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Adventure Travel

Horsepacking: A New Breed?

Some well-meaning, leave-no-trace horsepackers are trying to rein in their environmentally uncouth brethren. The question is: can they change practices and attitudes that date back to the wild west days?

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As soon as the weak spring sun creeps over the crest of Montana’s Pioneer Mountains, I jump out of my tent, even though the world around me is frigid and covered with an inch of newly fallen, wet snow. I don’t want the Montana horsepackers I’m here with to think backpackers are lazybones types inclined to snooze while daylight’s burning.

After putting a pan of water on the ancient Coleman two-burner and stoking the fire, I take a little prebreakfast stroll. On this late-April morn, the surrounding willows are still leaf-free, and the sage-covered hills are blanketed in white. It’s a pretty sight. But as I walk along a little creek, I can’t help but feel something is sorely amiss. After a few minutes, it hits me:

The horses and mules are gone. When you’re in the middle of a horsepacking trip, this is important stuff, worthy of a sprint back to camp to awaken one’s horse-supplying compadres.

“Uh, Dick,” I say to our leader, obviously anxious about our horselessness, “aren’t we supposed to have numerous equines in that there pasture?” Richard Clark, professor of biology and outdoor recreation at Western Montana College in nearby Dillon, who invited me on this trip into Beaverhead National Forest, crawls from his tent with far less haste than I expected for a horseman suddenly sans steeds.

“They’re gone?” he asks, almost with disinterest.

“Seem to be,” I reply.

“Oh, well. I’d better go get ’em.”

As he puts on his boots, I can’t help myself. “You know, Dick, a lot of my backpacking buddies chuckled when they heard I was coming up to Montana for a horsepacking trip–sleeping with the enemy, so to speak. But I told ’em, Hey, I won’t be out with run-of-the-mill yahoos who wallow in horse caca. I’ll be among enlightened people, environmentally concerned horse aficionados who know a thing or two.’ I assumed you folks knew how to keep track of your ponies.”

Clark, a perpetually jovial man of 60, chuckles. “Well, that’s the price you sometimes pay when you’re practicing minimum-impact horsepacking.”


To many a dyed-in-the-woods trail lover, the concepts of “minimum impact” and “horsepacking” just do not coexist. We’ve all hiked trails akin to ditches (to knee-deep, even) because of excessive horse traffic. We’ve had to do the Horsey Two-Step on manure-studded paths while swatting flies. We’ve encountered horsepacker campsites denuded of vegetation, trees scarred where horses were tied, riparian areas trampled into muddy oblivion, and, of course, air ripe with the smell of a barn.

Even if we graciously accept, as we probably should, the “few bad apples” defense, it’s obvious that blame for much of the damage to trails and camping areas can fairly be laid at the hooves of horses, on the backs of which squarely sit their riders. Yet, I’d heard through the hiker grapevine that winds of change are blowing, that horse people of all stripes-from chaw-chewing, pistol-packing pro outfitters in Montana to crisp-and-clean dilettantes from Aspen-are spouting low-impact ethics.

I was suspicious, I admit, so I sniffed around for proof, and right away, Clark was named as one of those leading the charge to clean up both the image and the practices of horse users, particularly professional outfitters in Montana. When I phoned to ask about his efforts, he invited me to join him and a couple of his “Outfitting 101” students on a ride through Beaverhead. To say I jumped enthusiastically at the chance would be exaggerating, but I did accept. If the horse-impact tide is turning, I wanted to see it firsthand in a region where both horses andhow to say this tactfully?…an independent way of looking at things are integral. If low-impact backcountry ethics are making headway with horsepackers in Montana, then maybe all of us who love the backwoods will soon see eye-to-eye.

“Those must be environmentally conscious horses,” I chide Clark as we scan the countryside for them. “Looks like they dispersed themselves pretty good. By the way, how far can a hobbled horse cruise?”

Instead of tying the horses to trees last night, we’d hobbled them. With hobbles, little straps that restrain the front legs, the horse can hop around and graze over a much larger area, rather than trampling one spot all night. I’m amazed that they’ve hopped clear out of sight like this.

