Frequently asked questions about traveling the National Trail

Regularly we get people contact us with questions about riding the National Trail with our horses or about pack saddling in general. This week was no exception. Lou send us an email with more questions then anybody! But they were all questions we had before. So instead of only answering Lou I though I will write a blog with FAQ for everybody to read.

What saddle pads do you use?

Lou's first question is a good one. We are still working on the perfect answer for this. If you asked me this question when I was still training horses I would say, one good thick western pad with wool on the inside. Now this is what Giles is wearing under his pack saddle, with an extra thin 'Back on Track' pad underneath. In principle I don't like more pads on top of each other, as they can create pressure points. The thin pad underneath is purely because it is easier to clean and dry on the road than a thick pad. Now Tonto is a whoooooole different story. This is the one horse that has given me so much trouble with fitting a saddle and saddle blankets. I never had a horse with such a hard shape to fit a saddle on. He has a very high wither, his girth gulley is way back and he has very sensitive skin. Read more about this in a further question. His saddle pads at the moment are, a thin 'Back on Track' one for easy washing, a custom made riser, a thick cheap western pad and an Equipedic pad. Don't ask... So best answer is, whatever your horse needs.

Where did you get your pack saddles and panniers from?

That's an easy one. Pack saddle from James Alcock, The Leather Shed in SA. Panniers from Ironback Trading Company. We first bought the saddle bags to get a feel for what packing was all about. We had never done it before either and we wanted to buy good gear, but not the most expensive. You learn about what you want and need in gear once you start using it. Overall we are very happy with the packs. Not sure if the canvas will go all the way, but so far they have been holding up ok. I like that the bottom and sides are leather, and the leather pocket in the front is both handy for quick access to things and for extra protection for bumping into trees etc. Not sure how waterproof they are, but I put a tarp over them when it rains. Leather ones might be better, but they are also heavier. Pack saddle is a swivel tree. Happy with that. It's fairly lightweight and fits Giles well.

How much does your pack horse carry in weight?

As little as possible. I try to trek as light as I possibly can. At the moment I would say each bag is around 17kg. With saddle and all, total weight I recon is around 40kg maximum. This is when we leave. The longer you travel, the lighter the bags get.

Do you rotate the pack and riding horse?

No. Purely because the trouble I have with getting good gear on the riding horse. If I would rotate it would mean everything would have to suit both horses. It is also underestimated how important it is to have a good pack horse that knows how to carry the packs. A horse that prevents walking into things or going around obstacles with the packs. The pack horse needs to keep its cool if something goes wrong. When I'm not packing I ride both horses, depending on who can handle it and who needs a bit of a break. I then ride one, lead the other.

How often do you rest the horses?

Whenever they need it. When we were traveling to the truck every day, I would ride about 4 days and have one day rest. On the trail it works a little different. It depends on access for the truck. Usually the truck can get to us between 4-8 days. To keep my packs as light as possible (less days means less food/feed, less weight) I keep going till I get to the truck without a rest day. At the truck we then take an extra day. After hard sections we might take a week to recuperate and feed the horses up.

Have you had any trouble with feed or water since going on the BNT?

No trouble. The trail is designed to have water at or around each camp site. Which works really well. In addition to that, the truck carries water as well. As for feed, we are very lucky with the season, there is grass everywhere at the moment. But grass alone is definitely not enough. There is not much in it to give enough energy and keep the weight on. I'm lucky that Monique picks up feed an hay at the local stock feeders. It might be more expensive sometimes (hay for $22 per bale!!) and you might not always get the exact same feed you want, but it is crucial to keep your horses healthy, on weight and energized for this trip.

How do you secure them at night when in the back country (i.e. away from the truck)?

When I get to camp I put hobbles on them, so they can graze while I set up their yards. I have electric tape, some insulators and an energizer. I set up a yard for each horse, where they stay during the night. If there are brumbies around or if I don't trust it they will be hobbled for the night as well. Some camps along the trail also have yards available for the horses. Which is great as it saves me from setting them up, one less task.

What additional feed supplements do you carry for your horses when in the back country?

