In the fall, when Rocky Mountain aspens turn brilliant yellow, there's no place I'd rather be than in a snug hunting camp among stately spruce by a clear stream, my horses and mules picketed nearby, aromatic pine smoke curling from the pipe of the tent stove.
Contemplation of such a scene keeps me going during bitter winter and summer doldrums. Hunters in other parts of the country are similarly drawn, whether to crisp corn fields laden with pheasants, red maple groves holding deer, or deep southern woods, now finally free of summer's oppressive heat and humidity.
These same fall conditions draw those of us who ride for pure pleasure. There's nothing quite like a trail ride through autumn trees, the smell of fresh air and brilliant foliage, the enthusiasm of your good horse when there's a trace of bite in the breeze. Riding during this time of year is too fine to be avoided simply because it coincides with hunting season.
Ready to saddle up and enjoy this spectacular season? Follow these five guidelines to help keep you and your horse safe.
1. Wear Bright Colors
Insurance companies, expert at analyzing risk, rate hunting as an extremely safe activity. The accident ratio with regard to the number of participants is very low compared with other outdoor activities, including horseback riding.
Still, potential for accidents exists. Visibility is your first consideration. To stand out, wear bright colors. A blaze-orange hunting vest (available at sporting-goods stores) works well. Choose one with lots of handy pockets. Some hunting vests are reversible, so you can wear a softer color other times of the year. Insulated models are also available, should you wish to add warmth.
But festooning your own body with bright colors doesn't protect your horse if you tie him and slip away to take a photograph. Invest in brightly colored saddlebags and/or cantle bags. Also consider placing a blaze-orange nylon halter under his bridle.
If you must tie your horse and leave him, choose an open place, such as the middle of a clearing, for greater visibility.
2. Choose Your Route
Find trails in areas where hunters will be less concentrated. Contact your state fish and game department, and ask for maps of hunting areas, dates of hunting seasons, what's hunted, and whether the season is open to anyone licensed, or is restricted by drawings or special permits. Such information will help you decide which state or federal land remains attractive for trail riding while the season is in progress.
In heavily populated states where hunting is popular and available habitat is scarce, hunting seasons are likely to be short and intense. Consider skipping opening day, especially if it falls on a weekend.
In Montana, where hunting seasons of one sort or another are in progress from early September until after Thanksgiving, most trail riders wouldn't consider putting their riding on hold that entire time. But in a populated eastern state where deer season lasts only a few days, postponing your ride until the end of the season may appeal to you.
The terrain and the species being hunted are factors, as well. Bird seasons mean that only shotguns with bird shot are in use, far less dangerous at long range than rifle fire.
And in the wide-open western terrain favored by antelope and mule deer, riders and hunters can usually see each other at long distances, a safety plus.
3. Train Your Horse
A hunting outfitter tells me that clients unfamiliar with horses often ask, "Can I shoot off this horse?"
His answer: "Yeah - once." If the hunter misses the point, the outfitter quickly explains. "After you shoot, you're likely to be on the ground, flat on your back."
Very few horses can stand up to the report of a high-powered rifle shot over their heads. Indeed, the muzzle blast of such rifles can damage a horse's ears, even if he's rock-steady. No good hunter ever discharges a high-powered rifle from the back of a horse, for safety and humane considerations.
But when you trail ride during hunting season, you'll likely hear rifle reports. While it's asking a bit much of your horse to expect complete coolness near gunfire, you can teach him some tolerance for gun shots.
At home, fire a simple cap pistol, then reward your horse with a treat or a nice rub on the withers. Then progress to a starting pistol (used for starting races, available at sporting-goods stores), which is considerably louder.
Safety warning: Fire a starting pistol only into the air, not toward a horse or a human; fragments of the wad holding the powder can be dangerous. And the sting of a fragment accompanying the loud report would be a major setback in your horse's training.
A bullwhip is another good training tool, if you can handle one. Its crack can be varied in intensity. Once your horse will tolerate a full-volume crack from a rider on his back, gunfire won't be intimidating. But don't use a bullwhip unless you're fully competent. It's easy to inadvertently strike your horse or yourself!
It's best to assume that no matter the training, gunshots carry the possibility of a spook from your horse. Use the one-rein stop to handle the unexpected.