Trail Tips: Accessorizing the Trail Rider
By Stan Walchuk, Jr.
In this article we will consider ideas for rider accessories that can make your ride smoother, safer, and more comfortable.
Let’s begin with comfortable.
If you’ve ever ridden a long day wearing only jeans, you may have experienced friction and soreness from the rough fabric.
Many years ago, somewhere, somehow, a cowboy put on a pair of ladies’ leotards underneath his riding jeans.
Light, synthetic long underwear will not only keep this bashful cowboy warm in chilly weather, but will greatly reduce the friction between skin and denim. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
What he discovered was a smoother, frictionless, more enjoyable ride. It likely put a dent in his male ego, but kudos to the guy anyway.
These days long underwear, tops and bottoms, come in polyester, polypropylene, and silk blends. They provide the same relief as leotards and are practical in the spring, summer, and fall. They also wick away moisture and regulate body temperature. Male or female, you owe it to yourself to try a pair on your next ride.
Gloves can protect your hands and keep them warm and dry in cold, wet weather. We generally avoid leather gloves as they get sloppy when wet, do not keep hands dry, and end up looking like pretzels when left too long to dry next to the fire.
When it comes to gloves, here’s a rare case where cheaper may actually be better. Try a pair of ten dollar, light, synthetic, Thinsulate™ lined ski gloves. They are generally waterproof and will probably keep your hands warmer than most lined leather gloves. Gloves are easily lost or ruined so on longer trips we generally take several pairs of light ski gloves and a thinner form-fitting glove for milder days.
Leather gloves (right) are great for working with horses in fair weather, but under variable weather conditions, synthetic alternatives can be more practical, such as Thinsulate™ lined ski gloves (left). For milder weather, lighter synthetic gloves (middle) can come in handy. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
For keeping the rest of you warm and dry there are so many types of clothing materials on the market that you’d have to be a scientist to fully understand the technology behind them. The one thing to keep in mind is the importance of choosing fabrics that help regulate body temperature.
Weather changes on the trail are standard fare and a major factor in comfort is a layer that breaks the wind. Sport and work wear stores carry a variety of all-weather garments that break the wind, repel water, and breathe to reduce the moisture against your skin. Although bulkier, there is wisdom in the traditional concept of layers of cotton, wool, and a windbreak, items you likely have on hand.
Those light ski or snowboarding jackets and pants make excellent all-weather riding gear for inclement weather. Add a light Thinsulate™ lined vest to your cantle pack as well. It weighs next to nothing and adds a whole new layer of warmth and comfort on cold mornings, days, and especially cold nights in your sleeping bag. On warm nights it will also serve exceptionally well as a pillow.
Rain gear needs to be waterproof, tear resistant, and made of fabrics that breathe. The author favours a rain jacket and pants as they offer freedom of movement while walking on foot, particularly in brushy country. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
I find that choosing rain gear is like choosing a partner. You’ve got to try on different sizes, shapes, colours, and models to see what suits your lifestyle and freedom of movement. You don’t want to feel cramped or slimy in miserable weather.
Try to avoid cheap plastics and synthetics as they will be ripped and ruined with the first thicket you push through. Trail riders should look for rain gear that is tear resistant.
Because I do a lot of walking during long days on the trail, I prefer the freedom of movement offered by a jacket and pants system, as opposed to a long oilskin outback-style coat. I do, however, use a long-legged oilskin coat for rides where I expect to ride most of the time.
Oilskin coats are made of oil and wax impregnated cotton. They are 100 percent water proof, and will remain so, as long as they are properly cared for.
They come in different weights. My first one was a full length heavy thing that soon became stiff. It was like walking around in a full length cardboard box with a hole cut out for my head. Full length outback coats do have the advantage of spreading out and keeping the saddle drier. Now I often use a medium weight, mid length outback with good rain pants.
Full length oilskin slickers offer the advantage of spreading out over the saddle and rider’s legs to protect them from rain and sharp branches. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Notice that I have not mentioned rain ponchos. I do not consider them serious trail gear. They expose arms and legs and flap around noisily which makes for good spook practice for your horse, not necessarily a desirable thing when riding out on the trail.
Moving up to the head, I recommend taking some ear plugs to wear on very windy days as they help prevent ear aches. They’ll also keep out the sound of your tent mates’ snoring, but the downside is that you may actually feel the grizzly bear chewing on your leg before you hear it.
An ear band, scarf, or bandana wrapped around your head underneath your hat can keep your head warm in poor weather. A light toque will do the same and be a great friend on cold nights and mornings.
Ear plugs help prevent ear aches on windy days, and help you sleep at night if your fellow campers snore, but will block out the sound of approaching unwelcome visitors.
I have written articles on why the right hat is critical, and of the advantages of a weatherproof cowboy hat as protection from the elements and branches that will poke at the dipped hat rather than your face. Straw hats and baseball type hats are fine in decent weather but are not serious trail rider’s fare.
An ASTM approved riding helmet covered with a plastic rain sleeve for poor weather is still the safest way to go. I tried one on the other day and was amazed that, despite how bulky it looked, it was as light as a couple of five star Stetsons.
Staying with the subject of safety, head injuries are the leading cause of death from riding and chest injuries are second. As my children were growing up and being taken on trail rides by their dad, they often wore life jackets as well as helmets. The life jacket not only helps protect against body injuries in the event of a fall, but is essential safety gear for children when making deep river crossings. Looking back, I can tell you that it was a very satisfying feeling to see the little munchkins all padded up.
