Five Hiking Lessons From Horses
We’ve all heard the saying, “you have to get back on the horse,” meaning, of course, you have to get back at whatever has challenged you or that you’ve failed at. In terms of thru-hiking, it’s quite applicable. In terms of horseback riding, it’s quite literal.
On the outside, it would appear as if thru-hiking and horseback riding don’t have a whole lot in common. But I’ve found many ties between the two, and below are the lessons that several years of horseback riding has taught me that will be invaluable on my hike.
Things Aren’t Going to Go as Planned
Horseback riding is the only sport where your “equipment” has a mind of its own. Where the massive animal under you can decide that it really wants to go left because it likes running that way better or just randomly jump five feet in the opposite direction because something scared it. You do the best that you can but you must also accept that there is always that X factor (the horse’s brain) that you can’t control. Thru-hiking is very much the same. You can plan and prepare all you want, but I have yet to read a hikers’ account that said, “I planned the whole thing and it went off without a hitch.” There are just too many factors that you have no, or limited, control over: weather, bugs, animals, faulty gear. You’ve got to be ready and open to adjusting the plan.
Horseback riding is highly romanticized. Movies and TV shows of beautiful people galloping through fields with their hair flowing unobstructed by helmets highlight our screens and Kentucky Derby parties pop up every May when people have an excuse to wear garish, exorbitant hats. The reality is a lot of shit. Literally. Horses poop six to eight times a day. And you’re an idiot if you ride without a helmet. Horses are dirty and a whole lot of work. Dirty work. You’re going to smell. Similarly, thru-hiking is glorified, too. There are a lot of epic photos of hikers on mountains looking spectacular and spectacularly happy. What the photos don’t show is the work on the way up or the falls on the way down. Left out is getting stuck in torrential downpours, not showering, and getting dirty. And you’re going to smell.
There are still animal activist groups out there that find riding on the back on a horse “barbaric.” It’s a 1,000+ pound animal stronger than any human. If they’re not OK with you on their back, you’re not gonna be there. Trust me. The reality is, horses actually like people. They love companionship and hate being alone. Horses can be put in fields with cows or goats or other horses. They make friends with barn cats and dogs. They learn to recognize their human and build a relationship with them. The success of riding largely comes from the relationship between horse and rider. Thru-hiking the AT also largely relies on relationships. It’s a community that’s built off common interests and goals. I am very excited for all the different people that I’m going to meet on the trail and to experience the community first hand.
Take Care of Your Feet
A broken leg on a human is fixable; a broken leg on a horse is a death sentence. And there are a multitude of other leg and foot problems that horses can have. Just look at a picture of a horse; their legs are so skinny and fragile looking compared to the mass of their bodies. Hoof care needs to be done on a regular basis. Diligence is key. I’m guessing the connection here is obvious. Taking care of feet and legs on the trail is a priority. It’s important to know the difference between hiking soreness and injury soreness. I plan on stretching daily and changing my shoes regularly. I’ll only be able to make it to Katahdin if my feet and legs can carry me there.
The Mental Game
This is where “get back on the horse” comes into play. With riding, you actually have to get back on the horse when you fall. You have to ease your bruised bum (and ego) back into the saddle. And it sucks. Falling sucks. And it hurts. I still remember my worst fall. I was going over a jump that I had done dozens of times on a horse that I had ridden hundreds of times. But something wasn’t right, and this time I went over the horse’s head/shoulder and landed on top of the jump and took half of it down with me. In hindsight, I’m not sure how I didn’t break something. But the hardest part, undoubtedly, was getting back on the horse. It’s the last thing I wanted to do. But I cried out my tears and did it anyway. And even when you don’t fall, not every ride is good. As I stated earlier, it’s not all galloping through fields. Some days will be bad and some rides will be hard. And some will be amazing. One of the top things that I read about thru-hiking is the importance of mental fortitude. With all the challenges that a thru-hiker faces, day-to-day failures and hardships are expected. No way you’re getting out there and everything just goes perfectly. What’s important is that you persevere and get back out there the next day. And the next and the next.
Overall, horseback riding is a tough and dirty sport that challenges me constantly, both on and off the horse. And it’s worth every frustrating moment. I apply this mentality to my upcoming thru-hike. And, needless to say, I’m especially excited for the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park.
I’ll sign off with one last photo of my old horse, Scenic, with duct tape over his hoof because he threw a shoe. Duct tape does seem to be a thru-hiking staple.
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