Open Letter to Mountain Bikers

The recent opinion piece in High Country News sparked a viral amount of dialogue on that magazine’s site and on other platforms that picked up the piece, like Adventure Journal. It begged a follow-up on improving understanding for all who use multi-use trails.

yield-trail-sign-tempeBelieve it or not, bikers and hikers must yield to horse riders on many trails. This rule isn’t some snooty, “we were here first” deal. It’s just common sense. It’s much easier for hikers and bikers to yield to horses than the other way around.

Horses are prey animals. Bikes approach like predators, quickly and silently. Even the best-trained horses can spook, bolt, or jump sideways when they encounter bikers or hikers with big packs.
The results can be harmful to all. Think of a moose-vehicle collision. Now, take away the vehicle.

To avoid collisions and flared tempers, take these simple steps:

Download a pdf and share it with your local bike shop.

•    Announce yourself: Once you see horse and rider, let them know you’re approaching as soon as you can. No yelling necessary, just a friendly “Hey, how are you?” will do.
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•    Slow down or stop: Ask the rider if she’d like you to stop and step off or if slowing down and passing is okay.

•    Keep talking: Being friendly and communicative isn’t just nice manners, it lets the horse know you are a person, not a predator.

•    Anticipate around corners: Avoid tearing around blind angles. There could be large, dangerous animals around the bend! If you can’t slow down, make noise to alert possible trail riders.

•    Take the low road: If you’re on a grade and are trying to move past a horse rider, take the downhill side.

trail-clipart-TRAIL6Horse riders are not victims here. Nor are they guilt-free when it comes to trail conflict. Let’s recognize our contributions to the problem:

  • Be a polite advocate. As we noticed in the comments on Adventure Journal, mountain bikers have plenty of stories of rude, entitled horse riders. Don’t be one of them!
  • If it’s been rainy, stay off trails where horses can do serious damage. It can take a long time to renew and repair trails that have been trashed when horses move up and down them in wet conditions.
  • Got a horse who’s spooky around bikes? Practice. Expose your horse to bikes in a more predictable environment. Make it a positive experience.
  • Assume the worst. Don’t put yourself or your horse in a position where things can go sideways. If you see or know of mountain bike presence, set yourself up for a safe encounter. If this means hustling off the trail, so be it.

Have fun sharing the trail!

Summer fun: snakes and ticks

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Meet Brian

Back East, ticks give me the heebie-jeebies. They and the linked prospect of getting Lyme Disease, represent one of the biggest impediments to carefree outings. Here in Colorado during the summer months, it’s rattlesnakes. The possibility of harm and crisis – for horses, humans, and dogs – is enough to motivate several preventative strategies.

There’s not a lot we can do for horses aside from education, preparation, and engage our ability to keep calm and keep the horse calm. Check out these helpful articles:

UC Davis report on rattlesnake issues

Wyoming newspaper column on rattlesnakes and horses

Horse blogger’s tips for rattlesnake encounters

Since many of us have dogs, here are some canine-related thoughts. Like Frontline or other tick deterrents, the rattlesnake vaccine is something dogs can get and something dog owners can hope will help. With it, my 30-pound sprite, Peeko, might survive long enough to get to the vet and it may also help significantly reduce the vet bill.

JJ Belcher works with Kip

JJ Belcher works with Kip

Another preventative measure is a rattlesnake avoidance class, something my dogs unwittingly enrolled in last weekend. It involves a shock collar, a big-ass rattlesnake (who goes by the name Brian, is 12 years old, at least five feet long, thick as a Campbell’s soup can, and has had his venom glands surgically removed), and an experienced canine trainer from Arizona. Watch video. Read more about JJ Belcher and Sublime Canine here.

Individually, the trainer led Kip, Peeko, and Belle to the snake. When they got curious, they were hit with a jolt from the collar. Later, Belcher returned with each dog to visit Brian. My dogs had caught on quickly; as soon as they spied the snake, they went in the other direction. When I led each dog to a bag full of snake sheds, they also steered clear. Lesson of the Day: Stay away from something that looks or smells or moves like Brian. I’m pretty confident that the education will stick and that they won’t simply associate Belcher and the collar with a bad deal. We have all now seen a rattler and know theoretically to steer clear. Some dogs made bigger generalizations: I watched one goofy golden walk away from the training and then spook at a three-foot stick. Well…he had the right idea.

