Things to Remember on the Western Trail

Western Trail

An impressive example of horsemanship, Western Trail involves a rider and a horse teaming up to negotiate obstacles. A judge looking at a trail class will look for a horse that not only negotiated the course faultlessly but did so in style. The same is true for western riding classes and reining. Essentially, trail is a performance event that combines elements of dressage and show jumping with the skills of mounted equestrian sports.

Whether you’re taking your first steps as a Western trail rider or are an accomplished competitor, here are some things to remember on the trail:

A western trail horse needs to be flexible and responsive. This is why riders will often practice a particular maneuver several times until they get it right. Then they move on to something new—but still with the goal of improving their skill level each time.

When they weren’t hauling their chuck wagons and their livestock, cowboys worked on ranches to earn money to buy supplies for the trail. Occasionally, their drudgery was punctuated with stampedes, dangerous river crossings and hostile Indians. The gun-totin’ image of the cowboy owes more to Hollywood than it does to real life on the trail, however. In fact, very few trail bosses allowed youthful waddies to carry pistols, which were prone to discharge and could easily start a stampede.

In addition to the chuck wagon, a well-equipped trail camp had to contain all manner of tools, lanterns, cooking gear, canned foods, extra firearms, flour and other provisions. Then there were the animals: the cattle, of course, but also the oxen, mules or horses that pulled the wagons. Accidents on the trail were the most common killers, and people also died from disease and the weather.

One of the more famous trail markers is located near the town of Coleman in Texas. It marks the site of Doan’s, a place where the trail was split. Here a feeder trail from Trickham and another from Tom Green County merged with the trunk route, which headed north toward Dodge.

Doan kept a careful record of the number and names of trail bosses and their companies, along with the number of cattle that passed. This information helped preserve the history of this major era in American ranching and cattle drives.

After the cattle-drive era, the trail was used to transport livestock to market. It remained the main thoroughfare over which herds of Texas cattle were moved until Kansas and other states and territories quarantined themselves against the deadly Texas fever.

The modern-day multi-use Western Trail runs on BLM and Forest Service lands. In addition to recreational horseback riding, it’s a popular destination for cyclists, mountain bikers and joggers. The corridor provides access to a variety of landscapes, including the Henry Mountains, LaSal Mountains and Waterpocket Fold. It’s also home to a replica of the old trail town used by Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid and the cabin of army scout Curley Bill Roberts.

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