How to Ride a Trail Horse on Your Mountain Hunt
So you've booked an outfitted hunt this year. And you're going to get to ride horses into the mountains to save your legs and your back.
I've met lots of guys who've been in this same situation. They figure, "heck, how hard can it be?" But, I assure you, if you don't learn to get along with your mount for the week, it's going to be a bumpy, scary, noisy, and life threatening experience.
First, let's start with the horse itself. A horse trained under western style has 4 gears. The walk, trot, canter (lope) and gallop.
To command a walk, you "nudge" the horse with your heels, for some horses, you can say "step up" and they will know what you mean. There is no real kicking involved here. You don't have to worry about the position of your body or your legs during the walk. Just sit still and don't be a nuisance to your horse.
To trot, give a little smooch or a little kick to your horse and urge it forward when you are already walking. Keep your feet in front of you, and make sure your stirrups are adjusted so that you can stand up in the saddle and still fit your fist between your butt and the saddle seat.
To canter or "lope". Smooch loudly at the horse and put a little pressure behind your kick. Lean back in your saddle and feel the horses rythym begin to move your hips for you. It may feel like you are leaning to far back at first.
The gallop is very similar to a lope, you just move faster to keep up with the horses rythym.
(Keep in mind, this isn't really how horsemen ride, but these techniques will keep you on the saddle. There really is no substitute for experience here.)
With that said, most of you will never ASK your horse to go faster than maybe a trot. But maybe you should have an idea of how to stay on should your horse end up at a lope or gallop if it gets spooked.
Some basic signs of troubled behavior in horses include, shaking or throwing its head up and down or side to side. This behavior means that for some reason, that your horse doesn't want to cooperate right now. Have your wrangler or guide check the saddle and all the tack over to make sure it was properly placed. 75% or greater of the time, the saddle is pinching the horse, or a blanket is slipping in the wrong place or the bridle is not on properly.
Take for instance, your horse has now tucked his chin to his chest and is walking erratically and throwing his head from side to side. This behavior means he doesn't want you on his back. Period. And there can be a lot of reasons for it. Recently I rode a friend's horse that did this, and I was ready for him to buck and do his best to remove me from his back. I stopped, dismounted and I looked at the bit in his mouth. When looking in his mouth I saw that he had a sore tooth and swollen gum. Luckily, I was able to change to a different style of headstall and continue my ride. And with absolutely zero problems. When approaching this situation on your own, stop your horse if you can, and try gently to reassure him, that you will resolve the problem. If the horse will not stop, you are probably going to end up in a tree or bush.
There are millions of problems out there and my favorite explanation of horse behavior came from a man named Smoke Elser. He said, "If you could ask a horse why it spooked, the answer will be the same every time... I wasn't sure what I was supposed to do, and beside that, I was scared!"
That's how it is with horses. I'd like to take the opportunity to make some of you guys aware that if you are having problems with a horse, generally, YOU are the problem.
In summary though, don't be too much of a man to ask for help from your outfitter, and please treat the livestock with kindness out of respect for the outfitter's property.