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A First Ride Scare

We started exploring the outstanding riding opportunities in the Mancos, Colorado area. Read about the move to Colorado here.

IMG_9878As ignorance and luck would have it, the first ride brought a pretty decent scare:

On the return leg of a six-mile trek, we were cutting through some wet spots near a tiny creek. I deviated ever so slightly from a cattle path. Shea immediately sunk up to her belly. She struggled mightily. I jumped off and got out of her way.

The big, half-Belgian girl was seriously stuck and she fell to her side, shaking all over and closing her eyes

As I learned in Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, a large animal’s legs slip into mud easily, like a knife going into peanut butter. But pulling them out is another effort altogether.

Mud lines from sinking up to her belly

Mud lines from sinking up to her belly

I knew that adding water or air (open, unmuddied space) were the only ways I could help Shea get out of this treachery.

Steve got off and came to help. He stayed at her head while I frantically tried to free up her legs, digging and pitching mud with my hands. I thought for sure (by how her legs looked and by how she was acting), that she had somehow snapped a bone in her struggles. While I worked, she was calm, shaking, but still.

With as much mud cleared as possible, I asked her to try once more. She gave a big heave-ho (cold-cocking Steve in the process) and raised herself out. We walked for a few strides. She was amazingly, thankfully, completely fine.

In the meanwhile, the ground-tied Comet had taken off, trotting all the way home (Apparently, she had learned pretty darn quickly where ‘home’ was.)

Otherwise, the ride was beautiful! And, heck, we learned to steer clear of wet, grassy spots.

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Progress gets bloody & backwards

If progress is measured by two steps forward and one step back, then this summer would follow perfectly along that zigzagging course.not too old to learn challenge

Recently, Jolene and I have successfully partnered up several times a week to tackle our weak points:

She’s more comfortable with having a horse behind her on the trail.

She can pony another horse without panicking.

She can carry a packsaddle.

She can stand and bend and stop with light or no touch on the reins.

IMG953234So, it was with joyful anticipation that I saddled her and Pep for a long trek into the Oquirrhs with friend, Raechel Nelson. It’d be a celebratory summer ride, since we both felt these glorious days were winding down and darned if we didn’t make the most of them. It’d be a 16-mile ride with about 2,000 feet elevation climb over rugged, ledge-y terrain with temperatures approaching 90 degrees.

We were quite a crew since we each decided to pony one horse and ride another. We took our dogs. Plus, I took Wallace, the burro. [Wallace has made great progress since we acquired him from the BLM last fall. He seems to LOVE coming on trail rides at liberty, not unlike Donquita in Unbranded.]

IMG_8933Jolene wore the packsaddle, full of water and goodies for humans and animals, and she followed contentedly behind Pep.

After three hours, we finished our climb in the shadow of the Butterfield Peaks (at about 8,000 feet), stopping in a meadow to enjoy snacks, rest, and rehydration. The horses grazed and the dogs hung out in the shade. I switched the saddles to ride Jolene and placed the packsaddle on Pep.

Although by now Jolene has ponied another horse on a dozen outings, something made her nervous this time. Maybe it was the packsaddle. Maybe it was her new role as riding horse after hours as a follower. Maybe it was the flies. Or the dogs.

Whatever. By now, I should know that Jolene’s past familiarity with an action or a plan has no bearing to how cool she’ll be with it on any future day. “I know you and I trust you, but that doesn’t mean I know you and I trust you,” she seems to say to me.

So, figuring I had herd numbers working in my favor and seeking to alleviate the mule’s angst, I dropped Pep’s line and we headed homeward, down the mountain. Pep would surely follow.

Pep, however, did not tag along behind; she was perfectly happy to continue grazing. We – two riders, four equines, four dogs – rode

Myself, Wallace, and Jolene just before things went sideways.

Myself, Wallace, and Jolene just before things went sideways.

out of sight, a half mile yonder. Pep still didn’t follow.

Jolene and I hustled back to retrieve her, with Wallace trotting along side. Raechel waited up ahead, just above a steep descent for which we would have to dismount and scrabble on foot over ledge and loose rock.

At this point, I’m growing impatient. Raechel and I had hoped to get home by early afternoon. Time’s a’ wastin’.

I grabbed Pep’s lead line and recommenced ponying her, this time at a trot. Jolene continued to get flustered. A few times, I awkwardly one-rein stopped her. You can imagine how silly this must have looked, trying to bend and stop a mule, while holding onto a frisky pony, and having a little burro in the mix.

