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December 23, 2019

The Dangers of Riding Alone

It was a wet, rainy, windy winter day. I had decided to take my senior mare, Dawn, out for a trail ride at Les Hilde Trailhead. I had driven down for the day to my lot at Cowboy Campsite. When I started out it was cool but nice enough for a ride. I knew most of the trails but on this day, it was a different story.

Preparing Dawn the horse for a ride.
Dawn, heading out for a ride. Photo-Karen Pickering

Lost in Thought

I had been in the saddle for about an hour when I became curious about a particular trail, so I headed in that direction. Les Hilde is a collection of many great trails usually intersecting with logging roads. I was almost sure which direction I was going so we settled in for a leisurely ride. I was deep in thought about work challenges and completely lost track of time. I glanced up, realizing that it was starting to get dark and the wind was picking up, so I decided to head back.

Directionally Challenged

I was on a narrow trail and suddenly became aware I had no idea where I was. I usually rode with someone who knew that trails, but no-one was available to ride with me on this day. My mind started racing. All I could think of was getting to a road. I figured once I was on a road, I could find my way back to camp. Closer to camp there were signs on the trails guiding you back to camp, but I must have ridden for closer to 3 hours getting quite distant from camp.

Which Way?

Once I made it to a logging road, I had to figure out which way was down. I’ve always heard that moss grows on the North side of trees but in Washington State moss grows all around the tree. I started out but had no idea if I was going farther up the mountain or down. I was worried, darkness was setting in and it had started to rain. I thought about letting my horse figure out the way back, but she seemed just as confused as I was. I pointed her in the direction I thought was down and off we went. I rode for what seemed forever, and the scenery never seemed to change.


I was totally unprepared for this ride. I had no water, no map, no compass and no cell service. I was getting quite worried at this point but continued in the direction I thought was camp. How could I have been so crazy to leave without telling anyone? The camp managers, Duke and Cliff Croney were there working, but I had no idea if they paid attention to the fact, I had ridden off by myself. It certainly wasn’t their responsibility.

Luck Was on My Side

I finally started recognizing the road I was on. I was overcome with relief. I was cold, wet and my horse was tired. I had ridden much farther than I intended, and the day could have turned out much worse. The guys met me at my trailer relieved that I found my way back. They weren’t sure what time I had left and were worried when it started getting dark. Lesson learned; I was never going to ride out again being so incredibly unprepared. The reality of what could have happened is still burned into my memory.

10 Things to Remember Before Heading out on a Ride:

  1. Don’t ride alone. My horse could have spooked, dumped me, leaving me to walk back on foot or I could have been hurt and unable to let anyone know. Always tell someone when you leave on a ride and what time you plan on being back.
  2. Carry a map, compass or GPS. An emergency transponder is also a really good idea.
  3. Have essentials with you: Water, extra coat, flashlight, cell phone or GPS, first aid kit, whistle, snacks for you and your horse.
  4. When possible carry the most important items in a holster. If you get separated from your horse all your phone or GPS are gone too.
  5. Check the weather forecast before you go.
  6. Have Sunscreen and Sunglasses if the weather is hot.
  7. Carry rain gear, hat or helmet.
  8. If you have any health issues such as allergies or are diabetic be sure and carry an EpiPen, Benadryl or Insulin. If you ride in an area where there is snakes, carry a snake bit kit.
  9. Have ID on you and your horse. An emergency contact number should be somewhere on you and use ID bands on your horse made by companies such as Equestrisafe.
  10. Check your gear! Be sure your off billets, girth and rear cinch are all clean and in good repair. If your bridle has screws be sure to carry extras. I prefer bridles without screws (I’ve had one come apart on a ride).

Be Choosy Who You Ride With

I know I’ve ridden by myself many times. Usually things will go well, especially if you are paired with a good horse. BUT sometimes things do go wrong and being prepared could save your life. Ride with people you know well.  Are they safe or do they take unnecessary risks? I tend to avoid large groups as well. Horses seemed to get more wound up in large groups. I remember getting separated from a group after getting off to relieve myself. My friend, T, and I were riding on a cold winter day and had to remove several layers to get the pants down. By the time we were all put together our group was long gone. Lost again. If it hadn’t been for our good, overly prepared friend, Si Kingma, we would have been lost. He showed up with raingear, chocolate and coffee laced with whisky. Just the thing to get us warmed up again.

Be Prepared Physically

Make sure your horse is in shape for the length and difficulty of trail you plan on riding. It’s one thing to get an injured rider out of the mountains, but an injured horse is much more difficult to get back to camp depending on the severity of the injury. Make sure YOU are in good enough physical condition to make a long ride. You never know when you may have to get off and walk. Always wear boots. Foot and ankle protection is essential. It may save your life.

Enjoy the Ride!

Enjoying the view. Hayden Valley in Yellowstone National Park. Photo-Karen Pickering

If you’ve prepared for the ride, enjoy. Forget the cares of the day and soak in what nature has to offer. The best times in my life have been from the back of a horse. I’ve had the privilege of riding in some of the most beautiful trails that Washington has to offer. However, the best trip I’ve ever been on was a week riding through Yellowstone National Park. Our guide, Ken, was exceptional and well prepared. There isn’t anything more enjoyable than seeing the world from a horse. Seeing wildlife such as Buffalo, riding near the heated pools at Yellowstone and camping in a tent with a wood stove to keep you warm at night is second to none. Coffee and campfires, crickets and laughter, there isn’t anything that compares to a trip like this.

Karen Pickering
Owner/Publisher Karen’s lifelong love of horses began at a very early age when she wore out a couple of rocking horses before convincing her parents to get her the real thing. That ill-tempered bay gelding, Brandy, was a challenge for the young horsewoman, but it drove her ambition to become a horse trainer. After attending Canyonview Equestrian College’s Horsemanship Program, Karen realized she needed work that was a little more lucrative than training, so she took a job with Customs Brokerage to pay the bills. There, she discovered an affinity for computers and a talent for creating informative, entertaining newsletters. The Northwest Horse Source began as such a letter in December 1995, with a distribution of 1000 copies for its 12 black and white pages.  Now 25 years later, it's an online magazine and website with a reach of over 19,000 per month and growing! Not bad for the results of one woman’s dream to work with horses!

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