Gillian Larson Has Completed the Pacific Crest Trail Twice, on Horseback


Steep switchbacks flanked by tall evergreens slowed the progress of Gillian Larson, age 22, and her mother, Jodi Johnson, age 53, hiking the Higher Sierra Trail in the summer time of 2013. As they plodded along, Larson’s mom distracted her with the story of Heather “Anish” Anderson, who had just completed a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 60 days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes, breaking the prior record by practically 4 days. Each have been in awe of how quite a few miles Anderson had covered day-to-day, particularly as they have been struggling with just 10.

“Are horses permitted?” Larson asked, just about right away. When she returned to her residence in Topanga, California, she started researching thru-riding, a term for horseback riding extended-distance trails. She discovered that other folks had thru-ridden the PCT, and knew she wanted her horses to come along for the adventure.

Currently, Larson, now 27, is one particular of quite handful of horsepackers to tackle the whole trail—and the only one particular she knows of to do it twice, in 2014 and 2016. She went on to full the Arizona Trail and the Colorado Trail in 2017 and is also, as far as she knows, the only individual to thru-ride the full three,100-mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT). She’s discovered a lot along the way—most importantly, that these extended-distance trips call for a lot of arranging.

An illustration of the trails Larson has ridden.

Larson has had a unique connection with horses due to the fact just before she was born. Her mom was a dressage horse trainer and an achieved rider who stuck with the sport till she was seven months pregnant with Larson. Then, immediately after Larson’s birth, Johnson picked riding ideal back up once more. It was only all-natural that Larson would stick to in her mom’s footsteps. But she steered clear of dressage, with its tidy guidelines, gravitating rather toward trail rides, exactly where she could see the planet about her.

“From a quite young age I would take Sparky [her first horse] out for a ride daily immediately after college,” she remembers of the trail rides she took starting at age 7 in Topanga. “I loved getting out there, just the two of us, exactly where it felt so peaceful and cost-free, and I by no means got tired of hunting for animals … and the views as we rode.”

At 13, her mom purchased her Shyla, a dark buckskin registered American Quarter Horse, with close to-endless power. Larson cared for Shyla, working out her and feeding her morning and evening. They’d go for large rides with each other on the weekend—a solo tradition they maintained for nine years just before Larson started thru-riding, as Shyla didn’t like waiting for slower horses on group rides. When Larson was 15, Shyla gave birth to Takoda, a spitting image of his mom, and immediately after that, the trio was inseparable.

“They’ve been the center of my life,” Larson stated. “So when I heard about a extended-distance trail that ‘Anish’ had performed … it was automatic in my head that if I was going to do something like that, my horses would have to come with me.”

Shyla and Takoda in front of a beautiful green landscape.

But how do you go from riding horses on trails about your residence in Los Angeles to finishing 3 cross-nation trips, every single thousands of miles extended? For Larson, it was an amazing feat of arranging.

When she began coordinating her initial thru-ride of the PCT, she had only been backpacking for a handful of nights at a time, and had by no means horsepacked. Her analysis revealed only a handful of thru-riders who had come just before her and just about zero facts of how to full a extended-distance trail ride. She wasn’t going to let that quit her.

As an alternative she relied on thru-hikers’ blogs to strategy. She pored more than hundreds of pages of paper maps, spending two weeks laying out how she’d tackle the initial two hundred miles of the trail alone. Even though horses are permitted on the PCT, they’re prohibited from quite a few campgrounds and trailheads. So Larson spent hours figuring out exactly where she could sleep every single evening from hikers’ trip reports and, a lot more importantly, exactly where she’d commit rest days—which she took twice a week—to enable her horses to recover from the 20-plus miles they walked every single day.

Gearing up for the trip posed an additional challenge. Conventional horsepacking gear was as well heavy for the distances she planned to cover, so she turned rather to contemporary backpacking with its quickly and light gear. Her initial packing list looked just about the exact same as a thru-hiker’s: She traded cowboy boots for hiking boots and a Dutch oven for a Jetboil. She also packed hoof boots, booties that go more than a horse’s feet in the occasion that they drop a shoe a big collapsible bucket, for the gallons of water her horses drank every single day and a saw and axe, for cutting via downed trees that her horses wouldn’t be in a position to jump more than or stroll about.

Venn Diagram of horsepacking vs. backpacking.

Larson and Shyla completed their initial thru-ride in 2014. Right after that, they continued, ticking off the Continental Divide Trail, Arizona Trail and Colorado Trail, as effectively as the PCT one particular a lot more time, totaling a lot more than 7,000 miles with each other amongst 2015 and 2019. Every time, Takoda served as their packhorse, carrying the gear each horses necessary, along with all their meals, which could weigh up to 120 pounds.

On the trail, it is not just the logistics that are difficult. In the course of her rides, Larson says she’s traveled more than hundreds of downed trees (which can take hours to saw via), and via landslides, mudslides and washouts. She’s crossed as well quite a few snowfields to count (which can be hazardous for horses, as they cannot put on crampons) and even a glacier.

“Anxiety is a shadow that follows along the whole time when on a thru-ride,” Larson stated. “You be concerned about discovering superior grazing, adequate water, trail circumstances, resupplying, resupply automobile breakdowns or vandalism. … [Your horses] are entirely dependent on you so the stress to not let them down can be huge.”

Nonetheless, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It feels like a teammate predicament,” she stated. “You have to operate with each other, and [the horses] do so significantly for you.” And, she added, “when you get to Canada … you really feel like a parent at college graduation, ‘my babies did it!’”

That is why Larson hopes to raise awareness of the sport and make thru-riding a lot more accessible to a lot more men and women. Throughout her travels, she by no means ran into an additional rider. But in 2017, Larson got connected to a handful of thru-riders via her weblog and helped them strategy their personal expeditions on the PCT. In 2021, she’ll assistance a pair of international thru-riders on the two,650-mile trail the couple dreams of finishing the route split in half more than the course of two years, and Larson will not only choose their horses but also serve as their assistance group. She has no plans to quit thru-riding herself.

“I’m often just a small bit in awe when riding in the saddle,” Larson stated. “And all these feelings of strength, connection and awe turn into magnified when traveling by horseback on a extended-distance trail. Accomplishing a target with an animal you share a extended history with tends to make the entire journey really feel so significantly larger than your self.”

Pondering of thru-riding your self? Verify out Larson’s weblog, A Pacific Crest Quest, and stick to her on Instagram.


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