“I’ve had ’em go 50 miles before,” Clark says. He begins following the tracks in the direction we’d ridden last night, looking as uncomfortable on foot as I do in the saddle.

After an hour or so, Clark rides bareback over the hill, three horses and two mules in tow. He dismounts with a wide smile, accepts a hot mug o’ joe, and asks his students to sit at the fire with him. The very small fire, the epitome of low impact, has been built on a mound of mineral soil, and there’s an abundance of downed wood nearby.

Clark’s students, Russell, a 19-year-old who grew up on a nearby ranch, and Mary Anne, a high-school science teacher from Butte, have spent their lives on and around horses. They’ve been looking curiously at me the whole way, and Russell eventually tells me that I’m the first backpacker he’s ever met. I tell them that I really like horses and consider them among the most beautiful creatures on the planet. I grew up around horses on a farm in Virginia, have worked at two different jobs with horses, and my first serious girlfriend was a professional Thoroughbred racehorse trainer who insisted that I, too, be an enthusiastic rider. Unlike many backpackers, I not only know the bow of a horse from the stern, I also know how to navigate them. I simply prefer to traverse the wilderness on my own two legs, not atop four skinny ones.

As we sit sipping instant coffee around the diminutive fire, we discuss horsepacking philosophy. Clark asks his students what’s important about horsepacking, and Russell replies, “It’s a lot easier than walking into the backcountry,” casting a suspicious look my way. Mary Anne adds that it’s enjoyable, and that she simply likes horses. Those aren’t the answers Clark wants, though.

“Horsepacking is more than simply a four-legged taxi ride into the backcountry for people too lazy to walk. America needs this because it’s an important link to our past,” says Clark, who, despite his academic pedigree, is a good ol’ boy himself, having been reared on an Idaho ranch. He’s also been a licensed horsepacking guide in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho’s Yellowstone National Park for 20-plus years. “We need this link; if guided horsepacking dies out, a lot of ranches will also die out. The cattle industry is dead. Ranchers need financial alternatives to survive so they don’t have to sell their land to developers. Outfitting gives them an alternative.”

Clark then talks about minimum-impact camping, about carrying less gear on fewer horses, about keeping horses away from environmentally sensitive areas, about making only small fires. He tells us about his first employer, an outfitter in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park for decades. The man’s permits eventually were revoked because he refused to get with a low-impact program making its way into the woods and administrative offices of our national parks and forests.

“We need to think about lowering impact, first and foremost to protect the resources,” he tells us. “That’s our bread and butter. If we don’t clean up our act, we’re going to see trails and areas closed to horses. This is a survival strategy.”

When Clark concludes his sermon, he announces that the plan is to ride for 5 or 6 hours today, to Grasshopper Creek. My butt cheeks pucker at the thought. We rode for only 3 hours last evening, and my stiff hip joints hurt. I’d probably like riding horses more if my legs didn’t have to spread so wide around the saddle. I consider riding sidesaddle, but I’ll bet that’s a shootin’ offense in this state.

It takes more than an hour to load up, and that’s not just because we have a fair amount of gear. As part of the class, Clark takes his time showing his students the proper ways to do such things as tying gear onto pack animals, and I quickly realize that it takes a lot more know-how to lead a string of horses through the wilderness than it does to stuff a backpack and walk.

As we pull out of camp, I surreptitiously glance back at the site. Though it was hardly pristine wilderness in the first place (there’s a dirt road and a decaying corral nearby) I want to see what sort of mess we left. It’s obvious that four people, four horses, and two pack mules had been there for a night, but, because of the heavily grassed and hard-surfaced areas, it seems to me that within a few days, evidence of our passing will be gone.

“What do you think, Mister Backpacker?” Clark asks when he notices me looking back.

“I think my ass hurts,” I say.

