Stu Pritchard left the working stable to join his retired friends for off-the-grid truck camping and horseback riding fun in Canada’s wilderness. How’s that for horse sense?
There’s something dangerously compelling about the idea of quitting work and driving out of town to a life of fun and adventure. Want proof? If you’re at work reading this – which you shouldn’t be, but we’re glad you are – how bad do you want to stand on your desk and yell at the top of your lungs, “I can’t take it anymore! I’m gettin’ out of Dodge in my truck camper, and having fun for the rest of my life! See you later folks! Yee ha!”
Okay, maybe that’s taking things a step or two too far. Then again, about half a dozen guys are probably standing on their desks right now, and getting fired thanks to our clearly reckless incitement. They’ll thank us later, probably. Sorry fellas.
There is a somewhat saner and less risky way to quit work and hit the road. It’s a little known idea called retirement. The concept is that you work hard for about forty years, contribute monthly to a 401K, IRA, pension, or personal piggy bank, and then stand in front of a room of jealous co-workers and say, “I can’t take it anymore! I’m gettin’ out of Dodge in my truck camper, and having fun for the rest of my life! See you later folks! Yee ha!” Somehow, that speech goes over better moments before you retire.
Having recently retired, Stu Pritchard is probably smiling ear to ear reading this introduction. He has achieved that moment so many of us yearn for; he put his time in, saved, retired, and is now free to go truck camping and horseback riding – his personal bliss – to his heart’s content. After all, isn’t that what most of us yearn for; freedom, truck camping, and time to pursue our passions? Congratulations Stu! Ride on.
Above: Camping in Old Man River Valley, Alberta
TCM: Take us back in time and tell us how you first got into truck camping.
Stu: I was an Air Cadet during my teens. One summer I was chosen to attend the Canadian Armed Forces Survival Training School located in Western Canada. This was my first opportunity to camp in the Rocky Mountains.
I was out in the back country, away from roads and civilization, surrounded by some wonderful vistas that very few people have or will ever see. This experience planted a seed; this was camping in the true sense of the word.
After finishing my education, my wife and I moved west from eastern Canada to Calgary, Alberta. Except for a two year assignment in Saudi Arabia, Calgary has been our home for nearly forty years. In that time we have owned two truck campers, a travel trailer, and a fifth wheel.
Our first truck camper was purchased so we could tow a glider trailer. I was a very active glider pilot. We purchased our second truck camper so we could tow a horse trailer. For the past twenty years we have bred and raised Tennessee Walking Horses on our acreage just outside of Calgary. Today we own both a thirty-four foot fifth wheel and a truck camper.
We chose hard side campers due in part to the very cold evenings that can occur in the Rocky Mountains, even in the summer, and for safety. We are in bear and cougar country.
Above: Stu tows a 14 foot 3 inch horse trailer
TCM: How did you outfit your truck camper rig for towing a horse trailer?
Stu: The Northern Lite 8-11 is a short box camper with an overhang. For towing the horse trailer, I installed the Torklift SuperHItch. The factory hitch was not strong enough for the horse trailer with an extension bar due to the overhang from the camper. I also use a weight distribution hitch on the trailer. A lot of people with large trailers have weight distribution hitches. They help to put more weight on the front wheels of the truck.
Above: Torklift International’s SuperTruss extension bar – click to enlarge
I also have Torklift’s SuperTruss extension bar. The SuperHitch dual receiver has two, 2-inch bar inputs. There are also two chains that form a triangle from the extension bar to the truck.
Above: The 2 5/8” Bulldog ball hitch with the weight distribution receivers for the horse trailer – click to enlarge
This triangle makes it so that the extender is solid and not wobbling. The Torklift system is well designed and the only system I could find with extra chains on the side. I also have a 2 5/8” Bulldog ball hitch with the weight distribution receivers for the horse trailer.
The total rig, including the truck and trailer, has a progressive braking system. This means the more braking I do on the truck, the more braking engages on the trailer. I can also manually engage the trailer brake without engaging the truck brakes.
I don’t drive fast when I’m towing the horses. I am aware of my horse trailer when I turn corners. We also don’t go on long hauls with the horse trailer. I might drive two to three hours with the horses. Fortunately, there’s a whole series of Provincial areas less than twenty miles from my house and over 400 miles of trails. We don’t have to travel far for a trail ride.
