Horsing Around

When horse and hunter meet.

I was probably humming “Don’t Fence Me In,” an old cowboy song that ricochets around my mind when I’m on my horse. Fall was in the air, and the horses were fresh. I remember the mare in front of us was acting up, jigging around. I probably patted my horse’s neck, “Good boy,” and he likely bent down to snatch up a mouthful of dry grass. 

We’d gotten an early start to our October ride. The serpentine trail meandered up a rocky slope that earlier in the season was adorned with a blanket of wildflowers. Out of nowhere a sudden zing! cut the air right next to my ear and my horse zigged left. Then came a second shrill, and my horse spun 180 degrees to face the blast of the rifle shots.

“Son of a bitch!”

Spewing a few more choice expletives, John, on whose property we were riding, kicked his horse into action, and in an impressive show of horsemanship, galloped down the hill and across the two-lane highway to confront the occupants of a four-wheeler before they had time to discharge another.  

Fall’s a great time to ride. Aspens are turning, and the crisp air makes for a comfortable outing while giving the horse a little extra spring in his step. But in southwest Montana, autumn also means hunting season, and riders will likely be sharing trails and terrain with weapon-toting, two-legged predators, some of whom act like the aforementioned yahoos.

From a risk standpoint, insurance companies rate hunting safer than horseback riding. Put the two activities together, however, and the potential for accidents is real, as I can attest. Fortunately, by following some basic safety guidelines, riders and hunters can safely coexist.

1. Wear bright colors. An orange vest for you, orange ribbons tied to your horse’s mane and tail, and maybe an orange saddle pad.
2. Ride during midday, staying on trails or in open country. Hunters are usually out at dawn and dusk. Be prepared, however, to encounter one on the trail at any time.
3. Ride in a group and make noise.
4. Prepare your horse for loud noises. Try conditioning it to a cap pistol followed by some wither rubs and praise. 

1. Don’t surprise horses. They’re prey animals, and flight-or-fight kicks in quick, especially if you sneak up behind them. I once watched a quiet pack-string of mules explode when a guy jumped out from behind a tree to take their picture.
2. Make noise if you encounter horses on the trail, especially if you’re wearing full camo. Talk in a normal voice, letting both horse and rider know you’re there.
3. Step off the trail to let horses pass. The same right-of-way rules apply during hunting season, and when sharing a trail, a hunter is a hiker.

The two young kids who shot toward us lost their hunting licenses. They claimed they were just shooting into the air “for fun,” and despite our orange vests, swore they didn’t see us across the highway. I still ride during hunting season, but instead of humming “Don’t Fence Me In,” I sing it. Loudly.