When I was out at Pillsbury State Forest (near Pillager, MN) last weekend for our annual Girls’ Ride I was lucky enough to be able to use one of the cable picket lines that the DNR has installed there. These are heavy wood posts about 8 feet in height with a cable strung between the posts for tying up horses. In the past I have just tied the lead rope to the cable, but we’ve discovered that the horse, as he moves around, can pull the rope along the cable and either get tangled around the end post, or get into trouble with the horse tied to the next section.
My husband made cable clamps for me to take along in my “tool box” (along with my other camping checklist items) which can be positioned anywhere along the cable so that the horse cannot get nose-to-nose with his neighbor and yet still reach his hay bag easily. Since the horses are tied to the picket line throughout the duration of our camping stay, it's paramount the setup is safe.
When we tie our horses to the picket line – whether it is one of the established ones put up by the Park, or a rope line that we have strung between the trees – the first step is to ensure you tie the lead rope properly. You want to make sure the horse can't undo the knot. After that, it’s always a concern as to how long to leave the lead rope. I tie our horses long enough so that they can lie down during the night, but not long enough to get a foot over the line. Every horse is different in how long is “too long;” some horses are very adept at unwinding themselves if they should happen to be too close to the post and get their rope wrapped around it, and they also aren't inclined to step over the rope - thus hanging up a hoof - so they can be trusted (at least during the day) with a longer line. Other horses can panic easily and should be tied much shorter.
This weekend I saw a horse with a rope so long that as he put his head down and walked forward to reach some hay that had fallen on the ground, he got the rope over his poll. When he lifted his head and felt the pull over the top of his head, he panicked. The horse pulled back, reared up, and then was jerked backwards and fell onto his back. Luckily he wasn’t hurt and hopefully the owner learned from the incident. And yet we’ve had horses that seem to be rope-wise and don’t seem to mind it if the rope gets over their heads.
We’ve had 2 horses of our own – a National Show Horse mother and son, actually – who are very adept at scratching behind their ears with a back hoof and have then gotten that foot caught in the lead rope. For these two we have to make sure that their ropes are kept short enough that they cannot do that.
Whenever we take a horse camping that has never been tied to a picket line before, we keep a close eye on him while he’s tied there and then shorten up his lead rope before going to bed. It’s so much better to make sure he’s safe overnight than to give him enough slack to lie down flat and take a chance on him getting in trouble. It doesn’t seem to take long for them to learn how to handle themselves on a picket line, but you also don't want to create a bad experience by giving the horse too much line in the beginning.
Another thing to keep in mind when tying your horse in a camping environment is how long to tie the horse so he can't get his hind end into anything he's not supposed to. For instance, water buckets, the campfire ring, another horses' area, etc. Also, if you're camping with dogs (or even trail riding with dogs and you plan on tying them at some point), be sure the horses and dogs can't intersect - even if they're used to keeping a healthy distance, anything can happen and you don't want a dog to get trampled or a horse to get its foot caught in the dog's tie-out.