Long distance trekking has its unique challenges and rewards; even more so for children. Below are a few tips and tricks to make sure they get the most out of their equine adventuring.
Wait for the Right Age
Make no mistakes about it, the rigours of long-distance can be a huge challenge, even for adults. Most established long-distance horse trails have been designed for self-sufficient travel and as such, are not carefully manicured, meticulously marked trails. Many of the designated campsites are simply a paddock beside a river or dam. Huts or water tanks are often the exception rather than the rule, and there are large stretches of trail which cannot be accessed by vehicle. You also have the added complication of caring for and providing for your animals’ needs.
Despite this, all of the above can provide a valuable learning / growth experience for children, provided that they are at an age where they have built up a degree of resilience and are able to rise to such a challenge, rather than be overwhelmed by it.
Don’t underestimate the value of going for lots of long walks beforehand, without the trekking animals. This will help your child to really become familiar with how those big distances feel (and a day on the trail IS a big distance, especially for littler legs!)
Distances like 20km can drag on for hours, and while we tend to get excited at the thought of all those breath-taking vistas we are bound to see on the way, it can also be monotonous, dull and physically exhausting, even if your child is not doing the walking. Doing a few practise hikes will help your child get familiar with long days in the elements, as well as helping them learn to pace themselves, giving them the confidence to know when they can indeed push on that bit further.
Additionally, keep in mind that your child should also be able to walk at least 15km in an emergency (i.e. if an animal goes lame or goes missing). It’s always good practise to encourage children to walk a few kilometres every day, just to give their riding horse a little rest or to stretch their legs.
Choose Your Animals Wisely
Once you’ve established that your child is capable of embarking on a long-distance trek and they have tested their mettle on a few challenging bushwalks, it is probably time to start thinking about riding animals. When trekking long distance with horses and children, the temperament of your animals is perhaps more important than anything else.
On this note, it is worth considering the humble donkey. Donkeys are much more predictable and steady than their equine cousins, and when frightened, will usually stop dead in their tracks, rather than suddenly take off, making them a safer alternative for younger or inexperienced riders. While their stoic nature has earned them a reputation for stubbornness, it is probably a small price to pay for the sake of safety. Donkeys love children fawning all over them just as much or perhaps more than horses and will provide many laughs and entertainment around camp in the afternoon.
On a long-distance trail, your animals will have to deal with all sorts of crazy things- walking under wind turbines, crossing all manner of rivers and creeks, walking alongside busy highways, close encounters with mining machinery, forklifts, harvesters, groups of cyclists; the list goes on. Because your child’s safety is literally in the hands of the animal he or she is riding, don’t set off until you have one that you can trust 100%. You’ll know in your heart when you have the right one!
Don’t stress too much about school work
Unless you are heading off on a horse trek over the school holidays, chances are you will have taken your child out of school and be committed to home-schooling for at least a term.
Home schooling conventionally on the trail can be difficult. Because you are limited by how much weight you and your animals can carry, this makes it impossible to carry a plethora of books or worksheets. It is also impossible to reply on the internet or electronic devices for educational resources, due to the challenge of minimal phone reception or power sources. In addition, trekking with animals doesn’t leave a lot of spare time, and often once camp has been set up at the end of a long day, small ones do not have the energy for pages of maths sums!
Some trekking families have found that two school books suffice; one for Maths and one for English. Your child works on a little of each every day, as well as a journal entry, which can be illustrated with something they saw on the trail that day. While trekkers can often not afford the weight of a stack of children’s books, Kindle readers are a great lightweight compromise.
When push comes to shove, the real learning your child will likely experience on the trail will be via the places or people you meet – experiences that cannot be planned, structured or measured. A long distance trek will without doubt help your child develop resilience, confidence, stamina, and a deep respect and affinity for nature and the environment. It also has a way of fostering a sense of responsibility and discipline that comes from caring for animals and setting up and breaking camp daily, among countless other skills and qualities that will aid him/her down the track in later life.
Assign individual responsibilities
Life on the trail and at camp will run more smoothly if everyone knows what they are responsible for and the expectations around each job. It may take a while to work out a system that runs smoothly for your family, but it’s great for children to have certain jobs on the trail which are always theirs. Perhaps having set responsibilities also helps children realise that they are an important part of the equation, and that their assistance is required for the whole outfit to run smoothly.
