Although the concept is evocative of cowboys and frontiersmen, utilizing horses or mules to support a hunt, especially in wilderness areas where the use of ATVs and motorized vehicles is prohibited, provides us with the old-school muscle and dexterity needed to navigate into remote spots and get our quarry out. But here’s the catch: Unlike a motorized vehicle, horses and mules have brains. Small, skittish ones permanently set to flight mode. It’s not as simple as turning a key and punching the gas; horseback riding requires awareness of the animal’s needs and emotions, as well as strategies for addressing their sometimes unpredictable nature.
Most horses or mules provided by a guide or rental service will be dependable, experienced animals, so you’re unlikely to experience much trouble. Still, having these fundamentals in mind may help you navigate unforeseen hiccups while riding into the backcountry.
Getting started on horseback
Tips for before you mount up and head out.
- Always greet your mount so they know you’re approaching.
- When circling behind a horse, either stay close to its rear end so a kick won’t reach full velocity, or circle wide enough that an extended leg won’t reach you.
- Mount and dismount from the horse’s left side. This tradition dates back to when men rode into battle armed with swords. Because they typically kept their sword in a scabbard on their left side, swinging into the saddle from the left kept the blade from interfering. Now it’s a matter of tradition and habit, and you don’t want to introduce something unfamiliar to your pack horse when you’re out in the wild. Most tack—bridles, cinches, etc.—buckle and fasten from the left, too, which should help you remember.
- Don’t shove your boot all the way into the stirrup. Keep the balls of your feet centered on the stirrups—this ensures you won’t get hung up and dragged if you get thrown or brushed off. Try to keep your heels down so your foot doesn’t slide through.
Once you’re in the saddle
Guidance for once you’re underway.
- Watch the ears to learn your mount’s attitude. A pissed-off horse will pin its ears flat backward. A curious, happy one will have perky ears that seem to scan its surroundings or flap at flies. Ears pricked up and forward with head up? Alert or cautious. Droopy ears? That’s a tired pony.
- Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. A rock-steady horse can become an explosion of fearful energy with as little as sudden movement in the distance. This doesn’t mean you have to maintain a death grip at all times (nor should you ever wrap your hands in your reins), but don’t get complacent, either. Worst case, you may have to spend a few seconds channeling your inner rodeo bronc rider.
- When ascending a steep slope, lean forward with your butt slightly out of the saddle. Lean backward and put weight into your heels on the descent. In both cases, give a little more rein. Horses and mules naturally stretch their neck forward while bringing their hind legs under them to support their weight when ascending or descending. Your adjustment as a rider helps your mount to keep its balance while you maintain contact and control.
- Remember, your mount is carrying you, your gear, and possibly your game while traversing difficult terrain. Stop frequently for breaks and ensure they’re well watered and fed.