Apollo and Meredith in Tigard OR, February 2017.
Photo courtesy of Wilma Perez-Leon
In Rinker Buck’s excellent memoir about his epic journey along the Oregon Trail by covered wagon, he lamented the modern state of horse equipment for long distance travel. Though he sought to be historically accurate, even restored equipment from the 1860’s (the peak of Trail use) is often not of practical use for the modern traveler. This is largely due to lack of demand for “real” use, in favor of decorative purposes and light use for local or heavily supported reenactments.
It is simply a fact that very few people travel by horse any more. Even the rider who spends more than average time in the saddle, such as endurance riders and outfitters, do not demand gear that can withstand thousands of miles. These riders are the closest that can be compared to long riding in terms of what they require in gear (and for other considerations). But there is a big difference between riding a hundred miles in a weekend and then having a week or two off to repair or replace worn items, and riding a hundred miles slowly over a week - often in wilderness or other places where replacing or repairing gear is burdensome if not downright impossible.
In Buck’s case, he started with the base equipment of a restored covered wagon and pup trailer, as well as quality harness and so forth. Unlike nearly every other person who has “reenacted” the Oregon Trail, he and his brother actually travelled the entire length of it from Missouri to Oregon without a support crew (no truck and trailer following along). If they broke down from shoddy craftsmanship of brakes or wheels (which they did), they had to fix it themselves or walk as much as a day’s distance away to find help. Without a support vehicle, they had to also efficiently carry enough water, food and feed, and other supplies to get through the long still-empty stretches of the American West.
Over the course of their journey, they ended up having to reconstruct the brakes and redesign their pup trailer, because the modern “improved” stuff they started with did not hold up to actual long distance use along today’s roads. They also had a multitude of other little things that broke or just didn’t work as intended, and which they had to improve, improvise, repair or replace as they went.
For my own travels, I have found similar problems with the gear available. I started out with a combination of endurance, trail and outfitter equipment. But even the sturdiest of things available needed modifications to actually carry me and all our stuff, and most of it fell apart in some way within the first 500 miles.
For example, the excellent saddle that has carried me this far had several d-rings to attach my packs, but as I learned by the third day they were only screwed in, and in a way that was not able to withstand the force of a spooked bucking horse. I had to attach them by sewing them onto the leather with artificial sinew to keep them from coming off again (since the screw-holes got fairly well stripped the first time the rings fell off). In fact, most of my gear had been repaired or strengthened with artificial sinew by the end of the year, because it is exceptionally tough and the thread, plastic, or metallic fasteners various items were made with have already broke.
Another good example is my packs. I purchased the best quality canvas packs available, made for seasons of trail use. But after a few hundred miles, all the plastic (yes, plastic) clips to attach them to the saddle had broken, so now I only use metal clips picked up at hardware stores along the way. The canvas, too, wore thin by the end of June (only half a year of use!). I added several layers of artificial leather picked up at a Walmart fabric department to slow down the wearing, and so they now look about as good as they did in June.
For those of you reading this that spend a lot of time outdoors, be it for horse activities, backpacking, or what have you, you’re probably thinking “shoulda used leather!” Indeed that was the way things were made back when they made things to last on a horse-powered journey (whether on horseback or by wagon). But if you’ve ever used leather for long stretches of time in all sorts of weather, you’ll know that it has many drawbacks, including molding when wet, cracking when cold, etc. In the conditions I’ve been in, and the limited ability to properly care for that excellent material, I learned early on that leather was not a good idea for my ride.
That is not to say that all of my equipment has been poor quality. Apollo’s boots, and mine too, have both held up for longer distances than I would have expected. The saddle itself (apart from attachment points) still looks great. I have had no problems at all with the bridle, halter, and some other smaller items. And very few things will need replaced outright this winter - although my “repair and improvement list” includes almost every item that I carried.
But by the time spring gets here, I’ll be even better equipped in terms of sturdiness than at any point in 2017, thanks to a winter full of gear modifications!