Picketing A Horse For Overnight Camping

Q MY HUSBAND AND I ENJOY TRAIL riding and camping with our horses. But twice last year we had to round up horses that had gotten loose overnight. We’d tried to make a picket line for them, but obviously hadn’t mastered the art! Help!

Shari Madamba, Issaquah, Washington

A YOU’RE ON THE RIGHT TRACK. A picket line (a line stretched between two trees to which you tie your horses) is a safe and practical tying method, whether for lunch breaks or while camping overnight. But before I tell you how to create one, you need take a few preparatory steps.

  • Check your halters. First, check their condition. Examine the stitching for signs of wear or breakage. Make sure the buckles are in good working order. Then check their fit. They should fit your horses comfortably without constricting or rubbing. Make sure each throatlatch is snug enough so that you can’t pull the halter over your horse’s ears.
  • Get the right lead ropes. Make sure they’re soft and pliable. If they’re too stiff, the knots will slip. Cotton is a good choice.
  • Get picket-line rope. You’ll need 1/2-inch diameter cotton rope, which you’ll find at your local hardware store. For two horses, get at least 15 feet of 1/2-inch rope. As a rule of thumb, add 5 feet for each additional horse you’ll tie to the line.
  • Practice your knot tying. My favorite picket-line knot is the half hitch (described below). It’s easy to tie, and with a combination of half hitches you can tie almost anything. And unlike quick-release knots, the half hitch won’t jam. However, always keep a sharp knife handy to free a horse in trouble.

Once you have the basics down pat, you’re ready to create a picket line on the trail. Here’s how.

  1. Choose two sturdy, firmly rooted, live trees. Ideally, each should have a branch you can tie your picket line above, to avoid slippage. Place the line at a height of 5 feet or more to prevent your horse from stepping over it.
  2. To protect the bark, wrap a “tree-saver” around each tree trunk where you’ll tie your line. This could be a gunnysack, a commercial web tree-saver, or even your saddle cinch.
  3. Wrap the picket line around the tree-saver, and tie two half hitches with an extra wrap (below left).
  4. Draw the line over to and around the second tree, pulling out as much slack as you can. Tie this end with two half hitches and an extra wrap.
  5. Now, swing on the rope at its midpoint to stretch it (and giggle a lot-this can be fun!).
  6. Untie one end, take up the slack, and retie your picket line.
    Now you’re ready to tie your horses’ lead ropes to the picket line. Here are some tips.
    1. Always use a taut-line hitch (two half hitches, with an extra wrap, described below left). The three wraps in that knot provide sufficient friction that the hitch won’t slide sideways along the line.
    2. Tie the lead rope just long enough to allow your horse to touch his nose to the ground directly under the knot, when he pulls the line down slightly. Any longer, and he might put his foot over the rope, which could cause him injury. Place his feed under the knot.
    3. To keep your horses tangle-free, tie them at least 5 feet apart-more if they’re either aggressive or overtly passive and likely to be picked on.
    4. Tie your horses far enough in from the trees so that they can’t paw the roots or chew the bark-either can kill the tree.

Mary Anna Wood has taught horse packing in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming, where she managed a herd of 185 saddle and pack horses. A certified instructor for both arena and trail riding, Mary Anna, and her 28-year-old Half-Arabian, Elmer Bandit, have completed more than 14,000 competitive miles with the North American Trail Ride Conference. Elmer was the first inductee into the NATRC’s Hall of Fame. Mary Anna lives in Independence, Missouri, where she and Elmer enjoy dressage, trail riding, and horse camping.

This article first appeared in the April, 2000 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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