How to Ride a Trail Horse on Your Mountain Hunt

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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.

Good hunting!


Riding a horse requires much

Riding a horse requires much practice, if you're not a good rider I don't think horseback hunting is a good idea, something might go wrong and your lack of experience in the saddle might be harmful. This doesn't mean that riding a trail horse can't be fun, I really love being in the saddle and even though these days I know how to use a piggin string and I ride on a daily basis, it took me a while to get here.

BikerRN's picture


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.

So true.

ManOfTheFall's picture

Thanks for the tip. If I ever

Thanks for the tip. If I ever go this route I will try and remember these tips and put them to the test.

arrowflipper's picture

refresher course

Thanks for a quick and comprehensive refresher course on horses.  I'd love to say I could master the art of riding in the mountains, but the last time I did it, I had a hitch in my giddy-up for about a week.  I'd love the have the opportunity to try again, but where I hunt we really don't need a horse.

Thanks for a well written Tip.



groovy mike's picture

You are 100 % correct that you need to listen to your horse.

Ndemiter: Like Hunter25 said this is  a good refresher course on horseback riding.  I grew up around horses so I tend to take these things for granted but your article reminded me of the lessons learned about standing I the stirrups as a kid.   You are one hundred percent correct that you need to listen to your horse.  They generally have a better idea of what is going than you do, never try to abuse them into doing what they are telling you is a bad idea.  In addition to what you have reminded us about here the old advice of always approaching a horse from the left is a good idea.  That is what they are used to so it is easier all the way around if you stick to that too.  Even more importantly, make sure that the horse knows that you are nearby.  If you are forced to approach from the rear or if you happen to come from the side of a horse (or mule, donkey, etcetera) wearing a bridle with blinders on – just speak softly to the horse so that it is aware that you are nearby before you reach out and touch the animal.  It might just save you from a being on the receiving end of a good swift kick from a sharp edged hoof!  And believe me, that is something that is worth avoiding if at all possible!



hunter25's picture

Great refresher course on

Great refresher course on horseback riding for me as it's been many years since I've had the opportunity to ride one. I worked for an outfitter on Montana when I was 16 and 17 years and rode all day every day. But now at over 40 I have never been on one since that time but remember very well that even as a kid I was surprised at how like you said it is not as simple as just getting on and riding away for the day. I don't think I will ever have the need or the use for one again but it was great to remember the old days when I thought I was a cowboy.

My daughter works with horses frequently and has alredy taken my 2 year old grandson several times so hopefully they will continue to develop this skill and not let it go like I did.

ndemiter's picture

i thought about this tip,

i thought about this tip, since i guide hunters via horseback, when i took some people out trail riding a few weeks ago. it was their first time riding horses pretty much... except for dad... he was "an old pro" so i put him on my little princess horse that doesn't have hardly any attitude and he still managed to get her in a bad mood by making a lot of jerky fast movements on her bit. his daughters (aged 5 and 17) listened wonderfully to me and had a great experience. i still laugh to myself when i think about the dad trying to be cool in front of his daughters and jerking those reins. he had that pony backing up and was kicking her to make her go forward... the whole time i thought "i'd bet she can't wait until he gets off her back!" and was mildly wishing she would put him off her back.

but the important part of the story is don't let your pride stop you from asking questions when you're in over your head... and that lesson goes farther than horses.