Above: Stu and JD on a trail ride
Currently, we have three horses, but we’ve had up to twenty-two. We were actively breeding and selling horses with a partner in Canada and the states. I have two geldings; JD, and Solo. Moe, our mare, is my wife’s horse.
We’re not breeding horses anymore. I go strictly trail riding. Last summer I was out trail riding every week from August 1st until the end of September. I only go during the week. I’ll also go on local day rides for an afternoon if I don’t feel like camping overnight.
TCM: Where do you go truck camping with your horses?
Stu: Most of the time when I use the truck camper, it is me and my riding buddies who have their own truck camper rigs. Since we are all recently retired, we head out on Monday or Tuesday and return on Thursday or Friday morning with our horses. Our spouses go camping with us some of the time.
People in our Tennessee Walking Horse club give us suggestions of places to ride. We also have favorite areas. Our routine is to travel two to three hours from home and camp on Provincial land, equestrian campgrounds, or boondock in non-campground areas. These areas would be like BLM areas in the United States. Alberta even has equestrian parks with stalls for the horses. They are quite popular and busy on the weekends.
Above: Camping in the Badlands, northeast of Calgary, Alberta
There is so much variety here. We can go to a campsite and ride a number of trails from that river basin. Sometimes we travel a few hours north or south of Calgary. We also have the Badlands northeast of Calgary, which is more canyon type riding versus the mountains. We mainly camp and ride in the eastern Rockies.
Above: Riding at Stone Provincial Park, Alberta
Our average rides with the horses are probably 20 to 25 kilometers (12.5 to 15.5 miles). Sometimes when the horses are in better shape and we’re not doing valley rides, we might take a 32 kilometer (20 mile) trip.
Above: Camping on the eastern slopes of the Rockies
TCM: Is your Northern Lite 8-11 tricked out to extend your boondocking capabilities?
Stu: My Northern Lite has one 120 watt solar panel and two six volt batteries. I don’t have a generator or LED lighting. In the summer, in Alberta, we get thirteen to fourteen hours of daylight. With the sun being up for so long, we don’t need a lot of power for light or heat, and the solar panel gets plenty of sun.
In the Fall, I’ll run the furnace but, with the 120 watts of solar and two batteries, I have had no problems. All of us in our group are good for three to four days off the grid.
Above: Dry camping together in southwest Alberta
TCM: How did you get connected with the other truck camping friends in your group?
Stu: We are all part of the Tennessee Walking Horse Club. It all started with a number of backcountry trips sleeping on ground. We decided a few years ago that we wanted to be more comfortable. All my friends started to retire and get truck campers. I was last one to retire.
Above: Everyone in the group has a Tennessee Walking Horse
TCM: Why do you prefer the Tennessee Walking Horse?
Stu: The Tennessee Walking Horse has a running walk, which means a run-walk is natural. Under saddle, we do not trot our horses like most horse breeds do. They walk, run-walk, and cantor with training under saddle. I often compare the Tennessee Walking Horse to an Olympic athlete. If you ever see a Tennessee Walking Horse going by, you’ll know. They walk differently and walk faster than a trot horse can trot.
Most horses put their back foot in the same footprint as their front foot. Tennessee Walking Horses over stride, which makes for very smooth rides. Other horses trot, which can make riding painful after a few hours in the saddle in the mountains. If we go riding with others who don’t have walking horses, it’s hard for them to keep up and not be in pain because they are trotting a lot. So, all the people I ride with have Tennessee Walking Horses.
There’s an interesting history to the Tennessee Walking Horse. In Tennessee, just after the Civil War, pacing horses from the northern states got mixed up with trotting horses from the southern states. The resulting cross breeding became known at the Tennessee Walking Horses with a registry established back in the 1930s. Most of the blood lines of the horses in Alberta are from Tennessee Walking Horses brought into Montana in the late 1930s. Over the years there have been additional blood lines from Tennessee.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding Tennessee Walking Horses in the states. Unfortunately, there exists a practice called soring, an intentional wounding of Tennessee Walking Horses to exaggerate their gait for the show ring. It’s an unethical practice and we do not practice or allow soring in Canada. We use our horses strictly for pleasure riding in their natural state. They are wonderful trail horses.
