Steep switchbacks flanked by tall evergreens slowed the progress of Gillian Larson, age 22, and her mother, Jodi Johnson, age 53, hiking the High Sierra Trail in the summer 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 previous record by nearly four days. Both were in awe of how many miles Anderson had covered daily, especially as they were struggling with just 10.
“Are horses allowed?” Larson asked, almost immediately. When she returned to her home in Topanga, California, she began researching thru-riding, a term for horseback riding long-distance trails. She learned that others had thru-ridden the PCT, and knew she wanted her horses to come along for the adventure.
Today, Larson, now 27, is one of very few horsepackers to tackle the entire trail—and the only one she knows of to do it twice, in 2014 and 2016. She went on to complete the Arizona Trail and the Colorado Trail in 2017 and is also, as far as she knows, the only person to thru-ride the complete 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail (CDT). She’s learned a lot along the way—most importantly, that these long-distance trips require a lot of planning.
Larson has had a special relationship with horses since before she was born. Her mom was a dressage horse trainer and an accomplished rider who stuck with the sport until she was seven months pregnant with Larson. Then, after Larson's birth, Johnson picked riding right back up again. It was only natural that Larson would follow in her mom’s footsteps. But she steered clear of dressage, with its tidy rules, gravitating instead toward trail rides, where she could see the world around her.
“From a very young age I would take Sparky [her first horse] out for a ride everyday after school,” she remembers of the trail rides she took beginning at age 7 in Topanga. “I loved being out there, just the two of us, where it felt so peaceful and free, and I never got tired of looking for animals … and the views as we rode.”
At 13, her mom bought her Shyla, a dark buckskin registered American Quarter Horse, with near-endless energy. Larson cared for Shyla, exercising her and feeding her morning and night. They’d go for big rides together on the weekend—a solo tradition they maintained for nine years before Larson began 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 after that, the trio was inseparable.
“They’ve been the center of my life,” Larson said. “So when I heard about a long-distance trail that ‘Anish’ had done ... it was automatic in my head that if I was going to do anything like that, my horses would have to come with me.”
But how do you go from riding horses on trails around your house in Los Angeles to completing three cross-country trips, each thousands of miles long? For Larson, it was an incredible feat of planning.
When she started coordinating her first thru-ride of the PCT, she had only been backpacking for a few nights at a time, and had never horsepacked. Her research revealed only a handful of thru-riders who had come before her and almost zero details of how to complete a long-distance trail ride. She wasn’t going to let that stop her.
Instead she relied on thru-hikers’ blogs to plan. She pored over hundreds of pages of paper maps, spending two weeks laying out how she’d tackle the first two hundred miles of the trail alone. Although horses are permitted on the PCT, they’re prohibited from many campgrounds and trailheads. So Larson spent hours determining where she could sleep each night from hikers’ trip reports and, more importantly, where she’d spend rest days—which she took twice a week—to allow her horses to recover from the 20-plus miles they walked each day.
Gearing up for the trip posed another challenge. Traditional horsepacking gear was too heavy for the distances she planned to cover, so she turned instead to modern backpacking with its fast and light equipment. Her first packing list looked almost the 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 over a horse’s feet in the event that they lose a shoe; a huge collapsible bucket, for the gallons of water her horses drank each day; and a saw and axe, for cutting through downed trees that her horses wouldn’t be able to jump over or walk around.
Larson and Shyla completed their first thru-ride in 2014. After that, they continued, ticking off the Continental Divide Trail, Arizona Trail and Colorado Trail, as well as the PCT one more time, totaling more than 7,000 miles together between 2015 and 2019. Each time, Takoda served as their packhorse, carrying the gear both horses needed, along with all their food, which could weigh up to 120 pounds.
On the trail, it isn’t just the logistics that are challenging. In the course of her rides, Larson says she’s traveled over hundreds of downed trees (which can take hours to saw through), and through landslides, mudslides and washouts. She’s crossed too many snowfields to count (which can be dangerous for horses, as they can’t wear crampons) and even a glacier.
“Anxiety is a shadow that follows along the entire time when on a thru-ride,” Larson said. “You worry about finding good grazing, enough water, trail conditions, resupplying, resupply vehicle breakdowns or vandalism. … [Your horses] are completely dependent on you so the pressure to not let them down can be enormous.”
Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It feels like a teammate situation,” she said. “You have to work together, and [the horses] do so much for you.” And, she added, “when you get to Canada … you feel like a parent at college graduation, ‘my babies did it!’”
That’s why Larson hopes to raise awareness of the sport and make thru-riding more accessible to more people. During her travels, she never ran into another rider. But in 2017, Larson got connected to a handful of thru-riders through her blog and helped them plan their own expeditions on the PCT. In 2021, she’ll support a pair of international thru-riders on the 2,650-mile trail; the couple dreams of completing the route split in half over the course of two years, and Larson will not only pick their horses but also serve as their support team. She has no plans to stop thru-riding herself.
“I'm always just a little bit in awe when riding in the saddle,” Larson said. “And all those feelings of strength, connection and awe become magnified when traveling by horseback on a long-distance trail. Accomplishing a goal with an animal you share a long history with makes the whole journey feel so much bigger than yourself.”