Some horse- trekkers know the feeling all too well.
You’re camping out bush with your horses, and the sun is just beginning to peek through the flap of your tent. Remembering where you are, you stretch slowly and smile as you zip open the door, ready to brew a cup of cowboy coffee and saddle up for another day on the trail.
You peer over towards the grassed area where you hobbled your steeds the night before, hoping they have perked up from their sleepy-headed fatigue of the previous night.
Instead, your stomach drops. Your heart starts racing.
They have gone. All three.
You rub your eyes and scramble for your shoes as you work out a plan of attack. You look around camp, but there is definitely no sign of the horses. You think you can hear sticks cracking the distance, but from which direction? You are now all alone in the middle of the bush- where do you even START to look for your horses? You crash through the undergrowth, calling for them desperately, wondering why you didn’t just stay home on the couch and watch re-runs of Friends.
To avoid the stress of magically disappearing horses when overnighting on the trail, it’s good to get familiar with the various methods of horse containment you can use. Experiment with them first at home and find out what works for you, your horses and where you plan to camp.
4 methods of horse-containment for trekkers
Portable electric fencing
A horse trekker’s portable electric fencing kit usually consists of 100m or so of electric poly-tape (length depends on how many horses you are containing and how much you are willing to carry!), a charging unit (either battery or solar chargeable), plastic fence handle, large tent peg (used as a grounding rod), and a few bungy ties and lengths of baling twine.
What about the fence posts, you may ask?
Portable fence posts are both unwieldy and heavy to pack for a horse trek, so most trekkers either choose to do without or to fashion a lightweight version with collapsible tent poles and tent pegs.
Instead however, the baling twine and bungy cords afore mentioned can be secured around trees, existing fence posts, or other handy objects at a height of about 90cm off the ground. The plastic in the twine/ cords acts as an insulator and allows your fence to retain charge along its length.
Pros: If you don’t want the risk of overnighting your horse in hobbles, electric fencing is probably the best option to give your horse access to as much grazing as possible. A portable electric paddock is also relatively safe, as you can be assured that your horse is not going to get tangled up in any tethering ropes or end up with hobble rubs. Fences are a good idea when in brumby country and you would like to create a buffer between your own horses and those in the wild. Electric fence containment is also comfortable for your horse, easy for it to become accustomed to, and perhaps requires the less amount of horse training/ preparation.
Cons: Some horses perhaps do not have as much respect for portable electric fencing as one would like, and when spooked, may not hesitate to crash right through it. Indeed, once your horse gets out, he is OUT. Additionally, a decent sized electric fence paddock also takes a little longer to set up than most other containment options.
Hobbles are as old as time and perhaps the true classic of horse trekking containment options.
Hobbling is the act of fastening two of the horse’s legs together with a short length of rope, leather, or chain in order to impede forward motion. It is worth noting that hobbles do not by any means STOP the horse moving forward, but merely shorten the range of his front steps, thus slowing him down. Think of it as tying your shoelaces together- you would still be able to shuffle around the house, but not run as freely.
Pros: Hobbles are easy and light to carry and can simply be strapped to the saddle or around the horse’s neck as an afterthought. They are quick to put on and introduced to a horse with relative ease. The fact that they allow movement means that the horse can graze easily and over a wide area, maximising the feeding opportunities. They are also fantastic as a quick daytime containment tool when you don’t want to fuss around setting up fences.
Cons: Unless you love walking, hobbles are more a tool for temporary containment or movement restriction rather than a ‘put them on, go to bed, forget about them’ kind of method. Horses can travel many kilometres indeed in hobbles, and most cannot be outrun by their owners!
A highline or nightline is a taunt length of rope strung high between two trees. A horse or string of horses is then secured to the rope. Unlike tying directly to trees or other fixed objects, horses tied to a highline are able to turn around in a circle and lie down.
To protect the trees supporting the highline, it is good practise to run a tree saver strap, girths or surcingles around the tree, as a rope rubbing directly on the tree can cause significant damage. Horses can be secured to the rope either by a commercially designed highline tie ring or by tying prussic knots into the line.
Pros: Highlines are relatively light and easy to pack, and quicker to set up than an electric fence. Horses are generally fairly comfortable overnighting on them, and they are hailed as the containment method that causes least amount of environmental impact. It is also a very SECURE method of keeping your horses in camp, and you can fall asleep knowing that they will almost certainly be right where you left them.
