A Modern-Day Horse Nomad

Jess Isbrecht describes herself as a horse nomad who travels full time with her partner Byron and their horses, Mackenzie and River. She hosts the Happy Trails podcast and has a blog called Ride+Climb.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice

Horse Nomad

Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.

Peter This week, we’re deep in the US Rockies, chasing the ultimate American dream – life on the road with Jess Isbrecht and her husband, Byron, and their two horses. Jess’ passion is endurance riding, while Byron is a professional rock climber. He lives for El Capitan and the other death-defying granite canyon walls for which the western states are so renowned. Somehow, they’ve managed to merge their twin passions into a natural, fresh lifestyle that most of us can only aspire to in our cluttered daily world.

So Jess, you describe yourself as a ‘horse nomad’. You travel around the States and other places with your horses and your husband, and it sounds like a pretty interesting lifestyle. I mean, you’d expect to find this on the Russian Steppe or in Kurdistan or in Outer Mongolia. It’s a bit strange. Isn’t that sort of moving with your horses from place to place and then climbing mountains, climbing rocks? Tell us about it.

Jess It is. We like to call ourselves modern-day horse nomads because we don’t actually live on horseback. We live in a travel trailer, so we have the comforts of home but we are houseless not homeless – that’s another thing we like to say about ourselves. We live a very free lifestyle; we travel with the weather; we try to follow good weather and nice temperatures and as much sun as possible because we are outdoorsy people. We like riding trails, exploring new places, rock climbing, hiking, everything we can do outdoors we enjoy.

Peter So we caught up to you with you now when you just moved across the state line from Wyoming into Idaho. Why have you done that? Just for a change of scenery?

Jess Well, to follow good weather again. We were in Wyoming, also in a climbing area called Vedauwoo and the weather was perfect. When we arrived about a week ago, we had plans of staying for a while and enjoying the rock climbing and the horseback riding that was there. Then the weather changed, as it does in the mountains in the western US, and it started raining and lots of strong wind and the horses were not very comfortable and neither were we.

So we looked around at our other options and places that we wanted to explore and and picked up and moved. Found better weather in a very small town in south central Idaho called Alamo. It’s where the city of Rocks National Reserve is, and that is a really wonderful climbing destination. We’ve been here about four or five times over the last few years. We’re actually going rock climbing as soon as I’m finished with the interview today.

Horse Nomad

Jess on the rocks

Peter All right, we’ll get on with it!

Felice You have an amazing lifestyle, everyone would envy you for that. It sounds great. When did you start this lifestyle that you have now?

Jess A little over three years ago, in June of 2018, we were living in New Jersey. I was an organic farmer; I was raising livestock on pasture and that lifestyle was starting to wear on me physically, and I was not able to find as much help as I needed to run a large farm operation. So we looked at our options and we happened to have this travel trailer that we had lived in on a previous farm property and we had a horse trailer. I said to Byron, who had always wanted to travel and always wanted to live in a van as a lot of rock climbers commonly do in the States, I said as long as I could bring my horse with me, that I would go and I would try it out.

Felice And he brought a horse as well – where did you find another horse from?

Jess Well, we only had one horse at the time; I inherited her from my mother. I’ve been a horse person my entire life;  I grew up riding horses, so they were very important to me. He was a little bit of a city boy when we met almost 10 years ago and I taught him to ride. But he was not so interested in having a horse of his own, and he was very concerned about what the logistics and the daily life would be like travelling with a horse. So we decided to try it out for a few months with just one and then see how it went.

We happened to be wintering in Arizona our first year, and at that time he would ride his bicycle alongside me when I went out on trail rides and he started to realise that most trails in the western US were going to be very rocky and not very conducive to riding a bicycle. So I very easily convinced him that we could get another horse and he would be able to join me on longer adventures. So we found a horse in Arizona, and now we have two.

Horse Nomad

Jess on Mackenzie

Peter And what did they call your horses?

