Several years ago, when ATV's were just getting popular as hunting vehicles, I remember coming out of a high-country basin on my favorite horse, leading two others loaded with a nice bull elk. I was within 300 yards of the nearest jeep road, and perched on the road were two hunters astride ATV's. Their binoculars were focused on the faraway ridges, none of which were accessible by any vehicle, and even from a distance, I could sense their frustration.
While ATV manufacturers seem to have convinced the hunting public that it just isn't possible to hunt without a machine between your legs, I beg to differ. Hunting from horseback can be extremely successful. The advantages of horseback hunting are numerous: access, stealth, load-carrying capacity, and maneuverability are all greater on horseback.
In many regions of Colorado and the West, the best public-land hunting is in wilderness areas, where motorized vehicle traffic is strictly forbidden. While some of the wilderness areas are bisected by jeep roads, it is the rare occasion that a hunter gets a shot at game from a road. The animals clearly know where the roads are and stay well away from them; sometimes several miles away. Dedicated hikers can reach into the back country to hunt, but I've discovered an interesting phenomenon. From my observations, most hunters don't want to hike more than an hour and a half from a vehicle. In most wilderness settings, the hunting just starts getting good after a two-hour ride in. When you tie up your horse after riding in two hours, your legs are still fresh for a serious stalk.
It's another interesting phenomenon that a hunter can often approach game on horseback, making more noise and with a higher profile, closer than he can approach on foot. Old-timers will tell you that the rhythm of a horse's footfalls sound much like a large big-game animal such as an elk, and we often see elk grazing together with our horses in our mountain pastures. Consequently, elk and deer are much less wary when a horse approaches. At any rate, horses are exponentially quieter than ATV's, which have been proven to produce a noise at a pitch that spooks game at long distances.
Load Carrying Capacity
When we ride far back in to stalk game, we almost always take a packhorse with us, or at least a pair of saddle panniers to drape over a riding saddle. A stout packhorse can carry up to 250 pounds of weight, which is about the field-dressed carcass weight of a small bull elk. When we bag an animal far from the trailhead, we quarter it out, strip out the backstraps and the rib meat, and load it on the horses for the ride out. Those multiple gut-busting trips of freighting elk meat out on your back are just a bad memory.
It's amazing how many places a horse can go-certainly far more places than any motorized vehicle. I prefer to scout out my hunting location and then ride to within half a mile, then tie up my horse and start hunting. I have shot elk after bailing off my mount to shoot, but that's a bonus, not to be expected.
So how does a hunter get started with horses? Well, you've got to pay your dues in one form or another. Paying a good horse outfitter to take you on a hunt is one way, and hooking up with an experienced horseman is another. You'll be surprised at how many people are willing to teach others to ride and get around in the back country if you show a sincere desire to learn. It's also extremely helpful if you offer to pay for the next horse shoeing visit or a ton of hay for the winter, because keeping horses can be very expensive. It's not fair to ask your buddy to provide the horse, tack, truck, trailer, feed, and vet bills without some kind of compensation, which might be as simple as coming over on a Saturday to help fix fence.
If you have little or no horse experience and are thinking about buying a horse or two, I'd advise you to hold off until you have the knowledge to get you started. Otherwise, you can make mistakes serious enough to get you hurt or even killed. Horses don't naturally know how to load and unload from trailers, get saddled up, climb mountains, ford streams, stand patiently while you're away hunting, and then pack out a bloody carcass that makes them think they might be next. It takes a lot of time and training. If you buy a young, inexperienced horse from someone's backyard or someone else's failed project at the local sale barn, you could be setting yourself up for all kinds of misery. In many rural Western areas, you can even lease horses, complete with tack, from outfitters for a week or a month at a time, and these horses are usually proven stock that won't get you in trouble.
1.) Think Ahead Horses should come with an owner's manual, but they don't. 99 times out of 100, if a horse has a serious character or performance flaw, it's human-caused. The term "horse sense" immediately comes to mind. When you're working with horses, you've got to think ahead of the horse and anticipate his response. For example, if you drop your reins to glass for elk and the horse starts grazing, it's absolutely predictable that the horse will step into his own reins. When he raises his head, he'll feel the reins snap taut because he's stepping on them, and he'll panic, pull back and snap your reins, and it's quite possible that he'll run away with your saddle, lunch, backpack, and rifle. So if you let him graze, take his bridle off first!
