Traveling With Your Horse: Home Away From Home
Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor
You've decided to hit the road with your horse for a competition, overnight trail ride, or a pack trip. You'll spend the night snug in your trailer's berth, but where will your horse stay? Regardless of the event or destination, successfully and safely creating your equine buddy's "home away from home" is not as straightforward as simply shopping online or browsing a catalog. It's a process requiring considerable knowledge and preparation, not merely a simple product choice. There are a number of issues involved in ultimately determining the most appropriate system for your horse, and it's best to consider each one before you make a purchase.
Before we take a look at what those issues are, let's look at what's out there. Essentially, there are only a few options for containing and securing horses away from home--penning, tying, and hobbling. Some methods are more commonly used in specific sports or activities, such as competitive trail riding, which demands hard tying. High lines, ground picketing, and hobbling are often used on pack trips and ranch work. Some are more appropriate depending on the terrain where they will be used. The use of other methods might reflect regional preferences, such as in the western mountain areas where endurance riders typically choose overhead picket systems, or portable metal or electric corrals.
Remember the Horse
Some sport organizations, including the North American Trail Riding Conference (NATRC), specify a type of containment/ securing method as part of their rules of competition. But if you are not bound by such requirements, your horse is the first thing to think of when considering the type of method to use.
Like people, horses are individuals; yet somehow riders often overlook this basic but profound point. Your horse's experience with being contained, tied, or hobbled--as well as his personality--should be the basis for selecting any confinement method.
"It really depends on the horse, and how well they're trained," says Mitch Brown, ranch foreman at the historic MacGregor Ranch, a 130-year-old, 1,200-acre cattle ranch nestled in the Colorado Rocky Mountain Valley of Estes Park. "City horses, or high-strung horses, might have a big learning curve."
Cowboys, endurance riders, and competitive trail riders seem to agree that two things are critical when containing or tying a horse--learn how your horse responds to being tied, and teach him to become comfortable and familiar with the system you ultimately choose for him (before you get away from home with it).
How does your horse respond to the presence of strange horses including mares in season? Is he a jumper, crawler, or a general escape artist? Does he get cast? Does he know how to stand quietly while tied? How often does he do this and for how long? What sound like simple questions are critically important! This should help you develop a list of considerations for your situation.
Ideally, your horse learned to yield to pressure from the lead rope at an early age. Strange but true, leading can be a new concept for many adult horses which might have learned to follow a person without responding to pressure on a lead rope.
Once your horse will respond to pressure from the lead rope, get to know his reaction to being tied or confined for increasingly long periods of time. For safety reasons, it's important to watch your horse in the beginning and to gradually test his reactions to distractions and events such as being alone, blowing paper, sounds, or even weather, any of which could cause him to test his confinement.
For example, if your horse has a buddy, try taking the buddy out of the round pen while leaving your horse tied high to a panel using a quick-release knot. (A note of caution: If you're using a rope halter, be sure you know how to properly tie the free end through the loop end, or you might have to cut the halter off). How does your horse respond? What happens if you saddle the buddy and ride out of your horse's sight? How long will he remain calm? You might even have somebody watch your horse and time him. Continue to lengthen the time the horses are separated, eventually doing it overnight, when plenty of bad things can happen, says Karen Kroon, DVM, of Huntsville, Utah, a veteran rider with 9,000 miles and 25 years of endurance competition experience. She never travels with a horse which has not learned to tie.
To test your horse's reaction to inanimate objects, try attaching a plastic grocery bag to the end of a dressage whip or Carrot Stick (used in Pat Parelli training methods). Gradually introduce it to your horse by letting him smell it first. Gently rub it all over his face and body to show him it's nothing to fear. Graduate to shaking it gently in front of him, pausing to rub him with it when he tolerates the shaking. Do this all over his body, alternating with shaking and rubbing to reassure him. Increase the intensity and continue the reassurance. Or shake out a tarp to simulate a trailer awning that's come loose, using the same progression of reassurance and interaction. Testing your horse in situations like these can help you develop an understanding of how he will respond when tied or otherwise confined.
Only when you know his response to a variety of situations while tied or contained does it make sense to begin considering the many product options.
Choosing a System
Of course, no horse's behavior is 100% predictable, but once you're reasonably sure what you might expect from your horse in different situations, the next point to consider is the environment in which you'll need to secure or confine him.
Is the system intended for an overnight stay in camp, a week-long trail ride outing, or a more temporary scenario such as a one-day hunter-jumper competition, team penning, or an all-day group trail ride?
If overnight accommodations are needed, are you camping in a remote area where "neighbors" are unlikely? Or will you be competing in an endurance event and sharing a base camp with 100 other riders and 100-plus horses? Your answer is important--it will help narrow your choices and tailor your product decision. Although the list could be endless, try to anticipate what might occur in the environment where you and your horse will be spending the night.
Confining horses away from home, says Kroon, "is a trade-off between safety and freedom." With more room comes more problems. Interestingly, she said she's seen more injuries resulting from horses getting loose rather than from either a penning or tying type of product. But when they do get loose, it's typically a result of a horse challenging his electric corral, or because his was torn down by another loose horse.