Jess His horse is named River, mine is Mackenzie. Since we’ve been travelling, I have really gotten into endurance horseback riding, which is a competitive sport, essentially a race from point A to point B over a fixed course of a certain distance and with a time limit. That’s the very brief explanation of what endurance riding is.

Felice So are you going to different destinations and taking part in races?

Jess Yes, I am. I have competed. I haven’t been able to convince Byron to get into competing with me. He enjoys trail riding, but not the speed that’s needed for an endurance ride. So I’ve competed all over, including New England. We’re from New Jersey, so that first summer that we left and hit the road full time, we went up into New England and I did a competition in Maine. I’ve also competed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and then we moved out west. Since then I’ve been competing in Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, California, all over the place.

Felice Are there many competitions taking place all the time?

Jess Yes. Endurance riding is not the most popular equine sport in the States or even the world, but it is growing in popularity and there’s a rich history of endurance riding in the US, so there are lots of competitions all over the country as well as Canada. We have an organisation here that sanctions the events and organises everything, and that includes all of North America.

Felice How many miles would you ride on an event like that?

Jess Competitions can be set up with anything from a 25 mile course, which is considered the beginner or novice stage, all the way up to 100 miles in a day. So my current highest level has been 50 miles in one day.

Peter That’s a long way. It’s pretty tough on Mackenzie, isn’t it?

Jess It’s a very strenuous sport, it takes a lot out of the human and the horse – everybody really, as a team has to be conditioned and fit enough to to accomplish the goal.

Felice Are you allowed to get off the horse to eat or go to the bathroom and things like that? Or do you have to stay on the whole time?

Jess In endurance riding you are allowed to dismount and make forward progress, so a lot of people will run next to their horse. I like to get off and hike down steep hills. We also have various checkpoints along the way based on the distance, where the horses are monitored by veterinarians to make sure that they are fit and healthy and able to continue. Then the humans are kind of secondary, so we have to take care of ourselves and nobody cares if we’re falling over and about to die. The horses are really the most important thing that’s monitored in a race like this.


Horse Nomad

Southern Arizona trail riding

Peter So presumably in your your life together, it’s very important that you find places that actually have some decent rocks to climb because I don’t know if you’re going to be in the middle of the plains or something. It’s not much good to Byron, is it?

Jess No. So that’s why we’ve mostly skipped over the middle section of our country. We’re really drawn to the mountains; that’s where most of the good rock climbing is. There are some good cliffs in the desert areas of Arizona and Utah. We absolutely love southern Utah; there are just incredible canyons down in that section of the state, and we have climbed and ridden through some of the longest slot canyons in the world.

There’s one that’s called Buckskin Gulch, and it’s debated with geologists whether it’s the largest salt canyon in the world right now, but it is certainly impressive. It’s a very narrow canyon with sheer walls that just rise hundreds of feet above you, and it narrows down in some sections to where if you spread your arms to to either side, you can touch the walls as you go through, and it’s just miles and miles and miles of this.

Felice Wow! Sounds amazing.

Peter It all sounds like a truly wonderful lifestyle that everyone would envy. But there are a few important provisos like your horses and yourselves get hungry and they presumably want quite a lot of fodder per day. How do you fund it? Where’s the money come from to keep you on the road?

Jess Well, that’s a good question and one of the most common ones that we receive. For the first few years, Byron was able to keep his full time job and work completely remotely. He was doing software sales for a company that he had worked for while we were actually living in New Jersey and then on the side for a few years. He and a friend have been developing an app for digital rock climbing guidebooks.

Horse Nomad

Jess climbing

So one of the things that we do and incorporate into our travel is going to destinations where he wants to gather information and create a guidebook for a rock climbing area. So we do quite a bit of work as we’re travelling in that respect. And then I also do some horse training, odd jobs, farrier, hoof trimming, things like that, as well as digital marketing for friends’ companies as well as my own side projects.

Felice You also have time to do your own blog and your own podcast as well, don’t you?

