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An interview with long distance rider Gillian Larson

Horsemart content writer Hannah Phenix conducted an interview with Gillian Larson, long distance trail rider. In this two part interview you will found out all about Gillian and her experience with trail riding.

An interview with Gillian Larson by Hannah Phenix. 

When I first came across Gillian I was taken aback by how approachable she was. On her social media channels, she answers everyone who asks something of her which is great with nearly 29 thousand Instagram followers! 

Gillian has been on some truly amazing journeys with her horses Shyla and Takoda. She has done four long distance treks covering thousands of miles across the USA from Mexico to Canada, covering lots of types of terrain. Gillian has visited some really remote places and battled whatever mother nature threw at her along the way. Most of us would love to release our inner adventurer given half a chance, but just end up sticking to a hack for a few hours on a Sunday! It was great to have the opportunity to interview her and find out more about her adventures, her horses and what made her take on these great challenges. 

Tell me about your horses Shyla and Takoda, how old are they and how long have they been with you?

I have had Shyla since I was 13 and she was 7 (she is 21 this year), and Takoda is Shyla's son, so I have had him for the entire 12 years of his life.  I got Shyla when I outgrew my first horse. Shyla definitely was a handful for me when I first acquired her, as she was very hot, excitable and wasn't used to riding a lot on trails, but her energy is part of what has made her such an incredible long-distance horse.  She is always ready to go, and she is walking just as fast at the end of a 30 mile day as she is at the beginning.  Lots of people think you need a quiet, safe, "bombproof" horse for the kind of riding I do, but I find if the horse is too laid back and relaxed they don't have the drive they need to cover the thousands of miles that long-distance riding entails.  Shyla is AQHA registered, and the year after I bought her I bred her to an AQHA stallion; she is a dark buckskin, and the stallion is a lighter, buttermilk colour, which I love. I had hoped that the foal would have the sire's colouring, but instead I pretty much got a clone of Shyla in Takoda. He has a very different personality, as he is much more curious, friendly and people-oriented than she is, but he also got her athleticism and lean physique in addition to her colour, so I am happy it all turned out as it did. In fact, people usually assume on the trail that they are Arabians due to their build and the way that they carry their heads and tails high, especially Shyla. Takoda doesn't quite have Shyla's overwhelming drive, but he has shown a real talent for packing. He is sure-footed, smart and handles obstacles beautifully all on his own, he is also a really talented jumper!  I don't know if he can jump under saddle, as I have never tried, but he can launch himself over four-foot tall downed tree trunks from a standstill with a pack on his back, all on his own, and that's pretty amazing to me.

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Gillian with Shyla and Takoda

What inspired you to begin your expeditions? 

It started almost completely by accident.  I've always been riding on trails, and I did some horse camping with my mother (but we just trailered to a camp with corrals, never camped out in the wilderness), but it never occurred to me to attempt a long-distance ride. I didn't even know that was something you could do.  But while I was backpacking in the Sierra with my mother, she mentioned hearing about a woman who had set a speed record for hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, which ran from Mexico to Canada.  I was impressed with the record, of course, but more than that I was amazed to discover that such a trail existed--all the way from one border of the country to the next, travelling along the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges.  My first question was whether horses were allowed on the trail, and it turned out that they were.  After that, I was obsessed with trying to ride it in the break I had coming up between graduating with my B.S. in biology in December of 2013 and starting graduate school in the fall of 2014.  I was sure that gave me plenty of time to ride the 2650 miles of the trail, although of course I was completely ignorant about what such a ride would consistent of.  Now I would never attempt to ride the trail in the timeline that I had in mind when I began my first ride, as it is much too early in the year. The trail runs at such a high elevation that most of it is covered in snow as late as July or even into August in places, and I needed to be in school by the third week in August.  I faced a very big learning curve that first year, but with a lot of adjustments and determination, frustration and setbacks, I finally did complete it.  I finished the last few hundred miles in the Sierra after I was already enrolled in grad school and working as a teaching assistant, heading out for long weekends to do 100 miles sections in the Sierra, part of which I had to skip earlier in the year due to the snow pack.  But at least it was close enough to my home outside Los Angeles that I could get back and finish it in late August like that, before winter came again.

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“I faced a very big learning curve that first year, but with a lot of adjustments and determination, frustration and setbacks, I finally did complete it”

What has been your biggest challenge out on the trail and what made you carry on? 

