Hunting with horses has provided some of my best and worst hunting experiences.
If you are patient and hardy, you may want to give it a try. Equines bring a new dimension to your hunting, but if you're prone to hurry or take shortcuts, a dream hunt can easily turn into a nightmare!
If you aspire to hunt with horses, it is best to begin by planning a conservative hunt. There is a lot to learn about the gear and proper packing of a horse, and it is essential to have some knowledge of equine first aid and the ability to manage in the back country should an animal be lost or wounded.
Above all, try to be continuously aware of your own and your horse’s limitations in relation to the conditions. On one particular outing in the Frank Church Wilderness of Idaho, my hunting partner and I experienced a catastrophic wreck. We had a mare that was not trail-proven, and we loaded our stock too heavily for the steep terrain and hot weather. Fortunately, neither horses nor humans were injured, but this is a hard way to learn how to balance the situation with your limitations.
Twenty miles from the trailhead with an elk down is no time to learn that your trusty roping horse will not pack meat, or that your horses won't allow you to catch them in an open meadow. You may have tested them in a pasture at home, but will they behave the same way in an unfamiliar location, or when they can smell a deer carcass, or pick up on your excitement?
Asking a knowledgeable acquaintance for guidance can be one valuable way to gain experience. The opportunity to accompany a seasoned packer on a trip provides a first hand way to learn realistic lessons and to manage situations as they occur. It also gives you an opportunity to test your horses and learn what they will do in different situations.
If you can't find a mentor, you can take a couple of short “practice runs" on your own during the summertime, such as an overnight stay, to see how your animals behave in the mountains. Summertime trail rides and short pack trips will also give you an idea if your horse will stand the rigors of mountain travel.
With excellent reference books out on horse packing and the schools, seminars, Internet learning opportunities and local mentors available, there is no excuse for being unprepared on the trail. Believe me, once you've learned what you can in a controlled environment, there will be plenty of time for the hands-on-experience that will become your sternest instructor.
Nothing can compare though, to a warm tent and a steaming pot of coffee to enjoy in a high valley where humans rarely come. Here, all of the preparation quickly dissolves into vivid experiences of hunting, fishing and scenery beyond compare.
If this sounds like the life for you, remember to keep your ropes tight and I'll watch for you on the trail.
Also be sure to visit FWP's Hunting web pages for more information about hunting in Montana.