ScoutingMay-June 2000

Wilderness Horse Sense

By Ernest Doclar

Adding a horseback trip to a high adventure program provides Scouts and Venturers with both a different kind of wilderness experience and some valuable new lessons.

A photographer and I were hiking up a steep trail in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest, on an assignment for Boys' Life. We both were huffing from the grueling ascent when the clop-plop, clop-plop of hooves on the rocky path announced that a string of horseback riders had overtaken us.

The wrangler at the lead halted his riders and mounts and then asked us to stand on the uphill side, well off into the brush, as he led the string past. We welcomed the excuse to drop our packs and kid the dudes as they rode by.

I had never given horse-trekking much thought. But at that moment, after laboring all morning under a heavy pack and a July sun, climbing from 8,500 feet to 11,000 feet altitude and then descending, I envied the riders.

And in my 50-plus years of Scouting, I've found that relatively few Boy Scout and Venturing units choose horseback when they consider high adventure.

The major reasons for this include the high cost of horse trips and the unavailability of horse strings. And raising the extra funds can require more planning, invention, commitment, and hard work.

But before you cut and run from horse-trekking, consider the pluses. Horseback trips can

You don't have to commit to a full horse trek right away. Try a local, get-acquainted ride first, to see if the Scouts or Venturers will maintain their initial enthusiasm about the idea.

Where to ride?

Take at least a year to prepare for a full outing. Some popular locations require advance reservations and a deposit.

Check if your Scout council or a neighboring council has horse programs. Also, some council high adventure programs that advertise in Scouting magazine include horseback riding.

Commercial outfitters advertise in outdoor magazines like Field & Stream, Sports Afield, Outdoor Life, and Western Horseman. Horsemanship merit badge counselors, as well as local riding stables or clubs, may suggest places to ride.

Another helpful source is the Horsemanship Safety Association (see address in the For More Information sidebar).

To ensure that any commercial outfitter is a reputable, safe provider, ask for names and phone numbers of satisfied customers—and then interview them.

The best choice for your first horse trip is with a BSA-associated council program or at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Staff members speak the Scouting lingo and operate under the highest standards of safety. And compared to the $150-a-day cost of a commercial outfitter, a Philmont cavalcade averages $49 a day per person ($390 for eight days).

See the booklet Passport to High Adventure (BSA Supply No. 4310) for a listing of councils offering horse-trekking programs.

Basic horse sense

Don't know a horse's withers from his forelock, or a saddle's pommel from its cantle?

Ask Horsemanship merit badge counselors if they or other local horse owners can assist you with a few familiarization sessions and rides for your Scouts.

Basic books on riding will help you master equine body and tack (articles of harness) nomenclature. A good start is the chapter "Riding and Packing" in the BSA Fieldbook (Supply No. 33200). Written by Stephen Zimmer, veteran trail rider and longtime director of museums at Philmont Scout Ranch, it offers a clear, concise introduction to horsemanship and trekking. Also helpful is the Horsemanship merit badge pamphlet (No. 33298).

The Horsemanship Safety Association's booklet, Horsemanship Safety—Instructor's Manual, notes that a person should approach every horse "with courtesy, tact, respect, and love." Horses also "appreciate a quiet tone of voice, soft touches, considerate treatment, and gratitude for a job well done."

Sounds like the way most humans like to be treated, doesn't it?

The booklet also points out: "Horses have personality, individuality, emotions, jealousy, loneliness. They show affection, suspicion, fear."

Knowing a bit about horse physiology helps.

For instance, horses can hear sounds at great distances. And a standing horse can see well at a distance, forward, up, down, and—without swiveling its head—fairly well to the rear. A grazing horse can't see objects directly over its head.

Finally, if your mount needs to urinate or defecate, there's nothing you can do to dissuade it.

Mount up!

BSA policy requires riders to wear helmets with chin straps. Also advisable is wearing a long-sleeved shirt and nonbaggy trousers, like narrow-legged jeans. For your feet, a sturdy pair of cowboy boots is best, but hiking footwear (without lug soles) will do.

Don't wear a canteen or other items on your belt that might poke the horse. If you need to don a poncho or other rain gear, halt and dismount to slip it on. Tie a rope or cinch a belt around your middle so the rain gear doesn't flap and spook the horse.

Is a horseback expedition worth the extra preparation and expense? Absolutely, if you ask the Scouts and Venturers from Woodville, Ohio, who participated in a Philmont cavalcade last summer.

You can read about their unforgettable high-adventure experience in "A Philmont Cavalcade", below.

A Scouting professional for 38 years [1956-1994], Ernie Doclar served as editor of Scouting magazine from 1990 until his retirement in 1994. San Francisco Bay Area Scouter Lew Gardner, as well as Bob Ricklefs and the Philmont horse staff, assisted in preparing this article.

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