses at least 10 to 12 feet apart on the line to keep them from fighting or getting tangled. Tie their lead ropes at about arm’s length.
A picket line also can be used in areas that permit grazing. To prevent entanglement, it is best to us a picket line in a meadow free of debris. For this reason, picketing a horse in brushy or rocky country is not a good idea.
At night, you can picket the horse, the highest in the pecking order, and turn the rest of the horses loose. Move the picketed horse every four hours to prevent her from wearing a circle in the ground.
Once a clear area has been found, drive a metal stake with a swivel on top straight into the ground, leaving only inches exposed. Attach a 30-foot soft cotton rope to the stake. You can picket a horse by a foot, with one hobble attached to the rope, or attach the picket line to a durable web halter as you would a lead rope.
Lightweight portable or electric corrals are the best option if you’re camping at a trailhead or a developed horse campground where there might be a community of campers with their horses. If your backcountry campsite is accessible by vehicle, portable corrals are also a good option to use solely or in combination with the methods mentioned in this article. Place the corrals on hard-packed ground, move them at least once a day, and spread the manure to prevent too much impact to the land.
Consider how many horses you will have in a corral, making sure you have a large-enough pen that they can move around and lie down. Also, make sure there aren’t any sharp, unfinished edges, or that your horse can’t get his head caught under the panels and lift them up.
In some close-quarter situations, you might need to leave your horse tied to the trailer. This is the simplest restraint method, but usually isn’t advised overnight because horses can get sore and stocked up from standing in one place. They also might paw and kick your trailer.
If this is your only option, be sure to walk your horse regularly to keep it limber and alleviate boredom, and tie the horse above its withers so it can’t get the rope tangled around its legs. Avoid tying horses close together, especially those that kick, bite, of do not get alone with others. Allow 10 to 12 feet between horses if possible. When tying to a trailer temporarily, the rope should be no longer than your arm’s length and should be at the same level as your eye.