Horse camping is a fun way to get extra saddle time while exploring the great outdoors. Whether staying at a full-services campground or "roughing it" at a primitive backcountry site, proper preparation makes camping with horses a relaxing escape for both humans and horses.
Selecting a Campground
Campground options range from those with full-service amenities to primitive backcountry sites. Consider the campers' level of camping experience when choosing a horse-friendly campground. Experienced campers may enjoy the wide open spaces of the backcountry while inexperienced campers may feel more comfortable in a site with some amenities and other campers nearby.
Backcountry camping is more comfortable with a living quarters horse trailer, but rustic roads make these sites difficult to access with large trailers or dual rear axle pickups. Some established campgrounds have trailer size limitations. Call ahead to find out about access roads and parking options. Also, confirm horses are allowed at the selected campsite.
Choose a campsite with access to trails that match the experience level of both riders and horses. Beginner riders or unconditioned horses will be more comfortable on shorter trails over easier terrain. Experienced riders and conditioned horses may enjoy steep mountain trails or longer rides.
Preparing the Horses
Just as you need to decide where you're going to go and get ready for the trip, you also need to prepare your horses for the trip.
Vaccinate Your Horses
Horses need protection from communicable equine diseases, so plan to vaccinate horses one to two months before the camping trip, so their immune systems build adequate protection. Consider vaccinating for strangles if using on-site stabling facilities and check with local veterinarians to determine if horses also need rabies vaccinations. Most developed campsites require horses to have proof of negative Coggins tests, and some additionally require a 10-day or 30-day health certificate.
Condition Horses for the Trails
Once you select a campsite, research the trails in the area and condition horses accordingly. Mountain trails require horses to use different muscles than riding on flat terrain. Start with one-hour rides in deep sand or on hills and gradually increase the time to the estimated length of the trails. Horses may need up to two months of consistent work to be conditioned properly for your camping trip. Remember to condition any pack horses as well as saddle horses.
Get Horses Used to Grass
Campers need to bring their hay and grain when staying in established campgrounds, but in the backcountry, horses can graze on green grass. If the horses are not accustomed to being on grass, build up their tolerance slowly. Start by allowing horses to graze for 10 to 15 minutes per day for the first four days, and then slowly increase the grazing time to two hours. Horses in the backcountry need to graze for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening to meet their foraging needs.
Introduce Horses to Camping Corral Method
Some campgrounds have corrals available on-site, but at others, and in the backcountry, campers need to contain their horses. Portable corral panels are the safest option but not always practical to transport into the backcountry. Electric fencing also creates a temporary corral, but be sure to check the wire is hot every time. Other options include installing a high-tie tether pole on the trailer or picketing horses on a high line strung between two trees. Be sure to introduce the horses to the chosen method before the trip to avoid any injuries.
Check Horses for Lameness
Before loading horses into trailers, check them for lameness. Trot them in straight lines as well as circles while watching for signs of being "off" on any legs. Check all four shoes to make sure they are securely attached to the horses' feet. Feel their legs for heat and swelling. Also, observe the horses for illnesses by checking their temperatures and heart rates. Horses should eat and drink normally on the morning of the camping trip.
Prepare Horse Trailer and Towing Vehicle
Check the trailer for safety before loading horses. All four tires should be inflated to the proper pressure recommended by the manufacturer. All trailer lights and brake lights must work. Lift the floor mats and check the floor boards.
The towing vehicle also needs to be in good working order. Check the oil and tire pressure before hitching up the trailer.
Backcountry camping requires more equipment than camping in established campgrounds with some amenities. Call ahead to find out what amenities the campground has available. In addition to standard camping gear, or gear for a backcountry adventure, you'll also need to make sure you bring horse supplies.
For the Horses
- Water (if campsite does not have water on-site)
- Certified weed-free hay
- Grain in bear-proof containers, if camping in bear country
- Bran mash or beet pulp
- Buckets for both water and feed
- Manure forks
- Manure buckets
- Halters with identification tags
- Horse blankets
- Fly sheets
- Fly masks
- Hoof picks
- Sponge and scraper
- Portable fencing or picket lines
- Fly spray
- Temporary shoes
- Negative Coggins test
- Health certificate
- Brand inspection
- Ownership papers
- Saddle pad
- Jeans or breeches
- Lightweight, breathable long-sleeved shirt
- Weather-appropriate jacket
- Rain poncho
- Riding boots
- Moisture-wicking socks
- Riding helmet
- Phone numbers for local veterinarians
- First aid kits for horses and humans
- Paper maps
Tips and Tricks
While nothing replaces experience, these tips and tricks that will help your first horse camping trip go smoothly:
- Camping under a full moon provides extra natural light, which increases safety for both campers and horses. If horses are regularly stabled with a barn light at night, they may be more comfortable with extra moonlight on their first trip.
- Contact the campground a few days before the trip to learn about any temporary or seasonal regulations, including current fire danger levels. During times with fire restrictions, campers need to make other arrangements for cooking their food, such as using a propane camp stove.
- For short camping trips, separate hay bales into individual feedings, and wrap each feeding in newspaper. Bundle this with baling twine. This prevents the opened bale from blowing around, and campers can use the newspaper to start campfires after using the hay.
- Attach tags to halters with contact information on it in case horses get loose during the camping trip. Writing cellphone numbers on horses' hooves with permanent markers is another way to ensure someone can return the horses if they separate from the campers.
Taking your horses camping is a great way to get away from the grind of daily life. With proper preparation, it is a unique way to explore new trails while bonding with your horse.