Many hunters don't have the finances to spring for a guided horseback hunt in the West, but hunting elk or even alpine-country mule deer deep in wilderness without a horse can be an exercise in foolishness.
So whether you borrow a neighbor's animal, rent a much-ridden equine, or take the plunge and purchase a horse outright, here are a handful of tips to help you survive and succeed.
Keep your saddle cinch tight. Few things are worse than lurching to the side as your formerly predictable equine companion takes an unexpected flying leap over a log or creek and having your saddle roll, dumping you in said creek and dragging your prized saddle and rifle through the rocks and deadfall as your shocked pony dashes away in fright. Check that cinch frequently and keep it snug, especially on round-backed horses with low withers.
It doesn't hurt to use a breastcollar to keep your saddle from creeping rearward while climbing long, steep slopes, and in some cases a crupper (strap that runs rearward from the saddle and loops around the tail) can keep you from riding your charger's ears if you ever have to Snowy River off a steep ridge.
Traditionally, horsemen hung rifle scabbards on the side of the horse, passed beneath the stirrup leather and slanted to keep the rifle from sliding out. This works beautifully with slab-sided, rifles such as a lever-action Model 94 Winchester. Modern scoped bolt-action hunting rifles are much bulkier, and while you can hang one in this traditional position, be aware that it will be uncomfortably large beneath your knee, making long stretches in the saddle unpleasant.
Another place to hang a rifle is off the pommel pointing straight down alongside the horse's shoulder. While less common, it's still a traditional way to carry a long gun, and it's a method I prefer when carrying my scoped bolt-action rifles.
Gangsta Your Boots
Few things are worse for hunting than cowboy boots, and few boots are less suitable for riding than hunting boots. Cowboy boots have defined heels that prevent your foot from slipping through a stirrup and getting stuck; hunting boots have bulky, flat-bottomed soles that seem engineered to enhance their ability to stick in a stirrup. Getting thrown and having a boot hang up in a stirrup as you go off is absolutely life-threatening.
Since carrying two pairs of boots and switching back and forth isn't practical, the solution is to loosen the laces of your hunting boots before mounting so that even if your boot hangs up (if you fall off) your foot will pull out of the boot. It's better that your panicked horse races frantically away with one of your boots than for you to go bouncing along with it.
Stalk on Four Hooves
Horses have four feet, and their gait is far less alarming to wild game than the sound of a human heading up a trail. Numerous times I've had elk bugle at me while on horseback, and not uncommonly a lone bull will move in for a closer look. Riding slowly through elk country and blowing a soft cow-call on occasion is a great way to cover a lot of ground without unduly alarming its inhabitants and, in some cases, to ride right in amongst 'em
Tie One On
Once you've got game on the ground and quartered, it's time to tap into the greatest advantage of hunting on horseback: packing meat.
Unless it's a big, mature bull, you can frequently get an entire elk out in one careful trip on one good horse. Cut a slit between tendon and bone and sling a hindquarter on each side of the saddle horn and a front quarter on each side of the cantle (rear of the saddle seat). Strap them together over the top of the saddle and tie them to the saddle on each side to prevent them from flapping up and walloping down against your horse when it jumps a log.
Bail and Bang
A common, disconcerting side effect of jumping off your horse to look at or try a shot at a bull is that when you turn back around your horse has headed back to camp without you. If you've got a hunting partner along, you can toss him the reins, but you really need to learn to tie your horse up fast and securely for those times when you hunt alone.
Never tie a horse by its reins. Keep a halter on under its bridle, with a lead rope attached to it looped around the saddlehorn. If need be, hop off, grab the lead, and whip it around a nearby tree. If you don't already know how to quickly fashion the appropriate slipknot used for tying horses, get an equine-savvy friend to teach you — in the meantime use a bowline knot.
It's worth considering taking two horses on a hunt. Put your riding saddle on one and a packsaddle on the other. Horses are by nature very sociable, and rare indeed is the mount that will stand contentedly munching bark when left alone tied to a tree in the wilderness.
With two horses, once you've got meat on the ground, you can load the pack animal, swing aboard your saddle horse, and ride to camp rather than hiking and leading one meat-laden horse.
Nothing says "greenhorn" more effectively than carrying your own daypack while riding a horse. Spring for a quality set of saddlebags. Carry water, food, spare ammo, camera, first-aid kit, and so forth in the bags. Just in case you get tossed and become horseless, keep a weatherproof lighter or waterproof matches and a compact headlamp in your pocket and a knife on your belt.
Not to say that you can't have a daypack with you, too. In fact, I often hang one from the saddle horn opposite the side where my rifle hangs, where it's easily accessible and partly balances out the load, minimizing the saddle's tendency to list to one side. Just be sure that the handle atop it can take the weight without tearing out and dumping your daypack.
Leasing a Horse
Leasing has advantages. When hunting season is over, you can give the horse back instead of feeding it all winter. If the leasing stable is a good one, available horses should be solid, proven mounts that can be depended on.
When discussing a potential mount, be sure and specify that you intend to hunt from it and potentially pack meat on it. Require that it be independent (some horses flip out when alone), that it be comfortable with a rifle scabbard, and that the smell of blood doesn't faze it. It helps if it's good with you untying and donning a coat or rain slicker while mounted, too. You'll need that horse to stand solidly while you mount, because it can be hard to get on at the end of a long, exhausting day, especially in frigid temps, and to trailer well. You don't want to face a battle every time you load up to hunt or get back to the trailhead.
Make sure the horse will stand while you load and tie bulky, bloody items on it and that it leads well. Few things are harder than trying to lead a balky or pushy horse out of the backcountry with a couple hundred pounds of meat aboard.
Once a potential mount or two is selected, spend some time riding them. If possible, head alone up a trail, cross a creek, load into a trailer, and mess around with a broom to simulate handling a rifle around the horse. Tie bulky items to each side and atop the saddle and lead it around. You should quickly become skeptical of a dicey mount. But if it's a good one, you'll develop an affinity for the animal that will last for life.