On the Bicentennial National Trail, you need to be pretty flexible with how you go about keeping your horses close to you.
Sometimes there will be a yard or paddock, other times you might have to get creative with strategically-located trees and baling twine. Either way, it helps to get familiar with the different sorts of horse containment and appropriate situations for each.
Permanent Paddock or Yard
Ahhh, heaven on a stick. There is nothing like beautiful, secure fencing at the end of a long day- knowing that you can just collapse in the tent and your horse will stay put. Don’t rely on always having this however we have found that in general, only 1 out of 3 camps on the National Trail will have some sort of yards or permanent fencing.
Hobbles are an amazing invention when it comes to not losing your horse or donkey. Before I became familiar with them, for some reason the very word conjured up images of a miserable horse standing forlorn in a paddock, legs all tied up and unable to move. How wrong I was!
Hobbles are basically a strap around each of the horse’s fetlocks, with a chain or webbing strap between them to limit the amount of front leg extension the horse has. The horse is still able to walk and graze, and many have learned to do a pretty efficiently speedy hobble- hop (yes Fly, I’m talking about you). Make no mistake, horses can still outrun you in hobbles (I learned the hard way!), but you can rest assured that your horse is not going to be able to bolt back home at a million miles an hour.
There are two sort of hobbles- lightweight Neoprene and the chain and leather type. We used neoprene hobbles, but the ring on Fly’s pair recently pulled apart so we are now using Leather and chain. Pretty happy with these but they weigh almost a kilo.
Hobbles are probably the most common method of restraint we use with our beasties. When we get to camp, we tend to unsaddle and hobble them while we set up our gear so they can get grazing as soon as possible.
Many people tend to use the system of hobbling during the day at camp, and putting up an electric fence at night. But if we are miles from anywhere and there are no roads around, I usually don’t bother with the fence and leave them in hobbles at night so they have wider access to grass. When we were in the Kunderang, they were hobbled at night and could basically have had the potential to run 100km plus. Now that they are used to the trail routine, usually pretty worn out by evening, and know they will be fed in the morning, they never to wander too far away. However, it’s not worth the risk if there is a road nearby!
To train your beasties to hobbles, many recommend training to tether first so that your horse learns to yield to pressure on his leg rather than pull against it and fight. This is probably the sensible thing to do, however we opted for just popping the horse and donkeys (one by one of course) in a flat, sand roundyard to figure it at. It doesn’t take long, and as long as the ground is flat and soft, they won’t hurt themselves in the process.
A safety note- always make sure you water your horse before hobbling. Hobbled horses have been known to drown in rivers whilst seeking out water.
This seems to be big in horse packing circles in America. This is basically a method of running a taut rope high between two trees and either tying the horses to the rope, or putting a running ring through the rope and tying the horse to this, to allow it to graze.
In our entire time n the trail, I have used this method once- on our second day when I thought you were supposed to stop for lunch. In reality, there is very little grazing scope on a highline, and it is a pain to rig up, requiring two trees the right distance apart. Also, in Australia, we tend to get a lot more undergrowth like tea tree etc, whereas in US forests, the ground is probably a bit clearer between trees.
I guess if you had plenty of hay available, two trees the right distance apart with flat, clear ground between them, no electric fencing and couldnt trust your horses to stay near camp in hobbles, it could be useful. But not for us!
This is the method of attaching a length of rope either to the animal’s head or a strap on the foreleg. The other end is then secured to a long tent peg in the ground, or a tree, fence post, etc. We use this a lot on the trail- they can’t wander off, but they CAN graze a surprisingly large area. Donkeys are great at tethering- they tend to stay calm if they even get themselves in a tangle. However, I have to admit that I have yet to trust that Fly could look after himself in a tether without being highly supervised, and I’m not about to go getting up at all hours of the night to keep checking him. Therefore I only ever tether the donkeys. Not to say that horses can’t safely be tethered, I just havent really needed to.
This is because if I am worried about the beasties wandering off, I tend to tether Jasmine (donkey) and hobble the two boys, as they will never stray too far from her side. So sweet, they are 🙂
To train the donkeys to tether, I attached the ankle strap to their fetlock and taught them to lead by the leg. We went round and round in the paddock like this every day for a week, and then I left the tether rope on them for a while (supervised) so they would get used to it dragging around their legs, but not attached to anything. Then I tethered them for real. I had a pocket knife on hand in case anything went wrong and I needed to get the rope off quickly, but for our donkeys, it turned out to be totally unecessary. As long as there is a bit of grass about, they are happy! Our tether also has a one metre length of plastic hose over the rope to prevent it tangling around the donkeys legs.
We have around 80m of electric tap, a tent-peg for grounding and a small portable fence charger to run our electric fence. I use this a lot- whenever there is potential for the beasties to stray into an unsafe area, usually a road. I don’t want the added weight and bulk of carrying portable electric fence posts, so I usually just tie baling twine to trees or fence to hold the fence up and double as insulators. There has only been one time on the trail where we needed to put the fence up and there was nothing to tie it to on the opposite side. We ended up tying it to a car door handle. There is always a creative solution for problems on the trail!
I have heard that some clever trekkers in the past have fashioned lightweight electric fence posts from things like mop handles or tent poles- another option if you don’t feel confident heading off without them.
While a bell is not actually going to keep your horses where they are supposed to be, it’ll let you know where they are. Usually paired with hobbles, if your horse isn’t in sight, at least you will be able to hear roughly where he might be. After about a week on the trail, you will become adept at understanding the ‘language of the bell’- determining whether your horse is eating, sleeping, rolling, picking on the others, or on the move just by the quality, speed and tempo of the tinkles being emitted by the bell 🙂