Urban Dictionary defines “dirtbag” as “a person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle…dirtbags are seeking to spend all of their moments pursuing their lifestyle.”
While I’ve never been unemployed, I do seek to spend all of my waking moments pursuing my chosen lifestyle, which is so much more than just being a crazy horse girl.
The dirtbag culture encompasses all kinds of extreme outdoor sports, all except backcountry riding, and the outdoor world follows suit. Despite the fact that our cultures overlap and mesh, you are unlikely to find a photo of a horse and rider scaling a perilous rock face in any mainstream outdoor magazine.
In addition to being a backcountry rider, I engage in many dirtbag worthy activities outside of exploring the mountains on my horse and I feel this makes me uniquely qualified to weigh in on the subject. In short, I see both sides.
REASON #1: We’re dedicated.
Yes, my fellow dirtbaggers, we riders are just as dedicated to our sport and our lifestyle as you are. When you get up before dawn to hit the road to the trailhead, we’ve already been up for hours feeding the horses, loading the trailer, checking tire pressure and readying our gear. See, we have a considerable amount of logistics to take into account outside of our daily goal and that takes time and preparation.
While a few exceptions exist, the majority of riders I’ve met (myself included) have been in the saddle from an early age – some of us were riding before we could walk. Traditionally thought of as a “rich person sport,” those of us without the steady cash flow to afford it, did whatever we could to stay in the saddle. We adapt to fill the need for horse hair and dirt – just as you do in order to climb El Capitan.
Unfortunately, while inevitably appealing, the unemployed-I-live-in-my-van lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to our culture. Much like a child (though arguably more fun), we have a being dependent on us for food, shelter and water. Most backcountry riders have at least 2 jobs to make this happen (currently, I have 4). If that’s not dedication I don’t know what is.
REASON #2: We love minimalism.
Sure, we have a horse and that means we can carry a little bit more than you but, in truth, not much. The fact of the matter is that, while pack strings are nice, they’re not a logical choice for many of the places we like to go (which just so happen to be many of the same places you like to go). Having an extra horse or two, or even a llama, can be a definite advantage in certain circumstances but the majority of us hit the trail as a duo; 1 horse, 1 rider.
If you’re spending any amount of time in the backcountry, the same rules apply to riders as they do to backpackers. Just as you do, we lighten our load, we make important decisions on what to include and what to cut and we do our best to make our packs comfortable. The difference is, we not only have to pack and make our load comfortable for ourselves, but for our horses, too.
An ill fitting pack can rub, make your muscles unduly sore and lead to a truly crummy time on the trail. As a rider, if your horse ends up with a saddle sore from an uneven or overweighted load, you’ll be carrying a 50lb saddle back along with your pack. Needless to say, we’ve mastered the art of minimalism.
REASON #3: We live the outdoors.
As a dirtbag, you live for the days when you are miles away from anything remotely resembling civilization. Backcountry riders do, too. You relish the anti-social lifestyle and long to be in the silence of nature. Backcountry riders do, too. In fact, many of us prefer the company of our horse over the company of people (I know I do).
A purveyor of the outdoor lifestyle, you dirtbags often spend time giving back to the areas you spend time in. Backcountry riders do, too. While you may think of us as walking poop machines, riders are actually extremely active in maintaining their local areas and advocates for the wilderness areas we frequent.
REASON #4: We can go (just about) anywhere you can.
While my horse may have a hard time scaling a rock face or catching a wave, there are very few places we can’t get to…one way or another. It can be a challenge to find an equine partner with the balls to take on questionable river crossings, shaky, shale rock trails and above treeline storms without question. When you do, you know you’ve got a lifer.
On foot, all you need to worry about is getting yourself from point A to point B. On horseback, we’re constantly looking ahead for the next obstacle and determining the best route for our four-legged counterpart. If you’re lucky, you end up with a “beer drinking” horse who is an expert navigator but, even then, it’s still our duty to know what lies ahead.
When in route, there’s little that can stop a true dirtbag from reaching their goal. Riders are no different – we might just have to get a little creative.
REASON #5: We live for the thrill.
There is little else that can compare to the thrill of grabbing mane and trusting the 1100lb creature under you to carry you up a rocky face to a steep summit. The uneven ground beneath their feet wiggles and gives way between strides, your weight shifts in the saddle with each step and you glance backward for just a moment, forgetting the nearly 90 degree incline you’re on before turning back around quickly.
When you reach the top, you take a deep breath. Your horse breathes heavy beneath you and you feel weak from the adrenaline coursing through your body. He shifts his footing a bit as its still questionable and just then you realize if he shifts 2 more inches to the left, you’ll tumble down the way you came. Oh lord, now you have to get back down…
When it comes down to it, we riders are just as dirtbag as the rest of you; we use the much of the same gear, travel the same trails and seek the same thrills. So, why then, are we outcasts? The outdoor community has long been inclusive of people from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all interests…except, seemingly, those of us on horseback.
If a voracious love of the outdoors is the basis of dirtbag life, then consider me, and my horse, a dirtbag.
Amanda Mills is a sandal wearing, dirtbag cowgirl who spends her time in the backcountry aboard her BLM Mustang, Ranger. She is the founder of backcountryhorseman.com and daylights as a marketing and social media specialist to fund her adventures.