I recently learned about the Prevent All Soring Tactics (PAST) Act, new legislation to stop the practice of soaring Tennessee Walking Horses in the United States. Here’s a blog about the legislation. The blog encourages people to contact their Senators to help get the legislation passed. Link: http://blog.humanesociety.org/wayne/2015/04/past-act-reintroduced-in-congress.html
Above: Relaxing after a trail ride, you can see the portable corral in the background
TCM: Having researched soring, it is a barbaric and illegal practice. How do you care for and protect the horses when you’re truck camping?
Stu: We have a number of different systems for their comfort including a picket line, portal corrals, or a highline system when we are camping overnight.
A picket line is when you drive a stake in the ground and use a ring and thirty foot rope that’s clipped to the horse’s halter or neck strap. We put the rope inside a garden hose so that it doesn’t get tangled up around their legs that could cause a rope burn. We let them tether around the thirty foot rope that creates a sixty-foot diameter circle.
Above: Picketing and corrals in the camping area
After a ride, we’ll picket the horses and let them graze on grass for three to four hours. That allows us to transport less hay in our trailers. We usually do not leave a horse unattended or overnight with this system. We have to work on picketing at home first to train them. They get used to it.
At night we use a portable corral. The corral folds up and is carried in the horse trailer. We’ll put the horses in the corrals with a hay net and water, and they hang out there all night.
I have four corral panels that are thirteen feet each. It’s a good size pen. The hay net and a water bucket is tied to one of the panels. If a horse falls or something spooks him during the night, he will bang into the corral immediately alerting me that something is going on as the panels are connected to the horse trailer which is connected to the camper and truck. I really like the corrals.
Above: The highline system they use in the backcountry
In the backcountry we also use a highline system. A highline is a rope strung between two trees, with tree saver straps around the tree trunks. Then, we have metal loops that fit into the ropes. With the highline system, the horses stay between two trees. The rope is out of the way, above their heads and they can lie down. Sometimes in the campgrounds people will highline between two trailers.
Above: Seeing bears in the distance – click to enlarge
TCM: You mentioned that you camp in bear and cougar country. Do you worry about the bears and cougars with the horses?
Stu: I have never had an issue with bears or cougars. When we are in backcountry with lots of bears, the horses will tell us if something going on. Most bears stay away from humans unless people leave out food or if the bear is surprised. Horses have acute senses working in your favor. We never worried about bears with horses around.
Horses and humans together have a combined sense of safety. Horses will hear movements better that a human. A human can see a still deer that’s not moving better than a horse. But as soon as the deer moves, the horse will pick up the movement faster than a human. They also have a strong sense of smell and always know which is the way home in the woods.
Above: The horses know their place in the herd; the eastern slopes of Alberta
It’s amazing to watch a herd of horses on a trail ride. The front horse has its ears forward, the middle horse has its ears to the side, and the back horse has its ears to the back. If you put them in different positions, they know where they are in the herd and adjust. One time I was in the back and my horse’s ears went back. Then, a guy came up on a bike. My horse heard it before I did. You’ve got to watch their ears.
Above: Riding in Southwest Alberta
TCM: What are your truck camping plans for this year?
Stu: As I get used to this new retirement chapter of my life, my wife and I are still working out our winter travel plans and schedules. Right now our plans are to take the fifth wheel south for part of the winter. We may decide that traveling in the fifth wheel is not something we want to do on a regular basis, and sell both the fifth wheel and the camper. Then we would get a larger truck camper and truck. That’s still being decided.
My wife and I may go to the west coast of Canada, usually Vancouver Island and up into Jasper National Park in the summer. We’ll probably try out some new horse trail areas this year. I may take a longer horse trip to British Columbia. It’s about five hours away to the west, and one more mountain range over. We’ll go out during the week and get back before the weekend.
There are some phenomenal places to ride out here. A truck camper rig is great for towing a horse trailer and camping with horses.
Truck: 2004 GMC 2500 HD, Extended Cab, Short Bed, Single Rear Wheel, 4×4, Diesel
Camper: 2011 Northern Lite 8.11 Special Edition
Tie-Downs and Turnbuckles: Torklift and Fastguns
Suspension: Extra one ton leaf spring to the back end
Gear: Two 6 volt batteries and a solar panel on the camper and a Progressive electric braking system in the truck for the trailer