What could be better than an overnight outing with your horse? Neil Clarkson seeks some trail-riding advice from one of New Zealand’s most experienced trek organisers.
It’s a glorious, mild, star-lit night. You’re seated around a campfire with family and friends while your horses graze peacefully nearby after a day’s trail-riding.
What could be better than an overnight or weekend outing by horseback during the warmer months?
Such an outing will be within the reach of most horse riders, but it’s the organisation — together with a strong measure of common sense — that will make or break the ride.
While romantic notions of a week-long journey through our high country will appeal to many, riders need to take a serious reality check.
Safety of both horse and rider is paramount, says Rob Stanley, who, with his wife Mandy, founded Hurunui Horse Treks in 1987. They sold the business in 2005, opting for a quieter life running their bed and breakfast, Nutmeg Creek, up the Onamalutu Valley, near Blenheim.
“Trekking horses are carefully selected and conditioned for the job,” he says. “They have the right build and temperament and are kept fit. They will be used to the terrain and know how to forage for food.”
Rob has been involved in hundreds of horse treks, some as long as 10 days, through some of New Zealand’s most challenging terrain — the South Island High Country.
“People need to be honest in assessing whether their horse will be up to it,” he says. “Is it fit enough and tough enough? Will it be comfortable away from its mates? Will it be relaxed spending a night in unfamiliar surroundings, possibly with unfamiliar horses?”
He says he would not put anyone off planning an overnight or weekend summer outing, but suggests people concentrate on the experience, rather than the trek. “An easy 15km walk to a pleasant camping spot for a night will be far more enjoyable and safer than an ambitious long trek through difficult country.”
So what must people consider when planning their outing?
Pick your route carefully
Play it simple and safe if you’re less experienced. Make it a one-night outing; maximum two. Check the terrain carefully to ensure it will be OK for horses, and be sure you’re permitted to go where you intend. Seek permission from landowners and assure them you will treat their property with care and respect. A little thank-you gift afterwards would be a nice acknowledgement.
Rob Stanley suggests riders might even consider taking out relatively inexpensive public liability insurance to help show landowners and managers that the trekkers take their responsibilities seriously.
Beginners will find life much easier if a vehicle and horse float can meet them at the end of each day. The float can carry camping gear, most of the food for you and the horses, and other sundry items needed for the expedition. It can be used to remove any horses that are showing discomfort or lameness.
Be sure the driver knows exactly where they need to go and when they have to get there, as a no-show will make for a miserable night for all participants.
Beginners should find a route that avoids major river crossings, steep hillsides, sharp rock, and root-bound country. Stay well clear of swampy ground. Including a wide sandy beach would make for a very pleasant outing and provide easy footing for a good part of the journey. Plan your arrival at the campsite with plenty of daylight to set up camp.
If a vehicle can’t meet you at day’s end, you’ll need to use some nominated equine friends as packhorses. Get them used to loads gradually and be sure to check for chafing. Many horses will find bearing loads unusual. They will not be used to being so “wide” and will need to become accustomed to the load swaying as they walk. Most horse owners won’t have the right pack gear in any case, so having a vehicle meet you makes a lot of sense.
Get your horse right
Your horse will need shoes. Plan to do plenty of riding for at least a fortnight beforehand to lift their fitness. Make sure your mount is used to hill country if this forms part of the intended ride. It will also help your horse’s fitness. Get the horse used to saddlebags if you intend to use them. Make sure they’re not rubbing and causing discomfort.
Take along experience
You must take along at least one experienced horse person.
They will need a good knowledge of equine first aid and be able to fix any shoeing mishaps. The gear will need to be carried — not packed on the vehicle that meets you at the end of the day. Rob Stanley says the minimum is a hammer, rasp, nippers, spare shoes, and nails.
He says he always shoes a horse a few days before an outing to give time for any problems to appear.
If you know of no one with the required experience, consider joining a local trekking or pleasure-riding club, where you can join their rides instead.
What about dinner?
How well you eat is up to you, but it’s essential your horses get plenty of sustenance. Hopefully, some grass will be available each evening, but be sure to have the support crew bring plenty of good quality hay.
Hard-feed will obviously provide a lot more sustenance, but be sure your horse is used to the diet before heading into the great outdoors. Try to take feed that is free of weed seeds (this is compulsory in some US states).
Your horse will be keen to eat at every opportunity. A long lead rope will allow it to eat some grass while the human trekkers are boiling the billy or stretching their legs. Remove the bridle, and seek out shade if it’s hot. Provide your horse with a drink.
