I’d love to camp with my horse, but it feels like a scary step to take. I’ve taken my horse on daylong trail rides, but I haven’t stayed overnight. What do I need to know as a first-time horse camper? How do I prepare myself and my horse so that it all goes smoothly?
If you haven’t camped with your horse before, it can seem like a big undertaking with a lot of logistics. However, if you break it down into steps and start with a simple trip, I trust that you can handle it.
In any camping environment, you’ll need to plan for food, water, and shelter for horses and humans. That’s it.
How complicated you make meeting each of those needs is up to you. You can keep it simple by heading to a fully equipped facility or you can decide to master the wilderness. I advise starting small and working up to a more rustic adventure.
Stay as comfortable as you can, but don’t be afraid to move out of your comfort zone so that you can grow in your horsemanship experiences.
Here, I’ll tell you how to prepare your horse for overnight stays. Then I’ll give you a way to slowly progress your camping skills by going up “levels” as you become more adept.
Tip: At each camping level, keep notes on what you needed to have with you and what you forgot. With every trip, you’ll become more organized and find out what little things helped you feel more comfort able in camp and on the trail.
Prep Your Horse
No matter what type of camping you choose, the experience of being away from home will be a great lesson for your horse. He’ll need to get used to sleeping away from home.
You’ll find out whether your horse will keep his usual routine, how he’ll do if there’s an unknown horse next to him, whether he’ll challenge the fencing or enclosures, and other details about his habits away from his usual abode.
Based on your horse’s behavior, you’ll learn what type of containment is best suited for him. For instance, you might find out that your horse will challenge portable-corral panels, so it’ll be better to teach him to stand tied.
If your horse will stay overnight near horses he doesn’t know, make sure the horses get along. Keep an eye on your horse if he’s housed near an aggressive horse.
Don’t be afraid to ask the facility manager to move your horse, if needed.
Level 1: Ranch, Resort, or B&B
Plan your first overnight trip at a ranch, resort, or barn & breakfast that offers indoor accommodations for you, and a pen or stall for your horse.
This way, you can have a five-star experience while you practice packing for your horse’s overnight needs. You’ll also see how your horse acts in an unfamiliar environment.
At this level, you’re well taken care of, and your horse’s shelter and water are easy to plan. You’ll still need to plan for your horse’s feed and get used to packing what you’ll need to ride and care for him.
When I shoot my television show, I head for a nice ranch where the horses have great pens, and our cast and crew get to be a little pampered.
Two standouts are SisterCreek Ranch near San Antonio, Texas (www.sistercreekranch.com), and the Inn at Richmond in Richmond, Massachusetts (www.innatrichmond.com), which is adjacent the Berkshire Equestrian Center (theberkshireequestriancenter.com).
Both places offer top-notch stalls and accommodations. Trails are accessible without having to trailer outside of camp.
Level 2: Campground with Corral
If you’re ready for a little more adventure, look for a campground with a corral. Some of the nicer resorts also offer camping options. You’ll stay in a tent, living-quarters’ trailer, or recreational vehicle, while your equine friend stays in a nearby corral.
With this option, you can build up your camping skills without having to worry about how you’ll secure your horse overnight, one of the biggest camping challenges.
Of course, you’ll still need to plan for your horse’s feed, just as you would on Level 1.
The only change from the last level is packing more for your own overnight. You might start by camping in your trailer’s living quarters then step up (or down) to a tent.
Pack your own food, and find recipes to cook at the camp. Or, pack prepackaged meals you can keep with you in a cooler.
Level 3: Rustic Camp
In this level, you’ll move away from a “civilized” campground, but you’ll still have access to your vehicle. Having your vehicle nearby means you’ll have access to your cooler and other supplies.
The biggest change here is securing your horse overnight. Horse-containment options include tying to the trailer, setting up a highline, or setting up a portable corral.
(I’m presuming you have a well-trained trail horse that ties well without pawing or carrying on; if not, you have some work to do at home.) Here’s a rundown of each containment option.
• Tying to the trailer. If you choose this option, give your horse just enough lead line to allow him to lie down and allow him to get his head down to eat hay. As your horse puts down his head to eat, you’ll see how long to leave the line — if the line is long enough to allow him to eat, he’ll also find that he can lie down. Shorten the lead while you groom and saddle your horse.
You can also invest in a HiTie Trailer Tie System, available from EasyCare Inc.(www.easycareinc.com). The HiTie will give your horse access to an area equivalent of a 13-foot-diameter round pen, so he can graze, eat, drink, roll, and lie down while tied.
• Highline. A highline is just that — a line tied between two trees or poles. Be sure to use tree-safe methods, and that you’re allowed to tie a highline in the area on which you’re camping. (For how to tie a highline, go to EquiSearch.com, and enter “Tie a Highline” into the search bar.)
• Portable corral. You can buy a pre-made portable corral or build one yourself. If you’ll always stay near your vehicle, you can even take full-sized panels. I’ve also seen electric fencing used — if you choose this option, make sure that your horse is very comfortable staying in electric tape without challenging it. Find the containment system that works well for your horse, and make sure to practice that containment at home, first!
Level 4: Wilderness Camping
In this level, you’ll switch to multiday trips into wilderness areas. I consider this the pro level. You’ll need lots of experience under your belt before you approach this level.
You’ll need permits and sometimes insurance. You’ll need to file your trip plans. There might be restrictions as to the number of heartbeats allowed in a specific camping area, counting humans and all animals.
Camping in the open is a big step. You’ll need to decide how much you’ll need with you and whether you’ll need an extra animal with you to help pack the gear.
It’s possible to start out small, and for one horse and human to carry what you need, but it’s important to avoid overloading your horse, especially if you’ll be going over tough terrain.
Ask your veterinarian how much weight your horse can carry comfortably, then decide if you can pack all that you need and stay under that weight.
If you’ll need to use a pack animal, it’s best to go along with a professional outfitter first and learn all you can. After you’ve gained experience, you can probably talk to a ranger or guide to find out what you’ll need to know to go it alone.
Since you won’t have access to your horse’s feed, you’ll need to know about
the available grazing areas and water sources.
For more information on equine behavior, see Julie Goodnight’s new book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding available from www.EquineNetworkStore.com. Also, watch the Horse Master television show, airing each Monday and Saturday night on RFD-TV.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (http://whole-picture.com) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.