NEXGEN Sets The Young Horse Standard For 2021
An interview with long distance rider Gillian Larson - on the support plans behind her expeditions, the highlights of her trails so far and advice for those wanting to give it a go!
Gillian has completed four amazing journeys on horseback, it was impossible to fit it all into one article! Here, we cover what she takes with her on her journeys and get a better insight into what it takes to start (and finish) a long distance ride. If you want to read about how it all began for Gillian and some of her biggest challenges riding along the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada check here: https://www.horsemart.co.uk/horse_advice/an-interview-with-long-distance-rider-gillian-larson/1892
How do you structure your expeditions, do you aim to keep moving to somewhere new or stay around one place for a couple of days before moving on?
With a long distance ride I don't have the luxury to stay anywhere for any stretch of time; I have to cover an average of 125 to 150 miles a week if I have any chance of getting to the end of the ride before the arrival of winter weather makes it impossible. The further North we go, the sooner the snow starts falling. In both 2016 on the Pacific Crest Trail and 2018 on the Continental Divide Trail, I spent the last few nights before I reached Canada camping in snow. Both times shortly after I finished, big storms came that would have made it impossible to continue. So I am very respectful of Mother Nature!
If I am riding self-supported, as I did on both the Arizona Trail and the Colorado Trail in 2017, and through most of my second Pacific Crest Trail ride in 2016, I have to take a break once a week to resupply and to move my support vehicles to the next location. That's of course where the luxury of having a support person along to help out is an incredible blessing. My mother accompanied me for about six weeks in 2014. Also, some of the Pacific Crest Trail sections in California are within a day's drive of our home, so she could meet me with supplies then, even if she wasn't actively following me on the trail. If you don't have that support person, then you are forced to take breaks to get additional food for the horses, to get new shoes, to re-position your supplies, to recharge batteries for navigation and communication devices, etc. I always rest the horses 1-2 days a week, as their backs need the time off from carrying a load, but those are not rest days for me! Sometimes I travel with two trucks and trailers, and sometimes just one. If I have two, I am always riding south from one to the other, then driving north to ride south again; if I have only one vehicle, I have to leave the horses at a camping site, drive the vehicle ahead, then get back to where I left the horses. Sometimes that means hitchhiking over 100 miles on back roads without much traffic. I don't like to hitch, but there are times when that's the only way to get to where I need to be. I especially don't like leaving the horses unattended while I do so. Thankfully, I haven't had to do that often (people have been incredibly kind and helpful to me on the trail!). Once I got a ride for several hours on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle when I had to hitch as part of my Colorado Trail ride in 2017!
In-between these official rest stops, I am camping in remote places along the trail. I try to have a rule about being in camp for 12 hours, in order to let the horses have enough time to eat and rest before the next day's ride. So if we arrive late one night, that often means we get started later the next day and that can snowball into some riding at night if I'm not careful. If I am lucky enough to have a support vehicle with me, then I try to ride from trailhead to trailhead to meet the support person (which is always my mother) as often as possible. Sometimes that is not possible and I am camping with the horses for a couple days between meeting up. If I have a support vehicle, I also swap riding horses, so I can cover more ground more quickly without wearing out the horses. I ride each for two days in a row usually and my mother babysits the one that is resting. That makes for very efficient travel, but it means that the horses get their rest days and not me! This was my main method of travel during much of my 2018 Continental Divide Trail ride and without that support, I don't know if I could have completed the trail in time. The Continental Divide Trail covers more distance at high elevations than the Pacific Crest and it is usually not possible to do a complete thru-ride simply due to the snow. I was lucky that 2018 was a relatively low snow year in Colorado, and that helped me get through the southern part of the trail at a time when normally I couldn't ride there. But I still did about 700 miles in New Mexico entirely on my own and another 400 miles in Montana too. So the first and last legs of the trail in the South and North I did completely self-supported.
At the Canadian Border after completing the Continental Divide Trail.
What do you take with you on your expeditions?