— I should have taken the time to calm my mule.

— I should have dropped Pep’s line and let her follow at her leisure.

— I should have relaxed about the time, since rushing a horsemanship moment always, always ends badly.

Instead, I continued downhill at a trot. With Wallace and Pep right on her haunches, Jolene commenced to panic. With my hands full, the trail cramped, and my mind frazzled, things got ugly fast.

It was a hard landing and my mecate rein, looped through my leggings, somehow got tangled. Jolene dragged me for a stretch on the rocky, unforgiving path. (Years ago in Maine, I came off Shea whilst riding bareback and ponying the girls to a neighbor’s field. Then, I landed on a swampy, moss-coated path, like landing on a pillow-top mattress. I do miss Maine.)

On the ground, I thought first of loose horses and then of whether I’d be able to get home. I seemed to have scrapes everywhere, my ribs hurt, and my right elbow was bubbling up oddly beneath the dirt and blood.

Raechel gathered the horses and had them ground tied or tied to trees within a minute. She rushed to my side and was the best First Responder a friend could have:

— No, you will not be standing up quite yet.

— Let’s have you sit in the shade.

— Let’s get those cuts washed off.

— Where else does it hurt?

— Drink some water and let’s assess the situation.

I was bloodied but not concussed. I thanked the heavens for my helmet.

With Raechel’s help, I put the pack saddle back on Jolene and alternated between riding Pep and walking the eight miles home.

It’ll take another week to heal from the scrapes and bruises. That’s considerably more time than it’s taken to learn (again) from my mistakes.

My partner, Steve Peters, winced and laughed after hearing about the event: “You know, Jolene is making some good progress. Despite your efforts,” he said.

Read a poem of the psychology of an exciting moment.

Fire and fast-moving horses

The 283,000 acre Soda Fire

The 283,000 acre Soda Fire

During one of the most devastating wild fire seasons on record, one of BestHorsePractices’ preferred horsemen, Martin Black, was immediately impacted by the country’s largest fire to date.

Imagine a fire consuming a third of the state of Rhode Island. Or the entire city of Los Angeles.

Such was the enormity of the fast-moving Soda Fire, which grew to at least 440 square miles in western Idaho and eastern Oregon, aided by high winds and temperatures. After several days, it has been just recently 95 percent contained. Crews are working to make sure hot spots are tamped down.

[Incidentally, many ranchers have noted that the fire would not have grown so large if they’d been allowed to graze more in that BLM area. Undergrazing meant there was ample fuel. Read more about that here.]

In harm’s way were Black’s several horses and his neighbors’ livestock. Scores of photo-3cattle were killed or had to be put down. Twenty seven BLM mustangs died. But the 21 horses in Black’s charge survived.

We spoke with the clinician and co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, who reported that several horses received burns, had scorched manes, tails, and whiskers.

“You couldn’t clip a show horse any closer,” said Black. (A funny comment since Black discourages clipping vibrissae. Read about it here.)

photoBlack had these horses on rugged, mountain pasture that was some miles from his home base in Bruneau, but he pieced together what must have happened after talking with eyewitnesses and surveying the damage to the range and to his horses.

“In less than 20 minutes, the fire moved a mile from where it started through the field where my horses were. There was no time to do anything but watch…All 21 horses were running in front of the flames then went out of sight behind flames [which were] much higher than the horses. Not being able to get away, the horses turned and ran straight back through the fire getting behind where it had already burned. 

Two horses received second degree burns to their face and muzzle. Eye lashes and inner ear hair burned to nothing. Manes and tails burned half off.”

In better moments

Frosty and McRoanie, in better moments

Most of the other horses were not nearly as injured, reported Black, though their long, flowing tails were singed up past their hocks and manes were nastily trimmed to half their length by the flames.

So, who were the front runners? Which horses literally took the most heat?

They were Black’s most accomplished bridle horses: Frosty and McRoanie, two gelding brothers he likes to call his “Special Forces” horses. They’re smart and confident because Black has meticulously worked with them over many years. He’s conditioned them to learn to learn. (They’re also nearly identical.)

It is no coincidence that they took the lead and led the herd to safety, he said.

It seems mental conditioning may have an impact well outside the arena or ranch work.

100328_Martin_Black_399Read more about Martin’s work here and about positive training here.

Best wishes for a speedy recuperation, Frosty and McRoanie!

Horses in the Soda fire aftermath

Horses in the Soda fire aftermath

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