Anytime you try something new, it can be intimidating, especially when dealing with a 1,200-pound living, breathing animal. Horses have a mind of their own and can be unpredictable, but when handled correctly, they can be the biggest asset you will ever have on a hunt in the backcountry.
As technology has advanced over the last century, the horse has been faded out of daily life. However, the rugged mountains of the West are where the horse is still a necessity. If you truly want to go on a backcountry hunt, horses are the way to go. Not only will they get you miles away from roads without physically killing yourself, you can also bring extra items you would never dream of bringing on a backpack hunt. The sheer size, strength, and athletic ability that make horses such an asset can also be intimidating to many people.
While a horseback hunt may sound easy, it can be miserable if you are not prepared. It’s called “riding” for a reason. If you are riding and moving as one with your horse, it will be comfortable for both of you. If you are considering doing a backcountry horseback hunt, here are a few things to consider that will make your experience more enjoyable.
Physical and mental preparation are extremely important for this type of hunt. Just like any other hunt, you want to be in the best physical condition you can be. Whatever your physical routine is, I recommend that you continue it and add in a lot of stretching, aerobics, or possibly even yoga to your regimen. You are going to use muscles you didn’t even know you had while riding. Mental preparation is even more important than physical, in my opinion. You are going to be sore, so prepare for that. I have seen more people check out mentally because they were not prepared to deal with a little pain and soreness. Prepare yourself for a sore butt and aching knees. These are the two spots that affect most hunters on horseback. You can workout all you want, but if you don’t ride multiple times a week, you are going to be sore. Remember the saying, “No pain, no gain.” Suck it up and go kill a bull or buck-of-a-lifetime.
Practice riding. Depending on where you live, this may be more difficult for some. If there is some place within reasonable distance, go practice riding even if it is just a couple times a month. It will help with your physical and mental conditioning for the hunt. As they say, “Practice makes perfect.” If you can ride some before your trip, you will begin to understand how a horse moves and how you need to move with it. It’s like dancing. You need to work together or you both look silly. This will help you build confidence before you show up at the trailhead. There is no substitute for the real thing, but if you can’t find a horse to ride, watch a lot of westerns and harness that inner cowboy.
Be confident and calm. Horses are a lot like people. They are calm when things around them are calm. Most people who are inexperienced with horses are going to be a little nervous, and that is OK. We are talking about an animal that can carry 300 pounds up and down mountains and never stop eating grass. The key is to be confident and put on your best poker face. A horse will sense if you are really nervous and may become nervous too. They want you to be the one in charge, so relax and be the leader, even if you have to bluff a little. Before long, you will become a team and you won’t have to fake the confidence anymore.
I have always loved riding horses in the backcountry, and the older I get, the more I appreciate them. There is no better way to get around and hunt in the mountains than with a good horse. In the words of Robert Duvall, “I can’t think of nothing better than riding a fine horse into a new country.” If a backcountry adventure is on that bucket list, draw that tag and go have an experience you’ll never forget.