The biggest challenge has been figuring out the issue with snow, no doubt about it, and that is something that is completely out of your control.  Before I commit to riding a trail in a certain year, I always wait to see what the snowpack is like that year, and I do a lot of extensive research on past years' snowpack levels and melt rates to determine when and where I can safely ride with my horses. Often there is just no getting around or through snow obstacles; even just one big snow bank blocking a trail in a steep, rocky, heavily forest area can prevent you from being able to go on.  I had a night when I was forced to sleep out on the trail completely unprepared in 2014 when I ran into snow on the Devil's Peak area in the Sky Lakes Wilderness in southern Oregon. I was covering 26 miles that day to meet my mother and camp at a trailhead, but about four miles from the end, after crossing several snow banks, I came to one I couldn't get past; I turned around to ride 22 miles back to my starting trailhead, but my headlamp battery failed, and I couldn't proceed in the dark.  The temperatures dropped into the 20-degree Fahrenheit range (-6 Celsius for us Brits) overnight, I had no food or water for Shyla or me, and my clothes were damp from riding in the rain earlier in the day. So it was a precarious situation! Maybe even worse for my mother, who I couldn't communicate with and who didn't know what had happened to me. I rode out the next day, after finally getting a message to her, and met her at a different trailhead. It all ended okay, but it taught us a couple of lessons about being prepared for the unexpected. 

About three weeks later, I was further North in Oregon riding Takoda, when a snow bank we were crossing collapsed underneath us and we slid down a hillside about 100 yards before some trees stopped us.  We couldn't climb back up the snow bank to the trail and I had to navigate cross country for miles through old lava flows and almost impassable forests until we finally hit a road that my mother could get the trailer on to pick us up.  I ended up following a stream bed downhill until we finally reached the road. Takoda lost two shoes on the lava beds in the process. That was the closest I came to quitting that year, and my mother was all for it.  She accompanied me for some of the trail, but couldn’t be there for all of it. She didn't want me encountering some disaster on the trail, if there were no one who could come and get me.  We took a couple days off, and got Takoda to a vet and a farrier (he was fine with a little rest and some new shoes), but in the end I just couldn't pull the plug.  I felt the problems were happening just because I didn't know enough to make better choices about what we could and couldn't do and didn't have enough information to be successful. Not because we didn't have the physical ability to do it. That was when I knew I wanted to try to help other people in the future to avoid the same problems.  There's no reason for everyone to keep making the same kinds of mistakes, but there was almost no information out there to help riders on the Pacific Crest Trail - or on any trail. Very few people had actually done what we were doing; only a handful of people have ever completed the Pacific Crest Trail in a single season. You have to be in the right place at the right time to be able to do it.  Although I didn't know it at the time, that's what would drive me to try it again two years later, to prove that I had actually learned something in the process.

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“Very few people had actually done what we were doing, only a handful of people have ever completed the Pacific Crest Trail in a single season”

Other than snow, there were some other issues encountered through trial-and-error. Proper nutrition on the trail is extremely important; there is no other way for your horse to consistently perform at the high level needed to cover 25-35 miles a day, 5 or 6 days a week, week after week. I always give the horses 1-2 rest days every week, which they definitely need. This means working out a feeding formula that gives them the calories they need, generally one that is higher in fat, and being sure they have plenty of it. Lots of people assume that the horse can just live off the land by grazing along the way. That's a fantasy I had too.  Maybe back in the day, when there was more open space it was possible, but now we have to ride at 10,000 feet where there are no trees and no grass to travel whilst avoiding urban areas. There is nothing for horses to eat at that elevation, and even when there is, there are often regulations prohibiting the grazing of stock in many places. There are also rules requiring certified weed-free feed in national parks and wilderness areas, to prevent environmental contamination, and that covers a lot of the trail!  Before I started I contacted some packers and outfitters, who take stock into the wilderness professionally, to ask about feed.  But it turns out that they don't cover nearly the miles that I would do every day; they also use established camps with grazing or feed for their stock. 

Endurance riders cover long distances, but they do it quickly and only occasionally, not day after day after day.  My rides are generally four to five months in total, including rest and travel days, so long distance riding is very unique in the stresses it puts on a horse.  This applies to tack and shoes or boots as well.  The saddle that worked on Shyla for all our normal rides did not work when I was in it 10 or 12 hours every day! I experimented with many different saddles, and different pad types, before finally finding a combination that worked.  Shoes get absolutely destroyed on the trail unless you have borium coating on them to protect them, and I use nails with borium heads as well, because otherwise the nail heads wear off and the shoes come loose, even though they are still in good condition.  I always carry hoof boots for emergencies in case I lose a shoe, but once I got the proper borium shoes and nails (which I carry with me for farriers on the road), I have generally stopped having problems.  

Check back next week for part two of our interview with Gillian, covering what she takes with her on the trail, her highlights and future plans! We just can’t get enough!

If you can’t wait, find out more about Gillian on her insta @thru_rider , www.PacificCrestQuest.org and www.GillianLarson.net .



About the author

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Follow me on instagram: www.instagram.com/hannah.phenix/

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Hannah Phenix
Horsemart Blog Contributor
Published on 2019-04-11