For example, in the morning, your child may be responsible for getting their horse in and tied up, brushing the horses while adults pack panniers, and picking out their horse’s feet. It is perhaps always important for an adult to saddle up or at least check saddling, as it is all too easy for animals to quickly acquire rubs or galls after long days on the trail. The beginnings of these can often go unnoticed by a child’s eye.
In the afternoon, setting up tent and sleeping bags may be a suitable job for children, while adults sort gear and lift packsaddles off.
Get off the trail now and again
Life on the trail can be a bit gruelling for little ones, so when you have a chance to get away from it now and then, take the opportunity to do so. If this means a trip to a shopping centre for hot chips when you are nearby town, or an extra rest day to swim in the pool, go for it. They have earned it, after all! You may find that a few town treats and surprises are necessary when spirits are beginning to wane.
It is one thing to live off oatmeal for a fortnight on the trail, but when you have kids in tow, it is probably not the best idea. Firstly they seem to suffer from trail food fatigue much sooner than adults and hence are likely to just under-eat, but also because you will likely be out the on the trail for quite a while. One trick to try on the trail is sprouting. You may be unable to provide your child with as many fresh fruits and vegetables as you would normally do at home, but luckily you can make up for this to a degree by sprouting your own seeds and grains while on the trail. All you need is a stocking, and once you get into the habit, it’s pretty easy to do. Sprouts are nutritional powerhouses that contain large amounts of protein and Vitamin C.
Days on the trail can be long and tiring and young ones will start to flag before long. It’s a good idea to carry some snacks such as muesli bars, nuts or fruit leather to snack on while you get through your kilometres for the day.
Put Safety First
Horse trekking with or without children is a calculated risk. There is a lot of potential for unexpected accidents or incidents to occur, especially when animals are involved. When trekking with kids, obviously you are responsible not only for the safety and wellbeing of yourself and your animals, but most importantly for your children. This is a heavy burden to bear, therefore it is worth taking a few safety precautions. These might include packing a comprehensive first aid kit, carrying a satellite phone and instructing them in how to operate it, taking out premium ambulance cover, attending a first aid course with your child, and discussing and role-playing with your child what they should do in an emergency.
It’s a good idea to spend a lot of time before leaving drilling your child on behaving responsibly around the animals, ie- no sudden movements, never wrapping the lead ropes around their hands, tying up safely ALL the time, how to gauge when to get out of the way etc. On a long-distance trek, groundwork skills are perhaps even more important than a child’s riding abilities.
Camp safety is also an important one and is important to have firm boundaries around things like not running around in the dark, wearing shoes in unfamiliar territory, and treating fire with respect.
Give It Time
It can take time to fall in love with the trail. In fact, if you are new to horse-trekking, in the first few weeks it can feel like one big hard slog where everything is a challenge. Everyone’s’ bodies will be sore and still adjusting to the new physical demands, and the routine of setting up and breaking camp will take a while to refine. In the meantime, be prepared for lots of packing, repacking, lost tent pegs, and frazzled tempers!
The animals will also take a while to adjust, needing extra supervision and energy to keep them on task and in camp.
During this challenging readjustment period, don’t be surprised if the comforts of home start looking like a better alternative. More than once you will question yourself about what you were thinking!
So, give it three weeks. If your family is still hankering for home, then perhaps re-evaluate your plans.
It is important that your child knows what he or she is in for before heading out on a long-distance horse trek. It is easy for them to conjure up fantastic visions of blissfully riding ponies out in the sunshine all day, but of course, it’s not always like this. Before you leave home, head out on a few trail rides or a walk that really ‘knock the wind out of you’. Maybe in the midday heat, perhaps in a downpour or up a rough gully, where your child may have to walk on slippery footing. During the experience, perhaps you can gently explain to your child that ‘sometimes it will be like this when we go out on the trail’.
In conclusion, don’t let any of this put you off. When tackled with the right amount of common sense and preparation, a long pack-saddling trip or horse trek with kids can be the most amazing, life-changing experience for all those involved.