Don’t forget to loosen the girth each time you stop.
Are you ready?
You might imagine a mild, moonlit night under the stars, but you need to be prepared for a stormy night in which you can’t see your hand in front of you. See below for a list of important gear. Be sure your camping skills are up to it. Can you erect a tent? Read a map? Recognise signs that the weather may be turning? It might be more traditional to cook over a campfire, but what if it’s too windy or wet? A gas stove on the support vehicle will make for a much easier evening meal.
What about a campsite?
Using existing campsites will minimise the effects on our fragile wilderness. It may even include a toilet and fireplace. Treat your surroundings with respect and remove all rubbish. Keep horses some distance from the tents and cooking areas as future visitors may not appreciate the dung. Before leaving, kick dung piles apart to speed up decomposition.
Your adventure is no place for budget tents. They need to be lightweight, strong, waterproof, and able to withstand strong winds.
A night around the campfire …
Are fire restrictions in place? Check with landowners and local authorities to be sure it’s OK. Even if restrictions are not in place, never light a fire if you feel there’s a risk of surrounding scrub or bush catching alight. Never assume you’ll find firewood nearby, especially if it’s a regular campsite, says Rob Stanley.
If you have a support vehicle and you’re only away a couple of nights, why not load some firewood from home on the trailer? Always ensure a fire is completely out when you leave.
Water, water everywhere …
That beautiful babbling brook may look like it is carrying lovely clear drinking water, but leave it to the horses. Our constitutions are not as tough, and we run the risk of catching all manner of nasties, including giardia.
The safest bet is to take your own drinking water or fluids. If not, boil water strongly for at least three minutes, or add two to four drops of unscented household bleach to each litre and leave for 20 minutes. It should still have a faint bleach smell when you drink it. If not, treat again. Alternatively, you can buy water-treatment tablets at pharmacies or stores that cater to outdoor enthusiasts.
Never keep your horse anywhere where it can foul water.
When nature calls
Solid waste needs to be buried. Never pick a spot near a waterway for your toilet stop. If there’s a big party, a good deep hole is a must. As people use it, they can throw down a spadeful of soil to help suppress the odour and introduce the soil-dwelling bacteria that will break it down. If it’s a one-off stop, use a hole about 30cm deep — again, well away from waterways. Once filled in, the soil bacteria will do the rest.
It’s essential your saddle is comfortable for horse and rider. Use robust gear that’s unlikely to break, and make sure your party has some spares: a halter, lead rope, reins, stirrup leathers, and straps. Large plastic bags are lightweight and will help keep tack dry during a wet night.
On the trail
Horses are usually surefooted, so give your horse some latitude in where it wants to go.
“A horse will generally pick the path it feels most comfortable with,” says Rob Stanley. “If you or your horse are getting nervous about underfoot conditions, get off and lead it.”
He suggests using a long lead rope instead of the reins. It allows you to be further from the horse, giving it better visibility and reducing the risk of your feet being stood on. Leave the halter on and, if your horse is comfortable, leave the lead rope attached and tied with a non-slip knot around its neck.
Use insect repellent if they’re proving to be a pest, concentrating on areas where the coat is thinnest, particularly whorls.
Walk horses the last kilometre or so into camp so they can begin to recover from the day’s exertions. Loosen the girth. Rob Stanley recommends leaving the saddle on for some minutes while the horse cools.
Wash off any sweat. A brush will be fine if conditions are cooler and your horse hasn’t got a sweat up.
Leaving your horses overnight
The best scenario involves a paddock right beside your campsite! If you enjoy such luck, make sure you have the approval to use it. It’s good manners not to let your horses eat out the entire paddock.
Usually, you will have to make other arrangements that will allow your horse to eat overnight.
Unfortunately, most options carry an element of risk, and some will require your horse to be trained.
You can tether horses by a long rope attached to their halter, but they must be familiarised with it at home before the outing. The main lesson is learning to keep the rope away from their legs as they move and graze. Be careful how much slack you allow, as the biggest risk is getting tangled in scrub. Horses should not be tied to native trees, wire fences or buildings. Instead, look for a suitable bush, but it must be free from other surrounding bushes or objects that a horse can get the rope tangled in.
Hobbles are preferred by some, but your horse will again need to be trained at home, and, if determined, will make off anyway. If you have two horses, it is sensible to keep one tied up and the other hobbled. You can change them around so they both get water and a feed.