All my own camping gear--tent, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, clothes, stove and food-- are carried in a backpack on my own back when I am on a long-distance ride. I also use ultra-light weight backpacking gear. I have learned a lot from hikers on the trails, and my gear choices have definitely gotten better with time! In my saddlebags (if I am travelling with just one horse) or on the pack horse (if I have Takoda along to pack), I carry all the horse supplies, and that's mainly feed. I usually try to bring around 15 lbs of feed per horse per day, in addition to collapsible water and feed buckets and a highline kit (to tether the horses by putting a rope between two trees above their heads). I also take blankets if we are facing cold or wet weather. I like to make sure my horses are comfortable, not wet or shivering with cold all night; they can't perform at their best if they aren't feeling their best, and it isn't fair for me to be warm and dry if they aren't. I always have a small emergency kit with some vet supplies, and a saw for cutting downed trees (I can't saw through big ones, obviously, but you'd be amazed how much cutting I do to get through obstacles at times!), and nail clinchers for loose nails. There's no way to carry enough water for the horses on the trail, so I always make sure we are camping where there is water. If we are in a desert area I sometimes source water on my "rest" days by driving ahead and stashing 20 gallons of water in collapsible containers that I will then carry out with me on the horses.
You have been to some pretty amazing places, are there any that particularly stand out?
I have seen incredible countryside, there is no doubt about that! I feel so fortunate to have been able to do this, thanks to the horses and the existence of these wilderness trails that allow us to experience the world in its natural, untouched beauty. Probably the most breathtaking place I have been to is the Glacier National Park, which is where my 2018 Continental Divide Trail ride ended. Every view was incredible from beginning to end. But I also really love the northern Cascades of Washington state, although they are definitely the most challenging area I have ever ridden through. Some parts of the Pacific Crest Trail have not been maintained in many years, and there are countless fallen trees that create an almost impassable terrain. That's one area where I will not take a pack animal, as it just causes more difficulty and doubles the chances of injury or problems. Of course, riding through the Grand Canyon at the end of my 2017 Arizona Trail ride was also amazing, and the San Juan mountains in southern Colorado are among my favourites as well. I was really impressed with the mountains on my Colorado Trail ride and it was a section that I looked forward to repeating in 2018 on the Continental Divide Trail.
“Riding through the Grand Canyon at the end of my 2017 Arizona Trail ride was amazing”
Do you have any tips for anyone thinking about embarking upon something similar?
Be realistic! That was something that I was not in 2014, on my first ride. I really had no idea what I was getting into and I think most people who start something like this are pretty much imagining things that do not exist in reality. That's why research, planning and preparation are so important. Set realistic goals and get as much information as possible before you start, but be prepared to adjust and change your strategy as the ride evolves. That, I think, was my greatest strength and what has allowed me to succeed so far. I am flexible and willing to change and adjust as needed. When something isn't working, I come up with a new approach. I don't just have one way of doing things, which is unfortunately what I think some people do--they lock themselves into a pattern, and when the pattern doesn't work, they don't try something new. Be willing to learn, be aware first and always of what your horse needs, and be open to new things.
“Set realistic goals and get as much information as possible before you start, but be prepared to adjust and change your strategy as the ride evolves”
What are your plans for future expeditions?
It's sad to say this, but I feel like I am running out of new trails! That's not entirely true, of course, but I know that I am really picky about where I want to ride, in part because I have had such wonderful trails up until now. I don't want to ride just to cover miles; I want scenery and wilderness and remote areas. I will never be happy doing a road walk, for instance, which I know lots of long-distance riders do. It solves a lot of problems in terms of access to food and water and other supplies if you stay close to civilization, but that's not for me. Right now, I want to ride in Utah and Idaho, which are states I haven't seen a lot of, and I am trying to research possible routes by piecing together shorter trails. I have also promised my mother to take her on a "highlights tour" of some of my favourite parts of the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail next summer. She rode with me through the Grand Canyon, but otherwise she's always been driving the support vehicle if she's been with me on trail. I want to show her some of my favourite places, such as Thousand Island Lake in the Sierra, the Mt. Jefferson and Three-Fingered Jack wilderness in Oregon, or the Goat Rocks in Washington. Of course we are going to ride in Glacier National Park. That is the highlight of all highlights.
About the author
Follow me on insta: www.instagram.com/hannah.phenix/