Through this innovative program, students can learn how to pack a string–but there’s so much more to learn.
The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is legendary for its innovative programs that develop leaders out of students in the classroom of the backcountry. NOLS programs include backpacking, canoeing, wilderness medicine, sea kayaking and rock climbing, just to name a few–and courses are held all over the world. The horsepacking course keeps the same standard of outdoor education and leadership development, set against the backdrop of the remote and rugged Absaroka Mountains of Wyoming.
Patrick Creeden is the manager of Three Peaks Ranch in Wyoming, the home of the NOLS horsepacking program. He kindly answered our questions about the program, outlining just what makes horsepacking itself so special as an experience. At its core, horsepacking is basically camping with horses, meaning that the horses are carrying the gear from camp to camp.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. “It’s a lot more than throwing a hitch and leading a string,” Creeden states. “We’re teaching students the broader picture of what it means to travel in the backcountry with horses.” The NOLS curriculum includes not only the day-to-day skills required to groom, saddle, pack and travel down the trail, but how to select a camp, care for a herd and work together as a group to accomplish goals. In this sense, the NOLS program is different from conventional horsepacking schools which seek to create professional outfitters typically geared towards the hunting industry.
An important cornerstone of NOLS philosophy is the concept of Leave No Trace camping, or LNT. This concept teaches students to minimize their environmental impact both while moving down the trail and camping: parties stick to established durable-surface trails rather than create new trails, for example. This can become a challenging process when working with horses–ever try to get your horse to go through a boggy patch that he’s pretty sure will swallow him up? The principles of LNT mean that it’s not as easy as just going around if that’s not where your trail is leading.
Selecting a campsite for a large party of horses and people can be a huge undertaking. Creeden notes that because the horsepacking program travels through public land, it’s important to lessen its impact to preserve the spaces for everyone to use. NOLS staff try to select campsites that are tucked away out of sight whenever possible to reduce the eyesore of a large horse camp, especially during autumn months when other outfitters are packing for hunting season. The staff is also careful to rotate group campsites and not stop at the same places on each trip (several sessions are held each summer). It’s up to the horsepackers to steward such sites, especially when looking for feed for a string of horses.
In an effort to continue to lessen environmental impact, the NOLS horsepacking program recently moved some of its trips to the Absaroka range and the Red Desert, both of which Creeden describes as being “prime horsepacking country.” Other than the first and last days of each trip, the entire route travels through designated wilderness area where no mechanized equipment of any kind is permitted. This area is one of the remotest regions in the lower 48 states; one can look around and be certain that there is not another human being for miles.
Most of the NOLS students are high school or college age; some students have the end goal to work on a ranch or for an outfitter but many are along for the session simply to have a new experience. A special NOLS Prime course takes in students over the age of 23. Usually, over half of all of the horsepacking students have some horse background; each session begins with four days at Three Peaks Ranch to teach basic foundation skills and partner students with their horses. The last 17 days are spent in the wilderness, with about nine hours daily in the saddle.
Creeden and the rest of the NOLS staff are not immune to the incredible teaching power of horses: “horses are such great teachers of young people,” Creeden states. “They’re a mirror to hold up to us. Students develop a stronger sense of themselves, an increased self-awareness.” That probably sounds familiar to many of us who have discovered personal leadership on the back of a horse, and it’s a sentiment that many of the course instructors share: Creeden says that the ability to watch their students evolve thanks to their horses is his staff’s favorite part of the job.
For Creeden, his staff, and the NOLS program, the horsepacking program teaches the vital skills necessary to travel and camp on horseback through the wilderness–but naturally, it’s also so much more thanks to the horses themselves. When the horse becomes a partner in a journey through the wilderness, there’s so much more to learn.