4 months ago I was camped out at 14,500 feet up in the Himalayas with my trail mates on The Vertical Nepal Expedition. Unlike some of the other popular trails in Nepal, The Manaslu Circuit took us through tiny villages in a more remote area of Nepal, sharing the crooked, winding, sometimes even non-existent trail with the local pack animals more than other trekkers.
The Sherpa people would tie on large Swiss-like bells to the yaks, smaller teacup-shaped bells to their mules and horses, and tiny bells to any goats. By the end of the trip, I could tell you what animal we were about to encounter just by type of sound the bell made.
Each night we would fall asleep to the rhythmic sound of hundreds of bells ringing in the fields while the animals grazed through the night. Having fell in love with the particular sound of the Nepali bells, I bought a couple in Kathmandu to bring back for my ride across Patagonia, though you can find them right there in The States as well. Here are a few various types:
• Swiss Trail Bell
• Singing Saddle Bells
• Rhythm Beads
The local Sherpa people told me that it not only helped them keep track of their animals, but they could tell which mules were theirs versus another herders, even in a pack of a couple hundred mules.
There are many different reasons that people all over the world will use bells for their horses:
Wildlife: Horses are known to catch scents up to 200 meters (roughly 650 feet) away. If you’ve ever seen a horse lift his head and curl his upper lip in a sort of “horse laugh or smile,” you’ve witnessed what is called “flehmen.” Many other hoofed mammals do the same such as deer, cattle, sheep, and antelope. What they’re doing is sucking in and analyzing pheromone scents.
Horses can tell whether an owner is approaching, what animals are nearby, and even sources of water down the trail. Sharing the backcountry with bears and moose up in Alaska taught me to make noise on the trail as to alert and not surprise any wildlife. An accidental surprise approach on a momma bear and her cub or a moose and her calf is one of the highest causes of attacks. Bells can be heard from a great distance away and will alert the wildlife in the area that you’re approaching.
If a horse catches a dangerous scent in the middle of the night and takes off, the sudden movements or horse spook can be heard by the bell clanging. You’ll then have time to make some raucous noice (clanging kitchen pots together, shaking a tent, or even shooting off a small firecracker) to shy off any threatening wildlife, well before they cause any problems. This is also good in case your horse catches a foot or becomes tangled in his lead/halter. You can catch and help him before he injures himself too badly. Many horses have pulled muscles and even died from this. I met a horse with permanent nerve damage on half of his face from getting tangled in the lead-line which wrapped around his head as he pulled back.
A Lost Horse: If you spend enough time in the backcountry, chances are sooner or later your trusty steed or his buddy is going to go missing at some point. So then what?
Bells can help you determine sudden movements in which they get spooked or take off in the night and which direction they take go running. If you don’t have bells then start with checking for any tracks leaving from camp.
Most of the time horses will head back to their last location, your previous camp or worse, home, especially if a horse has a friend back at the barn. If you’re camped out with just one horse, chances are if he breaks free he’ll take off looking for the closest horse companion. Horses are herd animals, so I strongly believe it’s both safer and easier to travel with at least two horses.
Hobbles: Even hobbled horses at night can move at least at 1 mph. Many even learn how to hop or run and can end up miles away from your camp the next morning. What if a hobble breaks? The bells will allow you to determine when your horses start to leave the area and help you find them later on.
“I like the bells when I let the horses graze hobbled because sometimes they go a fair way out and they might be in thick bushes or behind trees and I can't see them but I can hear them. The same goes at night. I usually park my tent right next to or into the horse coral behind the electric tape but the tape is not enough when the ponies are really hungry or there is a lot of activity (cattle, wild brumbies, wind). So I camp close to them in ear-range of the bells. Generally I sleep as long as I hear the bells and wake up when I can't hear them wondering where they are! A couple of times the horses got out in the middle of the night and I awoke to the bells going nuts and the horses getting away fast! The other great thing about the bells is if you have a different sounding one for each horse, you get learn so much about them just by the sound of the bell. I can tell which of my horse it is laying along my tent by the way the bells sounds when they graze, roll, or scratch!” - Alienor le Gouvello with Wild at Heart Australia, her 3,300 mile (5,330 kilometer) ride across The Bicentennial National Trail, the longest walking trail in the world.
People: Horses can smell people coming well before you’ll ever have the chance to see them. They’ll often start fidgeting, grunting, paw at the ground, or even spook when detecting newcomers. This will be made obvious with the bells and give you extra time to prep should anyone be visiting your campsite unexpectedly.
Populated Areas: Whether you’re sharing a narrow trail or riding through a town, bells are a nice way to alert people you’re riding up on them so that neither party is surprised. It gives them time to make way for you which could also mean leashing their aggressive dog, herding up their screaming kids, or giving wide space to speedy mountain bikers. It’s safer all-around to let folks know you’re coming down the trail.
Having bells on your horses in both the backcountry and through populated areas also tells the local people that you’ve got nothing to hide. You’re completely conspicuous, not out there sneaking through the countryside on horseback. You’re letting yourself be known.
Your Pack Horse: Leading a pack horse can become tiring after a while. If you’re far from home (at least a two week ride) and have a solid herd of horses built together then you may want to simply let your pack horse follow you untied. If you have a bell around your pack horse you can hear well that he’s following closely and their gait without having to crank your head around every minute to check that he hasn’t wandered off.
Note: I still prefer to lead my horse as he keeps a steady, even pace. The reason being is that many horses left untied will graze as quickly as possible and then trot or gallop to catch up with you and your lead horse down the trail. Trotting with a loaded pack saddle will not only wear your pack horse down faster but could very well injure his back if done over a long period of time.
The overall, biggest plus for me was just knowing that my horses were outside my tent throughout the night. The first time I camped with horse without bells, I kept waking up in a near-panic wondering if my horses were still at camp. Just as in Nepal, the soft clinging was a calming noise telling me they were always there.
Just remember, if you do tie bells onto your horses, to be sure and tie them tight enough so they don’t get caught on anything. Horses lift their hind legs to itch their faces and necks and can easily get a hoof or horse shoe caught in a loose strap. Always train your horses to use the bells comfortably before trying them out in the backcountry.
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and to the associate sponsors: Simply Native Foods, Woolrich, Adventure Medical Kits, Granite Gear, Ruffwear, Riding Warehouse, Hilleberg, and Custom PackRigging.