"Probably the best thing from a freedom perspective is a nice, big, electric portable corral, but it's the worst thing from a safety issue," Kroon says, adding that horses seem to get loose more at night.
On the other hand, veteran electric fence user Becki Jackson, of Wichita, Kan., voiced an opposite opinion. Jackson, who has completed 2,500 miles of competitive trail rides, says she's never seen a horse run through his own or another horse's fence; she's only heard stories.
Penning or Tying
Penning methods include all manner of portable fencing, from ranch polygrid mesh fencing that pulls out from the trailer accordion-style to solar-powered electric tape corrals on fiberglass rods, or electric twine that can be strung from plastic insulators around trees; to a variety of standard or customized steel and aluminum panels in varying heights, lengths, and crossbars.
If you're considering portable corral panels, borrow some, set them up, and put your horse inside, following the same suggestions as described earlier. If you choose to use portable electric corrals, train with them before you hit the road.
There are many examples of tying methods as well. They include high-line systems between trees using rope, "home-made" high lines consisting of rope strung between eye bolts attached to both ends of the trailer at the top, overhead picketing systems often called sky ties that are mounted to the roof edge of the trailer, and hard tying to the trailer using a variety of trailer ties.
If you're considering a high line product, create one between two trees and observe your horse's behavior, again under varying circumstances. (Use tree protectors to avoid damaging the trees should he protest.)
Some people don't like the sound of the high-tie rattling against the trailer while others find that reassuring, knowing their horse is still securely tied. Because of their stretch, bungee ties give horses on high-tie systems extra rope for lying down without the fear of entanglement in a longer, non-stretching lead rope. The extra stretch can also help avoid further scaring a horse that might pull back, averting a potential panic.
This is a subject for which there are as many opinions as there are horse owners. Cowboys use hobbles all the time, while many owners of "pet" horses consider them dangerous and inhumane. Hobbling does allow a horse the chance to graze, and they do learn to move around a bit, perhaps up to a quarter of a mile. Hobbled horses have also learned to run somewhat. Types of hobbles can include fleece-lined leather, latigo leather, and rope Indian hobbles, but there are many other choices.
There are a few caveats to keep in mind when using hobbles. To prevent riders from having to catch a loose horse on foot, you should tie a single horse or the lead horse and hobble the rest of a herd. That way one person can still ride to round up runaways if the hobbles break.
Hobbles are environmentally friendly. "Picketed or high-tied horses will eat everything within reach," Brown said. Hobbled horses can be turned out into a grassy meadow to graze. Brown suggests training a horse to hobble in a space big enough where he won't be tempted to run away, but small enough that he can be monitored. He chooses a meadow near some of his ranch work so he can observe how the horse responds. "If he thrashes around a lot, using fleece-lined hobbles is a good idea," he said. "That way he won't have any damage to his pasterns."
Challenge the System
Now that you have some information, it's time to choose the best system for your horse, but don't hit the road yet. Set up your new system and introduce it to your horse, creating controlled situations that might push your horse's buttons. This will show how your horse might respond to his home away from home when you're traveling.
If you're a 95-pound, 5'2" woman, corral panels might not work for you because of the weight. But, depending on the materials from which the panels are made, it could work. If your horse will respect them, aluminum panels could be a good choice.
Jackson uses eight-foot panels fitted with pins made by a local welder because they were lighter than cattle panels. She's also used a portable electric corral that runs off of batteries that last the entire summer (keep backups around just in case). Three sides of her corral are 1 1/2-inch braided electric tape attached to fiberglass rods, and the fourth is her 23-foot gooseneck trailer.
For trail ride events, she swears by a bungee trailer tie rope and reports having used the same one for the last five years. The four-foot bungee tie lets Chance, her Missouri Fox Trotter, lie down. In sports like endurance and trail riding, that can help the horse rest his legs and avoid "filling in" or "stocking up" of the legs, says Kroon.
Endurance rider Randy Winter of Longmont, Colo., uses customized metal corral panels that suit both his traveling needs and his horse's personality. The four-foot-tall panels were specially made to fit in the bed of his pick-up truck. The panels have two bars--one is 30 inches from the ground and the other bar is 48 inches from the ground. His system cost approximately $500.
This system works well for his horse, he says, which is used to having hay available and doesn't challenge the fencing. He likes having the fencing system separated from his trailer because it makes for a quieter night than if the horse were tied to the trailer or to an overhead picketing system.
The price range is vast and depends on what's appropriate for your horse. Fleece-lined leather hobbles will cost about $30, while a portable corral panel system could easily be $2,000. Electric corrals can cost as little as $150, while the accordion polygrid mesh fencing goes for around $800. Sky ties run around $300 and must be installed.
In summary, there are many options for securing your horse away from home, depending on his personality, your preference, and your budget. But with any system, knowing your horse's needs and personality and familiarizing him with his "home away from home" before you travel will help you both rest easy while you're on the road.
About the Author
Meg Cicciarella is a freelance journalist who lives and writes in Homer, on Alaska's banana belt, the Kenai Peninsula. Her articles have appeared in local, regional, and national newspapers and magazines.