Part of thinking ahead is to anticipate the situations you may encounter on a hunting trip. If you think you'll be shooting near your horse (chances are good), then shoot near your horse several times in the weeks prior to your trip. I once rode a three-year-old gelding right up to a skeet range while a round of skeet was in progress. A couple of weeks later, I dropped off that same horse, pulled out my rifle and drilled a bull elk, and the youngster just stood there and watched.
If you think you'll be hobbling him to graze at camp, hobble him in the home pasture first and see how he does. If you think you'll be tying your horse up overnight, then tie him to a hitching rail at home for a few hours and get him used to standing there with nothing to do. If you don't know if your horse will pack meat, go to the local packing plant or taxidermist and see if you can get a fresh hide from an early-season hunt. Introduce it to your horse and let him pack it around a little while.
2.) Get in shape On any kind of a horseback hunt, it's imperative that both the horse and the rider be in shape. Just as you wouldn't ask an overweight, out-of-shape office worker to strap on a backpack and climb a mountain, neither should you expect your horse to do the same kind of task. In the months and weeks prior to hunting season, make sure to go for several conditioning rides to get your horse in shape. We've actually come across horse carcasses in the high country from hunters who killed out-of-shape horses from overwork. By the same token, if you think you can just jump on a horse and ride several hours a day without any negative consequences, you're wrong. Not only should you get into riding shape by hitting the dusty trail, you should also get into good hiking shape so that you can reach those faraway hideouts of the trophy game.
3.) Be Calm We once hosted a hunter from Chicago who brayed every word he spoke and whose movements were always quick and jerky. In a rare moment of introspection, the hunter bellowed, "I don't think this horse likes me much!" To which an old wrangler replied in a soft voice, "That's because you move too fast and you talk too loud." It's true. Horses like calm people much more than they like nervous folks. If you're uptight and hostile, they can sense it in a millisecond. Slow down and take it easy, and things will go much easier for you.
4.) Feed them well Nothing will make a horse grouchier than not getting the feed he's accustomed to. If you're packing into camp for a week-long hunt, you'd better make sure there's either plenty of good grazing or a good supply of hay or alfalfa cubes to keep them happy. Grain is to horses like cameras to aspiring models. They love it, and they'll stay around if they know they'll be getting some.
5.) Lead a Horse to Water Even more important than feeding a horse well is making sure he gets plenty of water. You can bring tons of alfalfa pellets and grain into camp, but the horses won't touch them if they haven't had enough to drink. Water your horses often, and let them drink their fill unless they're really heated up. They need all the water they can get.
6.) Play by the rules Quite often we'll come across camps in the high country where the occupants obviously had no idea of the national forest regulations or plain old horse etiquette. It is illegal in most national forests to tie a horse to a live tree at camp, because the horses tend to stamp down the roots, eat the bark, and generally kill trees. Use a "high line" picket line to tie them up at night. Scatter your manure piles after you leave so that flies don't congregate, and try to leave as little trace of your presence as possible. When bringing hay onto forest lands, make sure it's certified weed free so that you're not introducing noxious weeds into the range that supports the deer and elk.
If it all sounds a little overwhelming, it can be. As soon as you think you know something about horses, something else will surprise you and show you how little you know. However, hunting on horseback is tremendously rewarding. You get the idea of how Lewis and Clark or John Fremont or Bill Cody felt when they rode into pristine, game-filled territory with a sharp knife and an accurate rifle in the scabbard. It's a feeling like no other and you'll leave the noise of the motorized crowd far behind.
Gary Hubbell, a Colorado native, is the principal owner of OutWest Guides , LLC, in Marble, Colorado. He guides elk, deer, and upland bird hunts, as well as flyfishing and summer pack trips. His articles and photos have appeared in Outdoor Life, Bugle, Outside, Newsweek, Forbes, and Heartland USA, among others.