This season, you’ve promised yourself you’ll make the leap. You’re ready to camp with your horse — well, for just one night. You’ll camp beneath the stars before a day of riding. When you arrive at your destination-of-rest, you won’t hear vehicle engines. You’ll be alone with your riding buddies and your horses.
But the same scenario that brings thoughts of freedom and wide-open spaces also makes you worry: What will you and your horse eat? What will you need to pack to set up camp? And will your horse be safe and comfortable through the night?
To take the worry out of your adventure, we sought advice from a panel of horse and camping experts: equine veterinarian and trail rider Barb Crabbe; longtime horse and mule trainer Steve Edwards (who teaches a class at Central Arizona College called "Spending the Night with your Equine"); natural horsemanship trainer Brad Myers; and horse-camping guru and The Trail Rider consulting editor Bonnie Davis.
Our experts agree that it’s best to start with a one-night stay. And if horse camping seems daunting, recruit an experienced friend to accompany you or hire a guide to lead you on your first night out.
Find your first overnight stay location by scouting your local parks and wilderness areas for facilities that offer pre-set corrals for your horse. Such facilities will likely offer a sturdy overnight home for your horse and offer nearby campgrounds for you. Also look for a campground and set of trails that’s near a trailer parking lot. While your goal is to be away from the safety and luxury of your posh trailer, knowing that emergency items are close by will make your first camp out peaceful and enjoyable.
Read on to find out how to plan the perfect horse-camping dinner, bedtime, breakfast, and ride. Our experts will tell you what common mistakes to avoid on your first trip. They’ll also fill you in on their personal recipes and share tips to make camping easy.
For your horse: Pack your horse’s usual dinner rations. You may be tempted to "treat" your horse to special feed to prepare him for the upcoming day of riding. But Dr. Crabbe says to resist the urge to change his feed. "Keep your horse’s feed as close to the same as possible," she says. "It’s a big mistake to give your horse a big portion of grain or some other concentrate if he’s not used to it. You might think you’re giving him extra energy, but you really may be causing digestive troubles."
Dr. Crabbe says you may add a hydrating treat without the risk of upsetting your horse’s digestion. Soaking your horse’s hay, providing wet bran, or feeding beet pulp can prompt him to get the moisture he needs after a trailering trip or a day on the trail. "Keeping your horse hydrated is a priority," she says. "Make sure your horse drinks or gets moisture in his system."
And while electrolytes are important to help your horse stay hydrated, be careful not to overwhelm his system with a large dose. "Many trail riders make the mistake of administering a full tube of electrolytes immediately before they put their horses on a trailer," Dr. Crabbe says. "That large dose actually dehydrates horses, pulling fluid out of his bloodstream. If you’re going to camp or ride where it’s hot, start providing electrolytes in grain or a second bucket of water about a week before you leave home. That extra time will allow your horse to rebalance fluids."
Edwards agrees that keeping your horse hydrated is a top priority when trail riding and when camping at an unfamiliar site. He suggests packing at least five gallons of water from your home tap. If you combine the water from home with the water available on the trail, your horse may be more likely to drink and will gradually adapt to the new water. You can leave some of the packed water at your nearby trailer if you can’t carry all at once.
If you’d like to keep your load light, Edwards recommends packing Gatorade instead of water. "I add a cup of Gatorade to my equine’s water every day for five days before a trip," he says. "When you arrive at your campsite, add Gatorade to the local water. I find the Gatorade does no more than add a different smell and taste that your horse will get used to and be familiar with. I don’t depend on the formula to add electrolytes, I just find the flavor helps my equines drink more on the road."
For you: While your horse will have to make do with his usual rations, you’re free to try out new camp-cooking recipes.
Edwards likes his hamburger stew. You’ll do the prep work at home, then heat the stew over a campfire.
If starting a campfire seems like work for the experts, follow Davis’ easy dinner plan. "If I’m just planning an overnighter, I fix everything at home, and I fix something quick," she says.?"I like a simple sandwich with everything on it — cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, mustard, mayo, slices of turkey — on French bread. A sandwich made at home in the morning, wrapped tight and eaten that night is so good. All the flavors blend together."
If Davis is at a site where there are grills or campfire rings, she’ll also prepare her favorite soup. She freezes the soup at least two days before the trip, lets it thaw as she travels, then warms it up in a metal pot over the open fire when she reaches camp.
Davis also recommends wrapping frozen hamburgers (complete with chopped onions and dill pickles) in layers of newspaper. The burgers will stay frozen for up to three days before cooking in aluminum foil over a campfire.
For your horse: If your horse is accustomed to being away from home, he’ll likely settle in to any paddock without much work. Before you stay out all night, make sure he’s been around the block. Myers suggests making sure your horse will willingly stand tied without other horses nearby, in case his camp paddock keeps him separated from his buddies.
Being alone may be his safest option. Myers says that once you reach your horse’s overnight pen, your horse shouldn’t be turned out with horses he doesn’t know. If your horse is added to a new "herd" for one night, he won’t get much rest. Instead, he’ll get to know other horses, and be preoccupied with establishing a pecking order.
Davis recommends taking along everything your horse uses at home. Bring his blanket (if the temperature will drop), and the buckets and tubs he’s used to at eating time. The familiarity may help him eat and drink as usual. And if he settles into a routine, you may get more sleep. Davis also packs bells to attach to her horse’s blanket. "If there’s no moon, the sound of the bell helps me locate my horse; plus the bell is a new sound to most?wildlife, so they stay away from the camp," she says.
What if your horse seems stressed in his new environment? Davis says she makes sure to check on her horse frequently. She talks to him and lets him know he wasn’t abandoned. She also brushes him down and gives him a treat (carrots, or a mash with honey and brown sugar) before she heads off to bed.
For you: Davis recommends bringing "everything you need to be comfortable." She says she keeps her trailer loaded with all the gear she may need for any temperature. With supplies close by, she feels more secure when she’s camping a short way from her trailer.
Although you’ll have your creature comforts near if you need them, do your best to minimize your gear. Instead of taking several days’ worth of clothing, choose something comfortable that you don’t mind wearing on Day Two. Or, wear the same outerwear, and pack a new t-shirt and underwear.
Pack a waterproof tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, and pillow. Ask the clerk at your local outdoor-supply store for help on finding camping gear that’s small enough to take with you on horseback. Most new tents are easy to set up and collapse to a packable size. Consider purchasing collapsible chairs to lounge in before you hit the sleeping bag. (For suggested camping-related packing lists, visit www.backpackinglight.com.)
Once your campsite is set, relax. "The best thing you can do to get a good night’s sleep is to research and plan ahead, then simply trust that your horse can take care of himself," says Myers.
For your horse: Dr. Crabbe recommends feeding your horse the same hay or grain you would if you were at home. Pack enough feed so that your horse isn’t eating a different variety while you camp. "Pretend it’s a normal day," she says.
For you: Your breakfast can be quick and easy, allowing you plenty of time to clean up and hit the trail. Davis recommends oatmeal with raisins. At home, she prepares oatmeal, raisins, and brown sugar and places them in a plastic bag. At the campsite, she heats water in a camp-size pot, then pours the water and the food mix into a bowl. For protein, tuck a few hard-boiled eggs in your food pack.