Wilderness Horseback Riding

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It's what they did in the olden days: saddle up and ride off into the hills.

Of course, in those days, people did wilderness trail riding because they had to. Then, they were looking for new homesteads, looking for gold, looking for lost cattle. These days, people do it just for fun!

Wilderness riding takes horse and rider out of the arena and off the track and puts them out on trails in the wide-open countryside. The good news is that you don't need to have a horse or huge backyard yourself to enjoy this activity. All you need is some free time, a little money and a sense of adventure!

These days, few people have true wilderness in their backyards, but many parks and wilderness areas lie within easy driving distance.

To enjoy these areas to their full potential, many people join organized horseback rides lasting several hours or several days. "On horseback, you can go by swamps and streams that would be real obstacles to walkers," says Max Baird. Baird and his wife, Georgia, have gone on a wilderness horseback vacation every year for nearly two decades.

Like most people, they go with a guide or outfitter to make the experience a safe and enjoyable one. The guide knows the trails and campsites, as well as what dangers might go with the territory. For example, riders need to know if they're riding through cougar or grizzly country.

Riding experience isn't needed for most wilderness horseback adventures. The guide picks horses with gentle natures -- and usually the horses know the trail better than the guide does! "In most cases, the horses take care of the people," says Tom Vinson of Backcountry Adventures.

That said, you should still know some basics. Here are some key safety tips from Dave Wiggins of American Wilderness Experience in Boulder, Colorado:

  • Don't fool around. "Horseplay is dangerous to you and your friends, as well as to others who may be nearby." Don't rush past riders who are going at a slower pace, since this startles both horses and riders and frequently causes accidents. "Instead, approach slowly, indicate a desire to pass and proceed cautiously on the left side."
  • To avoid the chance of being kicked, ride side by side or stay a full horse's length away from the horse in front of you. You can tell if the distance is safe by looking through your horse's ears. "You should be able to see the hind heels of the horse in front of you."

Do your research and be prepared before you go on a ride.

"A lot of people think it's like the movies," says Tim Graham of Grahamrick Trails. "They think they'll be running horses up mountains." Rather, the most common gait is walking. Walking is safer, and it's easier to take in the great scenery when you're not holding on for dear life.

Trail Rider Magazine says trail riding is one of the fastest growing sports. It publishes a special trails issue every year.

"As for the number of people involved, it runs from singles, couples, to a few couples and families in the horse camps or with the outfitters, to 15 to 100 at the ranches. Group rides can run from 50 to over 3,000. If these are summer rides, there will be lots of young people," says Beverly Feiges, a veteran rider.

There are a variety of different types of trail riding operators, and each type is priced differently.

  • Dude Ranches: "Just pack your duds and go," sums up Feiges. "They provide everything, but they are usually expensive to very expensive."
  • Outfitters: Less expensive than dude ranches. While they provide everything, it's a camping-out type of ride. These rides are great for a small group of friends wanting to do something together.
  • Working Ranches: While they also provide everything, they don't normally have the frills of the dude ranch since they are trying to give you a taste of the cowhand way of life. These are more reasonably priced.
  • Organizations: Rides that are put on by groups usually take you along a trail, with a different campsite every night. Depending on the level of services, these can also range from the price of an outfitter to the price of a dude ranch. These rides will probably run up to a few hundred dollars a day and may be priced by the day or week.

Day trips vary in price, depending how long the ride is. A four-hour ride might start at $60, while an all-day ride is usually over $130, including lunch. Overnight rides cost more again.

Trail riding takes you into beautiful natural areas that would be hard to see if you weren't on horseback. Such an experience includes horseback riding, enjoying the scenery, fishing and camping!
Courtesy of: Anchor D Guiding and Outfitting Ltd.

Make sure to dress properly. You'll need to bring a sweater or down jacket, depending on the season and how high in the mountains you'll be traveling. Rainwear, jeans and a hat are recommended for any wilderness ride.

"Ducking under trees and branches, there's nothing like a hat to cushion the blow if you don't get down low enough," says Baird. In a heavy rain, the hat will also funnel water away from your face and the back of your neck! You can get an excellent cowboy hat for $100. You could get by with a less expensive hat, too.

For overnight rides, you'll also need your own sleeping bag, foam or air mattress, and waterproof groundsheet. Prices vary.

If you have your own horse and trailer, you have even more options. There are bed and breakfast inns and ranches that will provide you with accommodations, corrals, and sometimes even meals. These range in price.

You can also get involved in club rides, says Feiges. A weekend ride might be at cost and include guides, a meal and entertainment! Then there are large group trail rides hosted by ranches and the like. They provide bathhouse facilities, mess halls, stalls for the horses, and tent and trailer sites. They provide food for the whole period, entertainment, guided rides, other horse-related events, and may even have housing and horses for rent. "Lots of fun, best value," she says.

Riders need to be in reasonable physical condition. You'll be using a lot of muscles in your back and legs that you don't normally use, and unless you're fit, they'll let you know about it! Any discomfort is temporary, and experts will tell you that horseback riding can be therapeutic.

Some people like working with horses in the backcountry so much, they build their lives around it. Graham bought a ranch and started breaking horses and selling them. "Then I thought, 'Why don't I try giving trail rides?'" Graham says business has increased every year since he's been guiding the rides, but he still has to work in logging for part of the year.

Vinson has been able to make guiding a full-time career by buying the business his father founded. Vinson has been riding for 20 years, and his dad had the business for 35 years. "I always enjoy seeing the country again, and the wildlife."

Getting Started

You don't have to be a horse enthusiast in order to enjoy wilderness riding. Georgia Baird says she's been on rides with people who don't even like horses. "No, you don't have to like them, but you're doing an awful lot of riding to be afraid of them!"

If you've never been riding, you may want to try horseback riding on some easy terrain before you commit to going on a day-long or week-long wilderness ride. Many stables and ranches offer hour-long to half-day trail rides that will help you get comfortable with horses.

Check with a local travel agency, tourism bureau or horse group for contacts.

Do your research.

"Check out [local horse groups] that may specialize in horse-related activities for young people," says Feiges. "Check the various Internet search engines, such as Yahoo or Alta Vista, for trail riding info, and horse chat groups, many of which are strictly for the younger rider."

Vinson recommends asking a lot of questions before you book a wilderness horseback riding adventure. "Talk to them on the phone. Go with your gut feeling," he says. "Every reputable guide or outfitter should have a list of references."


North American Trail Ride Conference

American Horse Council


Wilderness Rides
Saddle up for fun horseback riding adventures!

Anchor D Guiding and Outfitting
This company offers private wilderness trail rides

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