I think it was reading American hunting literature while growing up, such as Townsend Whelen’s 1906 classic “Red Letter Days in British Columbia,” which instilled a deep craving for me to experience a horseback hunting adventure. But, then again, maybe my mother dropped me on my head when I was born.
I believed that the romance of penetrating deep into the wild Rocky Mountains on the back of a noble beast of burden was surely the epitome of the wilderness adventure. It brought visions of creaking saddles, bugling elk, rutting moose and surly grizzlies. A horseback hunt meant sleeping under the stars, drinking from pure mountain streams and roasting the day’s kill over an open fire. It was the breathtaking beauty of mountain vistas that few have witnessed, and the special feeling that independent hunters have when it’s just them against the world. Without question, a wilderness horseback hunt represents the ultimate freedom and the ultimate hunting experience.
It’s just that now, after having done a bunch of them, I find I deeply regret that you must use horses.
My friend Russell Thornberry once wrote that at the end of every hunt involving horses the client should have the option of shooting the horse, because at the end that’s the critter he most wants to kill.
Here are a few reasons why I agree with him.
So You Think You Can Dance?
The outfitter had special permission to pack the rifles through Yellowstone Park, but they had to be cased and inaccessible. Apparently, giant metal gun cases do not fit well on pack horses. Who knew?
After a cowboy-style verbal smack-down that left me feeling like a foolish Easterner, they tied the case on top of a giant pack on a tall horse and we mounted up for the 25-mile ride into camp.
Ten miles later the trail passed through a washed out section that left a high bank on one side. The pack horse hugged the bank and an exposed root grabbed a rope and pulled the pack down over his belly. Thinking the pack was trying to eat him, the horse reared back and started bucking. This pulled on the rope that was tied to the tail of the horse in front of him. I don’t know if that horse thought something was trying to eat him or sexually assault him, but he acted appropriately to either situation by kicking and bucking. The rope tied to the next horse pulled tight and . . . well, now you know how “a wreck” happens.
My gun case fell out of the pack and landed in the center of the tail. The horse that had been carrying it stepped on the case, reared up on his back legs and did an impressive Irish jig. A few minutes later, the horse in front bumped into him, knocking him off the gun case, and then that horse stepped up to do the Jitterbug.
It wasn’t until the first horse smacked him down and climbed back on my gun case that I realized we had a dance-off going on. Sticking with the Celtic theme, this time he did a great rendition of a Scottish Highland Sword Dance, while the cowboys clapped rhythm and yelled words of encouragement. A few minutes later the second horse reclaimed the dance floor to execute some kind of break dance that ended with him lying on my gun case, feet in the air and spinning in circles.
This went on through the Dougie, Texas Two-Step, Tango, Electric Slide, Twist and even the Chicken Dance before some cowboy started yelling about “burning daylight.”
I can’t tell you which horse won because of their inbreeding. I am pretty sure they are all related because the cowboys call them all by the same name, “You #$%#@*$*#$!”
The case looked like a road kill. It was gouged, dented, bent and scraped. In the carnage you could clearly see several horseshoe-shaped dents that looked like the footprint diagrams for dance steps from the Arthur Murray Dance School for Horses.
“Don’t Kick Horse”
“Don’t kick horse,” was all he said before riding off again.
The horse had gotten the message by then anyway and we were getting along pretty well.
Until I saw the ravens.
As was his style, the guide had ridden so far ahead I had no idea where he was. There were ravens circling and making a ruckus just over a little rise to my left and I was very curious about why and decided to look. Not wanting to be left too far behind, I urged the horse to hurry and we topped the hill at a trot.
On the other side was a dead moose with a huge sow grizzly bear and two large cubs feasting on his remains. Thinking (correctly this time) that the bears wanted to eat him, the horse reacted instantly by swapping ends and charging off at a gallop. I reacted by continuing my forward momentum, which launched me off the horse and onto the ground in front of the bears.
This was Canada where handguns are considered evil; my rifle was in a scabbard attached to the horse. Kicking a raging grizzly didn’t seem like as good an idea as kicking a horse, and I completely forgot I had a knife on my belt. (It’s a damn fool who brings a knife to a grizzly fight anyway.)
I sat on the ground trying to breathe while the big sow approached with her front feet turned in, popping her teeth and huffing threats. My only thought, other than “so this is how it ends,” was that if I survived and got my rifle back I was going to shoot that damn horse.
About the time I could smell her breath, the two cubs broke rank and ran away. The sow looked at them, then back at me before roaring something in bear talk that I think meant, “This is your lucky day little man, I am not going to kill you this time, but you really should get a better horse.” Then she turned, kicking dirt on me as she ran after the cubs.
Half an hour later I was walking up the trail when the guide came the other way leading my horse.
“Told you. Don’t kick horse,” was all he said before he dropped the lead rope, turned and rode away.
I was reaching for my rifle when I realized that camp was about 10 miles away. So, I decided to shoot the horse later. Instead, I climbed stiffly into the saddle and followed my suddenly chatty guide up the trail.
I gave up on the idea of a photo and put the camera back in my jacket just as the horse dipped his head to eat. The reins came off the saddle horn and fell over his head and, being a horse, he stepped on them.
That caused him to panic (I suppose because he thought his special clump of grass was now trying to eat him) and start to bob his head up and down as he spun in a circle, pivoting on his front legs. I have no idea why he didn’t just step off the reins other than he was a horse. But he didn’t, he just kept jerking his head up and down and kicking with his back legs. The more he did it, the more the reins tugged and pulled and the more panicked the horse became.
I leaned forward to grab the reins just as he made a particularly hard jerk and the last thing I remember seeing was the reins breaking. That, of course, freed his head to continue its backwards trajectory on a path that met my head’s forward path someplace in the middle.
I woke up lying in the mud and ringed by laughing cowboys.
Apparently there is something in the cowboy mentality that deems a horse’s head hitting a hunter between the eyes hard enough to knock him backwards off the saddle as the height of hilarity.
“Are you dead?” one asked me with a giggle.
“I think so,” I croaked while spraying blood with each word.
“Nah, you ain’t dead. You’re still bleeding, that means your heart is pumping,” he said as he walked away laughing hysterically.