Clark has spearheaded the move toward low-impact horsepacking for more than 8 years. The Professional Guide Institute, which he founded and runs from the campus of Western Montana College, produced a video in 1992 that focused on how horsepackers can run their businesses (bringing paying people into the backcountry) without destroying the terrain. Instead of land-management officials spouting off, Clark had like-minded, professional outfitting buds talk about the low-impact things they do and the ways they’ve found to keep from destroying the resources they love. In Clark’s opinion, it’s the only approach that will reach outfitters.

“These folks don’t respond well to outsiders who come in and tell fifth-generation outfitters how to do things,” he says in reference to Leave No Trace, Inc. (LNT), the Boulder, Colorado-based organization in the lead to lessen the impact of both two- and four-legged backwoods users. In its horsepacking efforts, LNT is joined by the Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA) and by the Lander, Wyoming-based National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).

Clark, an LNT Master (which allows him to teach others), doesn’t mince words about LNT or NOLS. He says that LNT comes across as a quasi-bureaucracy, and that its “ethics” will eventually become regulations that will affect outfitters’ use of public lands.

“I don’t have problems with LNT philosophy,” Clark tells me as we make our way through a lovely, sage-lined valley. “But I do have concerns about the fact that, as time passes, the group will grow, and so will its power and influence. It won’t be long before you’ll have to go through one of their courses to get your Special Use Permit renewed.”

He also objects to the way LNT’s Master’s courses are handled. “I’ve tried for 2 years to get a Master’s course set up in Yellowstone, but they won’t allow it. It has to be run by NOLS staff, and there are a lot of (horsepackers) who don’t like that.”

“Dick’s a great guy, and he has a lot of good points,” says Susan Benepe, outreach program coordinator for NOLS. “He thinks his group ought to be able to run its own Master’s courses, and I can see a time when other groups will run the classes. But we’re not there yet. NOLS has a long relationship with LNT, and right now, we’re the ones entrusted by LNT to run the Master’s courses not just for horsepackers, but for other user groups as well.”

Scott Reid, education and project manager for LNT, tells me he realized long ago that some “old-time horsepackers” view LNT staffers as “a bunch of young people from Boulder telling others what to do. There’s going to be resistance, but we just have to remain patient. More than 100 people have gone through our Master’s course for horsepackers, so we’re making headway.”

Both Reid and Benepe note that NOLS and LNT, in their fight to sway stubborn horse people, have a particularly strong ally in BCHA.

“We go out into the backcountry for the same reasons backpackers do, because we love it,” BCHA executive secretary Peg Griewe tells me. “When we adopted our constitution in 1986, there was an emphasis on environmental awareness and low-impact travel. Our rationale was simple: For a lot of years, horse enthusiasts made unnecessary negative impacts on the environment. There’s no arguing about that.

“But these days, with all the lightweight gear that’s available, we don’t need to travel as heavy as we once did. Plus, we’re losing a lot of our historic riding areas because of backlash by other user groups. We’re fighting to save (and continue using) those areas by preaching environmental awareness to our 14,000 members.”

My mount, Chief, is a 17-year-old Appaloosa gelding standing 16 hands high. Like most of the 30 or so horses Clark owns, Chief was rescued from an old-time outfitter.

“Once pack horses started getting on in years, the owner sold ’em to the dog-food factory,” Clark said. “I’ve bought a lot of horses that were headed for tin cans.”

Chief has spent his entire adult life doing one thing: walking in a line behind other pack horses. No matter how hard I try to modify our trajectory, Chief wants only to walk with his nose about 2 inches from the tail of the horse ahead of him, and I eventually realize that holding the reins is just a formality.

As we make our way cross-country though the sage, Clark tells us to fan out to minimize impact. We find a grassy spot in the middle of a cottonwood grove with a creek nearby as the sun begins lowering behind the hills. After 6 hours of playing Roy Rogers, I can barely lift my leg high enough to get out of the saddle.

We hobble the horses, build another low-impact fire, and cook the kind of meal I’d expect on a horsepacking trip: pork chops, corn on the cob, and biscuits.

“I think most people who do this like a bit of stereotypical authenticity,” Clark says, referring to the cowboy ways. “Sure, we could lighten our loads even more by carrying nylon gear and freeze-dried food, but most people who go on horsepacking trips like the leather, wood, and rope, and they like real meals.”