As I said before, weight is everything, so I try to keep as light as possible, but... To my opinion carrying extra feed is worth the extra weight. Each horse gets about 2 cups of high protein pellets with extra vitamins, minerals and salt a day. On a shorter trip I might take 2 feeds each day. When travelling in warmer temperatures it is also very important to take electrolytes.

Have you had any trouble keep the condition on them?

They will loose weight no matter what you do. Same as me. It is an intense exercise. Obviously when traveling with the truck it is much easier to give them enough feed each day. When packing it is a lot harder. Although there is lots of grass about, there is not enough in the grass to keep them on weight. Hence the extra feed I carry. But even with the extra feed it would not be sustainable on the long run. It is very important to feed them up any opportunity you get. When the trail comes through a town, buy the best feed you can find and good hay. Stay a while to give the horses a good rest and try to get some extra kg on them. Know your horses and you will know what they can handle or not. If they loose too much weight it is really hard to get it back on.

I notice all your horses wear fly veils all the time are they that bad? Is this something you would recommend for the ride?

The reason for the fly veils is more the sun. Tonto has pink skin around his eyes and his nose. I keep the fly veil on him to protect him from sun burn. There are plenty of flies out there and they can be pretty annoying so I would definitely take the fly veils. For us it just becomes a habit, your horses might not need them all the time.

What boots do you use for the horses and how have they held up? Do you loose them often?

We use Scoot Boots. Overall we are happy with them. No boot is perfect. We tried different ones. What I notice is that some horses fit some brand better then others. They definitely need some sort of boot or shoe. The country can be pretty harsh on their feet. Across the Nullabor we got about 1500km out of a pair, where on the trail it is probably around 1000km. That's a lot of boots! Plus what I found was that their hooves change. Where in the beginning a size 4 fitted, now it's a size 3. They become looser as they wear them longer, which makes them easier to loose. And yes you do loose them! Especially in water, mud or when you go faster. Scoot Boots have shims, gaiters, inlays and mud straps. This can all help for a better or more comfortable fit. So again, you will learn along the way what works best for your horses. Pity it cost so much! Every little bit helps, so use HORSETREK on the payment page of Scoot Boots and you will get 10% off.

Have you had many problems with rubs or saddle sores/pressure points?

When we started, Giles had trouble with chaffing from the boots. Eventually we managed this with the Scoot Boot endurance gaiters. After about 2000km Tonto started to get saddle sores. We bought a new saddle for him and try to manage it with pads and a riser with holes cut out where the pressure points are. Tonto has a very sensitive skin and things like a breast plate or a longer saddle blanket give him rub marks straight away, so we try to stay away from these things for him.

What items have you found are must haves?

The Garmin, it is great for navigating, has an SOS button and I can send messages to Monique even if I don't have reception. The trail provides GPS coordinates for the route and the camps. I put a waypoint in where the next camp is so I know exactly where I'm going. It also comes with an online map that tracks where I've been so family can follow my travels on a daily basis. I also could not do without my Camelpak. It is so easy to have water readily available without having to get a bottle out. It carries all my important supplies, so if anything would happen I always have these things on my person. Don't forget to put water purifying tablets and magnesium in!

Any tips you have learned from all your miles on the trail?

Always keep an eye on your horses wellbeing. Fix problems straight away. Don't rely only on the trail notes, they are not always accurate. Use common sense and listen to locals but always make up your own mind. Your gut is usually right. Be confident but don't be cocky. Always keep an eye out for potential danger this could range from broken glass to logging truck coming around the corner to river crossing and so on.

What do you carry in your first aid kit for horses?

The truck has a wide range of supplies but on the road I carry: bandages, bute, cotton, betadine, topical wound salve. Obviously a hoof pick, knife and multitool. Again prevention is always better.

What camera does Erwin use for his videos - they are so steady!

A GoPro Black 9. And yes the images are great and the video is super steady. It's definitely worth it. He also takes pictures with his phone.

Well that was it for Lou. If you have any more questions for us, please just post them below and we will answer as soon as we can.

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