Now that we’ve covered clothing, let’s talk about accessories to carry with us.
The author’s well-used folding pocket knife and multi tool show the serrated blade edge which is ideal for cutting rope. The multi tool can hang unobtrusively from your hip and is so handy you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
A few years back we headed up the long, rough trail to our alpine camp. It was a tiring, cold, wet day and, as nightfall approached, my body fell into frightening bouts of shaking and the chills. It was more than the weather, illness had sent in.
With the damp weather and a cold night ahead, something needed to be done. I scrounged up a few cheap plastic water bottles, filled them with hot water from the campfire tea pot, and crawled in to my tent. What an absolute relief!
Those impromptu water bottles saved me, and ever since then we travel with a rubber hot water bag. You would not believe how pleasant a hot water bottle at your feet and waist can be on cold nights.
Some items we always carry include a multi-tool, headlamp, and bear spray. A multi-tool is one of those items that you never felt you needed until you started wearing one on your hip. They tighten loose screws on bridles and saddles, cut leather and rope, pull lacings through holes, and grab hot items by the camp fire.
If you’re riding out into bear country, bear spray is a safety essential.
The same knife blade cleans toe nails in the evening, castrates hogs in the morning, and makes sandwiches for lunch.
There are many models available but when you decide on one, be sure that one blade has a serrated edge for cutting more efficiently through such materials as rope. I often also carry a small, light folding pocket knife with a smooth and serrated section of the blade.
On your hip along with your multi-tool can be a can of bear spray if you ride in areas with predators. It offers peace of mind, and if you are worried about it only being 70 or 80 percent effective, just keep in mind it’s better than 10 percent effective, which is about all your fingers and toes would amount to.
Practice pulling your spray and slipping the clip in order to feel as confident as possible prior to the bear breathing in your face.
A headlamp is a wonderful accessory, far superior to a flashlight as it leaves your hands free to lead horses and perform other tasks. I prefer the strongest LED bulb models available, powered by AA or AAA batteries.
Most headlamps have a red lamp as well as a bright white one, and the red light is less likely to blind your horse’s vision at night. To be safe, you shouldn’t walk at night anyway, particularly on unknown trails.
A head lamp is far superior to a flashlight because it leaves your hands free. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
We always travel with a lighter and a fire starter, often in a small ziplock bag. On long days and in poor weather, a small campfire, where permitted, can be the highlight of the day. Take along some tea and a small pot and cup in your pack. In a separate ziplock we often carry bug repellent, both the horse and human varieties.
A collapsible water bucket can be handy if you need to carry feed or water to your horse or campfire. They can look big but scrunch down to a little ball.
Personal hygiene means something to most people and many riders carry toilet paper. Try carrying a small hand-sized pack of baby wipes instead. They are moist, a more hygienic cleanser, and can also be used as a truly refreshing face or body wash.
This large water bucket from Blue Creek Outfitting is useful for watering or feeding horses while on the trail. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Trail axes and saws are a must on our rides on unknown trails or trails where deadfall and brush is expected. The trail axe blade is thinner and meant for limbing, while the pole axe is more effective for splitting wood. The trail axe handle is about three-quarters the length and half the weight of a full-length axe. The breadth of the blade varies in trail axes.
Often they are quite broad, but the Swedish trail axe blade is only a few inches deep and is quite effective. Good steel will have a nice high pitched ring to it when tapped with a piece of metal. You need to compare high and low quality sounds because good steel will hold an edge longer. The handle should have a nice adept feel to it and be of a close grain hardwood.
As an alternative to a trail axe, don’t rule out a trail saw, as they are safer to use, very effective at clearing brush - in some cases faster than an axe – and handy to have in camp for creating firewood. They are often collapsible, portable, and some are designed with scabbards to be hung on the saddle like a trail axe.
Now we come to training aid accessories. You may or may not consider spurs to be a trail rider’s accessory.
The water bucket also collapses down to fit into a saddle bag or day pack. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
Their usage has always been a mystery to me. I’ve viewed them as a fantastic addition to John Wayne’s cowboy boots, but overly aggressive for me to consider using on a trail ride.
Now that I am a little more informed, I may try a pair for certain horses that need reinforcement to responding to cues, specifically walking out and turning. The key here is reinforcement of applied pressures. They were never intended to be cruel or to jam the horse to make it go faster, but rather as a firm reminder to respond the cue, which can be softened until only a subtle touch is necessary. The large rowels that a trail rider should use may look aggressive but are actually softer against the horse’s sides than small, pointy rowels. If the horse is properly trained and responds softly to our cues we need not bother with spurs, at least for trail riding. As trail riding often includes a lot of walking on foot down hills in rough, root-filled, rocky terrain, spurs can get in the way.
A riding crop is another training aid that can be used to encourage the horse to step out on cue. Often the tail end of the reins or a twig against the horse’s rump can serve equally well in a pinch.
Finally, a quick reminder to make sure that, no matter what trail riding accessories you decide on, the weight of those accessories is equally balanced on either side of your horse.
I hope you find these ideas useful. Happy Trails!
Main article photo: For longevity, choose a quality hat. These two 7X Stetsons served the author for 20 years before being retired and have since been refurbished to as-new condition. Photo courtesy of Stan Walchuk, Jr.
This article was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.