We hung on tightly, leaning forward as the horses climbed.
Already we’d gone through more difficult terrain than I could have imagined—bogs that sucked at the horse’s feet, mud that went past their knees, loose rock with no safe footholds—and they’d always made it through safely. Now, with the horses carefully placing every hoof, we were climbing a mountain.
I was on day two of a four-day horsepacking trip in the Yukon. Four days of disappearing into the wilderness with our horses, a few strangers, and a couple guides who would (hopefully) bring us all back in one piece.
The first day had been spent meeting our horses and riding out to a base camp at the foot of Grizzly Mountain. In addition to our riding horses, we also had three pack horses who carried carefully weighted boxes that held our belongings and food. Our horses’ ability to manoeuvre river crossings and thick brush was impressive, but even more impressive were those pack horses, who did it all while carting around weight and seemed well practiced at manoeuvring their bodies and packs around thin gaps in the trail.
We had left the pack horses back at our base camp that day, to give them a well-earned break, while we worked our way steadily up the mountain.
I was riding second in the line-up that day, on a little black pony named Finn; when I glanced back, I could see the rest of our group winding back and forth along the ridges. Our tripmates had a wide array of horse experience that ranged from long-time riders to one guy who had never been on a horse before, full stop. (I can’t even imagine how sore he must’ve been after the first couple days and all. Those. Downhills.)
Close to the top, we dismounted to give the horses a break. We tied off our horses on the spindliest willow trees you could imagine, crossing our fingers that they’d still be there when we got back. Then our group climbed the last stretch on foot, making all of us thoroughly appreciate the horses having carried us as far as they did.
While the horses rested below, we had lunch overlooking the incredible expanse of land we’d been riding on. The area we were riding wasn’t far from Whitehorse, but it felt remote: our guide told us that in 15 years of riding along those trails, most of which they’d made, they had only seen other people out there once.
Such rarely used trails meant that they were often overgrown. In some places along the trails, the willows grew so tall that the horse and rider in front of you would disappear completely in the rushes. As we descended back down the mountain that afternoon, taking a slightly different route so that the horses could find spots to drink, we battled through a significant amount of thick brush, leaving most of us with bruises where our boots hadn’t covered our legs.
After a full day’s ride, we made it back to base camp in the early evening.
Evenings at camp were peaceful: while one guide cooked dinner for us over the fire, the other guide would take care of the horses. (A former trail guide myself, I silently revelled in being able to kick back and not have to unsaddle everyone’s horses—though I did spend a lot of time giving them scratches and feeding Finn pieces of my granola bar.)
Once unsaddled, the horses would be hobbled in the meadow near camp to graze.
“Hobbles” look a bit like horse handcuffs—they prevent the horse from being able to stretch out their legs fully, instead walking in shuffle steps. The purpose of the hobbles is to allow the horses to have the freedom to walk around and eat the fresh grass without worrying that they’ll run away. It seems a bit disconcerting at first, but I was amazed at how unbothered the horses were by the hobbles, and at how quickly they could get around with them on.
The next day saw us doing another day trip, this time through the valley that wrapped around the base of Grizzly Mountain. Despite its name, we managed to go the whole four days without encountering any bears—and I think everyone was pretty happy about that. We did get to see many Dall sheep, a moose, and a pair of Golden Eagles.
Finally came the fourth and final day of our trip. We sadly packed up our gear; the pack horses had a much lighter load on the way back since we’d consumed all the food (and an incredible amount of coffee) by then. Riding across several ridgelines, we went slowly back to the barn; but like always, time passed quickly in the saddle, and before we knew it we were riding across the final field home. Finn and the others had taken us through terrain we never could have managed on foot and we’d seen some truly incredible things.
I’ve logged a lot of miles exploring the world via horseback; and the best way to see it all, I’m still sure, is through the ears of a horse.