I do not specifically remember my first horseback ride, but I do recall the pony. “Pretzel” was a crossbred Quarter Horse/Arabian mare, a seasoned cow-horse and my dad’s favorite mount when it came time to go hunting. Early experiences involved leading the steady horse along a rail fence upon which I could scramble up to reach its back, whether saddled or bareback. I loved the feeling of being atop the horse, feeling it move (most of the time) at my commands. The first time she shifted from a jolting trot into an effortless canter, it seemed the whole of the earth was flowing under hooves and heaven rolling before my face.
Note the placement of this hunter’s boot with just the toe and ball of his foot in the stirrup.
A half century beyond my first ride and many mounts under the saddle, horses are an integral part of my family’s elk-hunting tradition, an enjoyable source of locomotion into the backcountry and a back-saving means of returning meat to camp. Most elk hunters in the Rocky Mountains eventually gain some experience with horses, be it on a guided hunt or on the back of a buddy’s spare gelding. We’ve had plenty of new riders in our camp. Here’s some advice for hunters who have never (or seldom) been on horseback.
Riding a horse is like working with a dog or any other trained animal. The better you know your “partner,” the more satisfying the outcome. We lease two to three horses for elk hunting each season. Shortly after they’re unloaded from the trailer and tied, I approach each of them. I generally have some kind of treat in hand, be it a handful of oats or pieces of an apple (some horses, by the way, do not eat apples). I offer the morsel with an extended, flat hand. After the treat is consumed (or sometimes not), I slowly and gently stroke the animal on its neck, working toward its head and ears, talking continually so it becomes accustomed to the sound of my voice. After assessing the animal’s manner while working around its head, I use a curry comb to brush it, starting on the neck and shoulders then shifting to the portion of the back where the saddle sits and the foreleg/belly area contacted by the cinch.
By the time the brushing is over I have a strong idea of the horse’s disposition. If you’re a first-time rider, try to do the same. If the animal does anything that raises a “red flag,” such as trying to bite or shying violently away from your hands or brush, ask for another mount. A rider’s first time in the saddle should be on a steady, “seen it all and done it all” gentle kind of a horse.
Know before You Go
Handling and grooming give even a novice rider a good sense of a horse’s disposition.
I’ve seen situations where outfitters have plunked inexperienced riders on horses previously unknown to them, unloaded at a trailhead before the light of dawn. If a hunter is thrust into this less-than-ideal situation, what he already understands of horsemanship and the two-minute pep talk offered before mounting are all he’s likely to receive. A better outcome occurs when the novice rider has the chance to observe and practice some of the basics before swinging a leg over the saddle.
Approach an unfamiliar horse from the front and speak as you enter its “personal space.” This communicates you are a safe, predictable part of its world. Additionally, it’s wise to move toward your mount from the left side of its body. Riders usually mount from the left side, a practice that can be traced to ancient times.
This mare has been trained with “direct reining,” which means the rider pressures the rein in the intended direction of travel.
Greek historians recorded this practice early. Mounting the horse from its left side eliminated interference with a soldier’s sword which was typically worn on the left hip so it could be drawn by a right-handed combatant. Most seasoned horses will accept a rider mounting from the right side, but habitually working from its left increases its perception of a newly acquainted human as a competent individual. Keep in mind that a horse must brace itself physically to accommodate the weight of a rider entering the saddle. Think of how your body must react if a kiddo puts his full weight on your arm trying to reach your shoulder. Unexpectedly mounting from the right side can literally throw your horse off-balance.
If possible, hang around and help while the wrangler prepares your steed for riding. Note the position of the bridle on its head, the placement of the saddle and pad, the tightness of the cinch and other parts of the rigging. A guide that’s looking after more than a single client may not be in a position to observe equipment that fails or winds up “out of whack.” The better a hunter understands the setup, the greater the chance he can spot and rectify a problem.
These hunters are checking the rigging on a saddled mount. Pay attention to the rigging on your horse so problems can be identified if they arise.
Ascending from soil to saddle is the biggest physical challenge for most riders. It involves grasping a handle (saddle horn) at head height or higher, elevating a foot to a platform (stirrup) at about half one’s body height, then propelling your entire body into the saddle in one motion. For the uninitiated, it’s a tough move in gym clothes. While elk hunting, you’ll likely be attempting it in bulky clothing, perhaps while wearing a daypack. If the horse is tall and the rider is short, it may be next to impossible.
Here’s the basic procedure: From the left side of the horse, first firmly grasp the saddle horn. The reins should be in your hand or can be draped over the pommel (forward portion of the saddle) if someone is holding the horse (which should be the case for a first-time rider). Only then should you place the toe of your left boot in the stirrup. Move to the stirrup first without holding the horn, and you’re vulnerable to being jerked off your feet and possibly dragged if the horse shies, even a little. Once your hand and foot are in place, flex your right leg slightly, then push off in essentially a leaping motion. At the same time, pull upward with your left hand and immediately extend your left leg to swing into the saddle.
If the first attempt goes poorly, regroup and try again. Don’t be shy about asking a guide or companion to hold the horse where you can mount from a stump or log to make the process easier. Many riders, after mounting from such an elevated aid, quickly develop the timing required to reach the saddle on their own.
On the Go
With just basic skills and a good mount, riding is an enjoyable aspect of hunting.
Once in the saddle, position your boots so the balls of your feet are on the stirrups. Fully inserting boots into the stirrups can make it extremely difficult to dismount in a hurry – or release from the saddle if the horse bucks or falls.
Horses are controlled by the reins. Like driving a car, smooth, subtle pressure is superior to sudden movements. Grasp both reins in one hand so the length is even between hand and bridle. There should be some slack when the horse is moving, but not so much that it takes a large, lengthy movement to tighten the reins. To stop the horse, pull gently backward on the reins. As soon as it responds, release the pressure.
Reining from side to side instructs the horse to turn left or right. Most well-broken Western horses will neck-rein, meaning pressuring the right side of the animal’s neck with the rein will cause it to turn left. Some horses require direct reining, which means pulling gently on the left rein to turn the animal left. An owner or outfitter familiar with a particular horse should be able to offer some instruction about reining it.
As a final note, a smart horse is like a smart dog. Within minutes it will discern whether the rider’s directions are “commands” or “suggestions.” You’ll have the best success with an assertive attitude. If you disallow the animal to nibble grass on the move and give it a swat and a stern word when it tries to nibble your jacket, a seasoned steed will quickly understand who the boss is.
Proper foot placement in the stirrup allows the rider to dismount quickly in case of an emergency.
There’s nothing that caps the Western hunting experience so completely as riding across a high, open landscape with the world beneath your feet. Understanding the basics is key to making a first ride memorable – for pleasant reasons.