A loud crack in the treeline to my left broke the silence of the wilderness.  I looked up from the creek just in time to see the two pack mules making their escape across the meadow, on the other side of the river from my position.  To get back to the trailhead, or out of the drainage at all for the matter, they would have to pass me.  I quickly jumped out of the brush next to the river as they approached, in an attempt to turn them back the other direction toward the elk guide that was responsible for them.  My move worked, and just as the mules turned, the guide came full speed out of the treeline into the meadow, halfway aboard his big palamino saddle horse.  He was technically on the horse, but I am not sure his feet were even near the stirrups.  This was impressive to see, and something that will forever remain in my memory.  The guide quickly caught up to the escapees, slid off of his saddle horse in a quick manner, and grabbed the escaped mules.  The guide looked at me, nodded, and made a simple statement that I have remembered ever since.  "Try to be nice and let em graze for a minute while i'm working, and this is how they thank me. No more grazing for these two" the guide stated. 

The two mules were not only each wearing a set of front leg hobbles, but they were also tied together.  To make it down the ridge through the forest from where the guide was clearing trail must have taken quite an effort and excellent choreography from the mules.  Since witnessing this event, I have always kept a keen eye on my own hobbled horses, as well as trying to place them in areas that they would have to at least pass me or my camp to get back to the trailer.  See example #2.


As we watched the herd of elk cross the alpine ridge out of our basin and into the next, my wife and I decided that riding out of the basin we were camped in, around the head of the drainage, and into the next  basin where the elk should appear made more sense than trying to catch up to them on foot.  We saddled our two riding horses and quickly made the 4 mile ride through the tundra into the next drainage.  

We tied the horses at the head of a tight, nasty canyon.  This country was made not for horses nor mules, and we spent what we had left of the day making our way through the canyon looking for that herd of elk on foot.  We never got back on those elk, as is often the case in wilderness elk hunting.  As the shadows were getting long, we headed back toward the horses for the ride back to camp.  We were both so delighted to find them right where we left them, ready to take us out of that basin and back to our camp.  Our legs were shot from spending most of the day busting around that nasty canyon, and it is a special feeling to climb aboard a reliable mountain horse when you are physically spent.  It was at this point that I decided to be nice and show my appreciation to the two old geldings and let them graze for half an hour on that beautiful mountain grass before the ride back to camp.  This is a good time to make note of the statement made by the guide in example one.  

My mistake wasn't letting the horses graze while hobbled, my mistake was not catching my own horse first.  You see, on this particular trip, we were making use of a borrowed horse as well as our own.  The borrowed horse, although reliable to ride, was notoriously hard to catch.  As I approached the old gelding with his halter, he started bouncing off in his hobbles.  I still did not find this to be an issue, as my horse was still behind me, not appearing in any hurry to follow the old bouncing gelding.  I didn't figure he would go very far anyway, and I definitely didn't think that they could make it out of that basin in their hobbles.  As I watched the old sorrel continue bounding away, I decided I had better grab the other horse before this really got out of hand.  As I turned to the other gelding, I knew by his expression what was about to happen.  He was in an alert state, fixated on the old sorrel bounding across the meadow.  Before I could even take a step, my horse was halfway to the other.  He quickly caught up to (and passed) the sorrel gelding and they continued to cross deep ravines and climb a steep ridge straight out of the basin.  I was shocked at what those two geldings were able to do in their hobbles, and also had a sinking feeling that if I lost sight of them, I might never find them.  The only reason I was able to keep track of them is the fact that we were well above timberline.  When they finally allowed me to catch up to them, (roughly 2.5 miles later) they had no hair left under their hobbles and had created quite a raw spot on each leg.  This was an enlightening day, and once again I remembered the quote from the elk guide in example one.  

The point of this two stories is that while hobbles have their place, there are often better ways to restrain a horse in the backcountry. Some horses never learn that they can lope or bounce off with simple front leg hobbles on, but many will learn that they can in fact go for a cruise. Three legged hobbles are a good option, as it is much more difficult for a horse to get into the bounding/loping motion with them.  One can also picket their horse either to a stake or a heavy log.  When using any of these methods, it pays to keep an eye on your horses or mules.  I often use a portable electric corral at my backcountry camps, and my horses have not blown out of it yet.  I would like to add, than until the story noted above, my 20 year old gelding had never blown away from me in his hobbles, either. No matter what you do, always keep one horse tied hard or otherwise firmly in your grasp.  This has a few benefits.  Many times, horses won't leave each other, so if you've got one hard tied or standing on a highline that he can't escape, this can be remedy enough.  In the case that your hobbled horses still do wander or bound away, at least there is still at least one horse in camp to go track the runaways down and reduce the risk of not finding them at all.  

Hobble horses in the wilderness

Moments before the San Juan Escape

Never had a problem with hobbled horses, until I did.  



Post by Dane Coppola

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