Many will prefer to take a portable battery-powered or solar electric fence unit, and some lightweight fence standards. Always have the fence live as there is bound to be one smartie who will sort out a dead electric fence. Again, there are risks. Spooked horses can run through it, and terrible accidents have occurred when herds have escaped. The bigger the herd, the greater the risk. Don’t overcrowd them — you want them to be able to eat grass. If you are using a battery-powered unit, make sure the batteries are fresh, and carry a spare set.
Portable, lightweight corrals are on the market if your budget can extend to one.
The risk of injury is much reduced if you plan only a modest expedition over easy terrain. An ill-prepared horse is far more likely to suffer a problem than one which has been trained and conditioned for the outing. Nevertheless, there is always the possibility of stone bruises, strains, cuts, and puncture wounds. Prompt treatment is the best course.
Respect your surroundings
Our wilderness deserves protection. Horse riders should keep to tracks to minimise damage and steer clear of areas with fragile plants. Respect other users of the countryside. Consider yourself an ambassador for horse riders. Leave your dog at home. Pick routes where you’re less likely to have close encounters with four-wheel-drives and mountain-bike riders.
Brush up on the many camping skills which are beyond the scope of this article. Much of it is common sense, such as pitching your tent on higher ground. However, much will be gained by taking an experienced camper along, who can advise on what to take and what to do.
New Zealand’s unpredictable climate and terrain have claimed countless lives. Don’t take risks. Nature is quick to punish the unprepared.
“Take the time to enjoy the environment you are riding through,” says Rob Stanley.
Need to know
Essential horse kit
- A sharp knife
- An all-purpose pocket knife
- Saddle and other riding gear
- Equine first-aid kit
- Insect repellent
- Basic shoeing gear (hammer, rasp, snippers, spare horse shoes and nails)
- Strong footwear with a heel, suitable for riding
- A hoof pick
- Canvas water bucket
- Some strong string and duct tape for running repairs
- Spare tack (Reins, girth, stirrup leathers and straps)
Essential overnight kit
- Toilet paper and a camping spade
- Insect repellent
- Human first-aid kit
- Bedding, including a warm sleeping bag
- Suitable clothing for cold weather, and for wet weather, including a hat
- Thermal underwear
- Change of warm clothes, spare woollen socks and warm gloves
- Personal toiletries
- Effective torches
- A good quality, lightweight tent
- Trail mix
- Plenty of food
- Cooking and eating utensils, a can opener, and a camp stove
- A good up-to-date map
- Cellphone (it may just work)
- Compass or GPS
- Drinking water, or bleach
- Sunhat, sunscreen and sunglasses
- Rubbish bags
- Spare batteries for everything
Personal Locator Beacons
These are proven lifesavers. When activated, they either transmit your GPS coordinates, or an international distress signal that can be used to pinpoint your locality. They are also available for hire.
Rob Stanley’s top trekkie tips
- Cover only a moderate distance in a day. Could you make it out in time if you had to walk an unsound horse the whole way?
- Get off and walk your horse downhill.
- Men not used to long periods in the saddle may find it more comfortable wearing lycra cycling shorts under their pants. Another option is using plenty of baby powder in the appropriate places. Or perhaps some “Butt Butter“.
- Let your horse pick the way if underfoot conditions are becoming difficult. “If you pull at the reins or shift your weight unexpectedly you may put it off.”
- Getting nervous? If your horse is going forward, you’re unlikely to get into bother.
- Leave a halter on and a lead-rope handy in case you need to dismount and lead your mount. Use a longer lead-rope than usual, as this will allow your horse to graze while tied up.
- Keep your mount well-watered, but prevent a hot horse from drinking too much cold water as this may trigger colic.
- Don’t expect to find firewood around a campsite. Chances are it will have been picked over long ago. Take a gas stove to cook.
- Budget for plenty of daylight at the end of the day’s riding to set up camp and tend to your horses’ needs.
- Safety is essential. If you feel you and your horse won’t be up to it, pay to join a professionally run short trek.
River crossing tips
- If in doubt, don’t cross. It’s not worth the risk.
- Avoid rapids, and try to cross where the bottom is pebbly. Be sure you cross where you can get up the bank on the other side.
- Unless experienced, never cross if it’s deeper than your horse’s belly. Slower-moving deeper water (but not above the belly) will be safer than shallow, fast-moving water.
- Keep your feet out of stirrups and have the reins unbuckled so there is no chance of you or your horse getting caught in them. Do not remove your footwear.
- Maintain a steady riding position to help your horse with balance. If you need to dismount, do so on the downstream side.
- Horses will tend to move downstream as they cross, so it may be wise to start upstream from your intended exit point. Alternatively, you could walk up towards the current.