Even so, Clark says that impact-lessening compromises can be made while still retaining that old-time flavor. “When I first started doing this, we had one or two packhorses for each person. Now we use one pack animal for every two or three people.”

Elsewhere, horse enthusiasts like Kathe Hayes are taking the minimum-impact ideal as far as it can go. Hayes, an employee of the Durango, Colorado-based San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit USDA Forest Service support group, coordinates dozens of volunteers known as Ghost Riders who preach responsible horse ownership.

“We started the Ghost Riders because we figured it’s better to have horse people talking to horse people,” she says, “but we also try to make backpackers better understand that horsepackers can practice low-impact camping.” For instance, Hayes and many Ghost Riders carry their supplies on the horse they’re riding, instead of sitting astride one horse while another, gear-laden beast follows–as new-school a notion as there is in the history of horsepacking.

“We’ve learned a lot from backpackers,” says Hayes, who is also one of us. “We carry lightweight tents, water filters, camp stoves, everything weight-conscious backpackers carry. We need to carry some horse-specific gear, like brushes, but with all the lightweight equipment on the market, I can go out for 4 days and carry everything I need on my horse.”

“Things are definitely changing,” says Pete Turner, a fifth-generation rancher who owns and operates Turner Guides in southwestern Colorado and a recent LNT Master graduate. “Guided horsepacking trips used to include huge canvas tents, massive campfires, and extravagant meals. Not any longer. Most of us now take only small parties into the backcountry. We go as light as possible, trying to carry everything on the horses we’re riding. We’re even starting to eat freeze-dried food to save weight.

“A lot of (clients) who are familiar with the principals of Leave No Trace expect us to do these types of things,” he continues. “And those who aren’t usually buy into it as soon as we explain that we’re protecting the resource through lightweight travel. I tell them we’re adopting an outlaw mentality, trying to make it so no one even knows we were there.”

Back at our camp, I waddle off to my tent as the sun is setting. The morning’s snow melted, the clouds are gone, and the sky is perfectly clear. It’s a tad chilly, but I’m comfortable. Too comfortable, I think. As I had packed for this trip, I’d reasoned that since we’d have horses, I could bring everything. I have a thick, superwarm sleeping bag, a liner, several jackets, long johns, a fluffy pillow, three books, and a portable CD player–I brought twice as much gear as the other three members of the party, who’d all worked hard to trim weight from their duffels. Live and learn.

The next morning, once again, the hobbled horses have to be rounded up. I volunteer to search with Clark simply because it feels good to stretch my legs.

“You know, you’re okay for a backpacker,” he tells me, laughing. “I think we could make a horsepacker out of you.”

I ponder this pronouncement while we round up the recalcitrant horses and ride them bareback (ouch! ouch!) back to camp. Could I ever become a horse person? It’s a good question, and one without an easy answer.

Over the past few days, I’ve prayed we wouldn’t pass any backpackers, since I don’t want them looking at me the way I’ve always looked at people on horseback. I don’t want them to think I’m cheating or lazy or contributing to the destruction of the backcountry. Recently, though, I’ve talked to many horse people preaching and practicing the LNT dogma with a near-missionary zeal that I’ve heard echoed by few of my fellow backpackers.

But then again, most backpackers (not all, but many) have a minimum-impact consciousness built into their backcountry DNA; it comes with the turf, so to speak. Such does not seem to be the case with a large portion of our horsepacking brethren. I applaud their recent efforts and successes, and wish them Godspeed in their mission. But these LNTers have a long way to go, and further advances may be slow in coming and hard-fought, considering how firmly entrenched most outfitters are in the “good ol’ ways.”

“I don’t know,” I finally say in reply to Clark. “Maybe if I could do something about this throbbing behind problem, maybe I could consider becoming one of you.” But, glibness aside, I know I’ll never be a horsepacker. I’m just too fond of seeing the wildlands from my own eye-level, and of getting there by my own limbs. Call me crazy, just don’t call me Roy Rogers.

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