Golden Oak Spring

by Gillian Larson | posted: April 22, 2016

We arrived late into camp at Golden Oak, startling a couple of hikers who were already settled in for the evening, which I felt rather bad about. There's nothing subtle about two horses who are thirsty and impatiently waiting for me to get them water, and I'm sure the hikers thought they were about to be devoured by bears when they heard us crashing through brush upon our arrival.

Out of courtesy to them, I looked for a campsite that was a bit away from the spring itself--and their tents--so I took the horses up the hill above the spring, where there turned out to be a lot of grass for them to graze on, so they were very happy with that decision. One of the difficulties of the PCT in this southern section (actually, throughout much of the entire length of the trail) is the problem of finding both water and food for the horses in a single location. Often there might be a water source, but no grazing if one is traveling with a horse; or a wonderful meadow full of grass, but no water at all. This isn't such a problem if you're a hiker, since you can fill your water bottles at the water site and then camp elsewhere if you wish (and you're not going to be grazing anyway!). But it is a complication that is often underestimated by people trying to ride the trail. They imagine they will just let the horses graze for their food, but you can't camp overnight if there isn't any water for them to drink, especially if they've been working hard and covering miles all day. But if you camp near water, there usually isn't anywhere to graze, and often not even a lot of space in which to highline the horses. I prefer to travel with just one horse for that very reason, but usually I can find space for two. If I had more horses than that, I often don't think there would be room enough in many camp areas for more stock, especially when there are also hikers trying to camp there.

The other thing that hikers underestimate is the work factor involved in caring for the horses. I don't just ride into camp, put up my tent, and call it a night. This evening, after I arrived and let the horses drink at the spring, then moved them up the hill for better grazing, I spent a lot of time hauling water up the hill in collapsible buckets so that they would have water to drink overnight. I had to give them their pelleted feed that we had carried in Takoda's pack saddle, and of course I had to unsaddle and groom both of them, as well as put up the highline itself. I also started soaking hydration bales for them to eat later (dehydrated hay cubes that expand with water and give them both extra fiber and water) to supplement the grass. They are doing high demand work every day, and keeping their weight and muscle tone intact by making sure they have sufficient calories is the only way I can be sure they can do this job. Only after all of this did I pitch my own tent and make my own dinner, and even after I went to bed I got up in the night to offer them water and check to see that there weren't any problems with the highline. Caring for one or more 1000 lb. animals on the trail adding tremendously to my responsibilities, as my top priority has to be their safety and welfare. I know lots of people think riding the PCT is "easy" because I'm not walking every step of the way (although I do walk a lot every day), but they don't take into account the other side of that bargain, which is that the horses are depending on me to take care of them. I don't have the luxury to focus on my experience of the trail, because I have the horses to think about ahead of myself. It's a true partnership, and often I have to put my equine partner first in the course of the journey.

The next day, whenever I found grass along the trail, I stopped to let the horses graze, because we were heading into the high desert, where soon there wouldn't be grass at all.


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