Jess Yes, and I recently bought a GoPro, so I’ve started making videos to go with our adventures and to showcase what our lifestyle and our our travels are like. And that’s extremely time consuming, as you well know.

Peter We certainly do. Have you thought about taking your team, the four of you to another country and pursuing the lifestyle there as well?

Jess We have. One of the things we’ve discussed that we’ve been interested in for years is learning to sail. We would love to purchase a boat and then sail around the Mediterranean, rock climbing. Now, whether we can bring the horses with us is another question. If we could afford to buy a yacht that the horses could live on, that would really be the perfect situation for us because we love the water and the sea. We’re scuba divers, although not super-experienced. We’ve travelled quite extensively and we always love diving when we go to some kind of destination with a sea nearby.

Peter Well, I’ve never swum with horses in rivers, but Felice, you did it in Jamaica?

Felice I swam with horses in the sea in Jamaica, which was amazing.

Jess Oh, fantastic. We were in California and we were able to take our horses to the beach for the first time, and we galloped up and down the coast in the sand and you know, it was just it was spectacular.

Felice Byron rides with you. Do you rock climb with him?

Jess Yes. When we first met on our second date, he took me climbing outdoors for the first time, and since then we’ve been climbing regularly and we’ve travelled all over the world enjoying that sport together.

Horse Nomad

Byron and Jess

Peter So if you go away who looks after the horses, we have a problem with our dogs, let alone with horses.

Jess It’s challenging. So since we’ve been living full time on the road and not with a house, then a permanent place where I could easily have a friend look in on them, it’s become a little bit more challenging, but it hasn’t prevented us from travelling. We’ve been to Greece and New Zealand for a month at a time, and when I do that, I find a boarding stable where the horses will be taken care of.

I have a large network of connections in the horse community in the US, so I try to find either a stable owned by someone I know and trust, or a stable nearby to someone who can look in on them. But it’s kind of like a camp for the horses. They get to go, have a break from our travelling lifestyle and hang out with other horses.

Felice I saw on your blog that you’ve created a horse camping map that looked interesting.

Jess Yes, we did. So I’ve spent years researching places that people can camp with horses in the United States. I wanted to know where we could go and initially, when we were just getting used to this lifestyle, I wanted the security of a defined course facility. So we have we have all variety of horse camping places in the US. They could be very fancy private establishments where you have all of the hook-ups you could want for your living quarters, trailer with electricity and whatnot, as well as corrals or stables for the horses. And that’s very important to a lot of people when they first start camping with their horses. So I’ve catalogued all of the options that I have found over the years, and I believe I have almost 2,000 or 3,000 places marked on a map.

Peter So what will you do in the future? Do you have plans to have children and children’s horses? So you’ll be a whole team on the road, maybe eight, 10, 12 of you with horses? Is that a plan or you’re not going to do that?

Jess No, we have no real plans for a family. Both of us are very independent people and we enjoy our current lifestyle, and neither of us has too much desire to procreate. So we’ve always discussed the possibility of fostering or adopting if we ever get to the point where we feel the need to have another member of our family, but maybe I’ll have passed childbearing age, which I’m getting close to. But we really enjoy our plan continuing to live this way until it’s not enjoyable anymore, which may be forever.

The map can be found on our blog Ride+Climb. So on our website, you’ll find blog articles about our lifestyle and our travels, as well as my podcast. The podcast is called Happy Trails. It’s dedicated to trail riding and horses and everything related. It’s also available on all of the major podcast players, and you can follow our travels on Facebook and Instagram at @RideClimb.

Peter Thanks very much for talking to us, Jess, and we wish you the best of luck in the future with your travels – the four of you. Where are you going right now today?

Jess Thanks for having me. Well, as soon as I finish here, we’re going to hit some granite walls at Almo, Idaho. It’s a beautiful place to climb and we’re very excited.

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotifyi-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on SpotifyApple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]

See other equine-related episodes: You’re Never Too Old for Adventure, The World of Horse Racingthe Misadventures of the Adventurists. and On Safari with Alice in Africa.

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