September 23, 2010
Four-legged critters of the equine variety add an Ä±ntriguing element to the hunt.
In some parts of this great country of ours, the horse has long been used in certain types of hunting. Mostly the great beast of burden is used when hunting big game and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have experienced a great deal of that through the years.
Riding a horse on the last day of a hunt for sharptailed grouse and prairie chicken in the Sandhills of Nebraska was a welcome relief from previous days filled with long walks.
Most of my horseback hunts have been for elk in Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Idaho but I have also ridden a horse over a lot of moose, grizzly and caribou country in the Yukon as well. But big-game hunters do not have a monopoly on horses.
The occasions when I have had the opportunity to enjoy the services of man's second-best friend while bird-hunting have been fewer and farther between but I have done a bit of that as well. You don't see many horses in most parts of Alaska, but the one I once rode while hunting ptarmigan there sure knew the ropes.
I also recall an adventure in Alabama many years ago where we hunted wild bobwhites in country covered with waist-high briars and thorn bushes, both as thick as winter hair on a sled dog. Old Ned, the mule I rode, was a master at calmly picking his way through the brambles and then standing quietly each time I dismounted and walked in to flush a covey of birds that were pinned by Winston, the big English setter belonging to my host.
While a mule may not be as handsome as a horse, it is in some ways preferable. For one, I find the mule to be more sure-footed, a comforting thought as you ride along a narrow mountain trail and look over the edge to see nothing but several thousand feet of clear air between you and jagged rocks below. The mule is also less likely to be spooked by something along the trail and usually remains calmer than the horse when faced with unusual circumstances.
When placed in a bind, a mule will usually remain cool and collected until it is freed whereas a horse will most often roll its eyes in panic and explode into a tantrum of snorts, bucks and kicks, sometimes injuring itself in the fray. Lovers of the horse may head my way with tar and feathers when reading this, but I am convinced that the mule is more intelligent than the horse.
The most unusual use of a horse during a hunt I have experienced was also most definitely the funniest. We were hunting ducks in Argentina on a small lake and even though shallow water along its shore made for easy walking, the blinds were some distance apart. Accustomed to dealing with out-of-shape hunters who considered walking from refrigerator to table an adventure, the outfitter used a small boat for transportation to the blinds.
I am not sure why the boat did not have a motor but it may have been because the water was not deep enough to use one. Or perhaps a horse worked cheaper than the price of gasoline. Bright and early each morning we were greeted by a group of gauchos who worked at a nearby cattle ranch and who knew exactly what to do.
After a couple of hunters had been loaded into a boat, a horseman would tie an end of his rope to the boat and the other end to his saddle and tow his passengers to their blinds out in the lake. While a bit slow, those one-horsepower engines were quieter than an outboard and probably more reliable and everyone made it to and from their duck blinds in one piece.
In the old days it was quite common for wealthy owners of plantations in the Deep South to hunt from fancy wagons pulled by teams of horses or mules. Some of those wagons were made of the finest woods and leathers and trimmed in polished brass. A number of them were built by Studebaker, a company that once also manufactured automobiles. The wagon had padded racks for the guns, an insulated compartment holding iced tea and sandwiches, and built-in boxes for the dogs.
Dressed in their finest, the hunters sat on cushioned leather seats and when they climbed down, they shot the best doubles made by American and English gunmakers. I have been told that in those days, it was not unusual for bird dogs to be trained to either point or retrieve and not both as most dogs are trained to do today.
When a dog went on point a hunter would get down from the wagon and go in for the shot, at which point a retriever was turned loose to find the dead birds. Some of today's commercial quail-hunting preserves offer hunting from a wagon and everyone should try it at least once to be able to say they have experienced it.
One of my most enjoyable horseback hunts was for sharptailed grouse and prairie chicken in the Sandhills of north-central Nebraska. It is big country. Comprised of about 13 million acres of rangeland, massive sand dunes snake along for endless miles and often reach heights exceeding 400 feet. With gradients approaching 20 to 25 percent, some of those big piles of sand are not exactly easy to scale and they have a way of often being between you and a dog on point.
That mixed-grass prairie land is excellent habitat for sharptails and chickens and hunting there is probably best described as many miles of tough walking mixed with brief moments of excellent wing shooting. The hunting is not as physically demanding as some other bird hunts I've done, but it was tough enough for me to welcome a day of horseback hunting after several days of climbing those sand dunes on foot.
Some ranches in the region have good populations of both sharptails and chickens with the ratio between the two varying not only from ranch to ranch but from year to year as well. The owner of one ranch we hunted described his bird population as about 70 percent to 30 percent in favor of sharptails but he went on to say that he could recall years when just the opposite was true. Hunting season usually runs from about mid-September to the end of December and in some areas ringneck pheasant can be hunted at the same time.
Bright and early each day we filled a dog trailer with English pointers and headed out.
Alternating dogs every hour or so in that country kept fresh paws on the ground and enthusiasm high. After a morning of combing the hills for birds, we would seek out a bit of shade and settle in for lunch. Then we were off to more hunting.
I am not sure how much country we covered each day but except for a break for lunch and a brief siesta, we pretty much walked from dawn to dark. A crow flying overhead would not consider it far but it was far enough for me to make me really enjoy hunting that last day from the back of a wonderful animal with a leg on
each corner and a comfortable seat in the middle.