Cons: Highlines will only work in places where there are larger trees, and the spacing between trees also needs to be fairly spot on (not too far apart, not too close together). This containment method is also better in places with flat or even ground, as it would be unfair to ask a horse to stand on very uneven ground or a slope all night long. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of all however, is that as your horse is essentially tied up and he will not have access to any grazing. Therefore, this method is best used in combination with other methods such as hobbling in the evening to graze before being tied up for the night.
Having said this however, some trekkers will set up a a long highline with one running ring to tie a horse to. This allows the horse to travel up and down the length of the highline and perhaps access a pick of grass.
Tethering seems to be much more popular with US backcountry horse-people than here in Australia. To tether a horse, a length of rope (approx. ten metres) is attached to a half-hobble or soft strap that goes around the horse’s pastern. The other end of the rope is attached to a large ‘picket’ or tent peg in the ground. It can also be attached to a solid object, such as a fence post, the base of a tree or a boulder. Both ends of the rope have swivels, thus allowing the horse to wander around and graze within a circular shape.
Pros: Like the highline, a tether rope is also easy and lightweight to pack, with its main advantage being that it allows the horse to graze. The fact that the horse is securely attached to a rope means that it is perhaps a little more secure than other containment options that allow for grazing, such as electric fencing or hobbling.
Cons: It can take some time for the horse to get used to the rope dragging between his legs, getting caught around his feet, or getting tangled when he rolls. Almost all horses eventually learn to manage a tether rope, but make sure you begin with hobble training before introducing the tether, and always tether to a pastern rather than the horse’s halter. Nonetheless, it may not be the best option for a nervous or flighty horse, and some horses will end up with a small rub or rope burn or two before they get it fully figured out.
Additionally, when the ground is uneven or covered with debris (i.e. fallen logs, branches, rocks), the tether rope can become easily wrapped around these and you might end up spending half the night unhooking the rope!
Check out the following clip on how to make a picket line (some trekkers prefer to use a length of garden horse over the rope instead of using a chain as in this video).
Mix and Matching: Rethinking Horse Containment on the Trail
Many horse riders new to trekking will ask, “But which is the best method of horse containment for me?”
The answer to this will of course depend on many factors: Your horses and their own personalities as well as level of experience out bush, how much weight you are able to carry, where you are going and whether or not there are any traffic/ wildlife risks, as well as the terrain (availability of trees/ tethering points, grass etc).
Most experienced horse trekkers will in fact use a combination of horse containment methods, based on the factors above. Check out a few of the different combos and example scenarios below:
Combo 1: Hobbles and Highline
Scenario: Bob and Sarah are heading out packing with their five horses. As they are carrying limited feed, they plan to camp in a grassy area by a stand of trees. After the day’s ride, the horses are hobbled to allow them to graze, and Bob sets up a highline between the tree for later that night.
Later in the evening as Bob and Sarah are getting ready for bed, the horses have a full belly and are tied to the highline for the night to keep them safe and secure. The following morning when Bob and Sarah rise with the dawn, they remove the horses from the highline and pop the hobbles on the horses to ensure they have something in their bellies before the day’s ride.
If you’re unsure of how to go about setting up a highline, check out the following clip:
Combo 2: Highline and Free-range
Scenario: Anna is going trekking with her three horses. They are covering quite a lot of distance and thus are limited in what they can carry. Anna decides to highline her lead horse overnight, while leaving the other two free to graze.
This is a great option when you know you have one horse who is clearly ‘in charge’- the one that the other horses are going to stick close to and would not leave under any circumstances. It saves you having to fuss around with large amounts of gear or horse containment set-ups, and the fact that your ‘boss horse’ is safely contained means you can sleep at night. Hobble the ‘boss horse’ in the afternoon and morning so he can access feed, and perhaps consider packing in some hay cubes only for him so that he is fed and content throughout the night. For extra reassurance and security, put a horse bell on the highline horse- if you hear it clanging around at night, you’ll know something’s up.
Combo 3: Electric Fence and Sidelines/Hobbles
Scenario: Emma is heading off into the Snowy Mountains to go trekking with her three horses. She knows there will be brumbies around, so she would like to create a ‘buffer’ between her horses and them, as well as taking extra precautions to ensure that her horses won’t take off.
She decides to enclose her horses within a portable electric fence, adding sidelines/ hobbles to slow them down and prevent them getting far if they do by chance get out.
What are your favourite combos and methods when it comes to overnighting your horse when out trekking? Share in the comments below!