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Cowboys and horses

I’ve been wearing western hats for more than 40 years, but I’m no cowboy. As one who regards horses as necessary evils in getting into the backcountry, I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a little bit afraid of them.

The first time I did any serious horseback riding was in 1972 on a lengthy pack trip into the Peace River country of British Columbia. I learned a couple things about horses. First, don’t ever put an extra, valuable rifle onto a pack animal and expect it to arrive in camp undamaged. (I watched a packhorse in front of the one packing my precious custom-built .280 Rem. crash into a creek and shatter a sturdy pannier. Mercifully, the .280 arrived unscathed.)

I also learned that horses can be dangerous. It is difficult to overemphasize that point! On this particular trip my partner was leading his horse up the trail when the horse in front of him kicked, its hoof grazing my partner’s lips and nose. It resulted in swollen lips but had my partner been an inch or two closer to that horse he could have been killed.

Over the next decade I learned that horses can be nefarious, like the black gelding that led most of the remuda out of a makeshift corral 15 miles from the trailhead in the middle of the night in northwestern Wyoming. The guides spent half the next day retrieving horses that, even with hobbles, made it several miles back down the trail.

I watched two horses get into a fight in the middle of a river in the Yukon, losing all their panniers, which were washed over a waterfall. Thankfully, we were able to retrieve them as they contained three Dall sheep capes from the hunt.

Another time in Wyoming we were packing quarters from a five-point bull elk I had killed. The mare blew up, almost kicked one of my partners in the face, and had to be ridden back to the trailhead.

Horses do have positive attributes — they enable us to move camps and gear into country where it would be impractical for the foot-bound hunter to negotiate. They also pack out big game carcasses that would be too much for a horseless hunter.

A rider can cover twice the distance in a day of any hunter on foot, and remarkably, a horse can find its way back to camp in the dark. I’ve seen them do it many times.

One would think, then, that an animal that has long since been separated from any serious predators, and is 1,000 to 1,300 pounds of muscle and power, would fear nothing. You would be mistaken.

A squirrel running across the trail can send a 1,200-pound horse into a bucking panic. Move your hand too quickly near a horse’s face and you’ll scare it. Walk up unannounced behind a horse and not only will you scare the horse, you are liable to be kicked into the middle of next week!

One time on a sheep hunt in B.C., I was issued a pokey horse than walked slower than the other saddle horses. As a result, it had to trot occasionally to keep up. I squawked and requested a different horse. I got one — a skittish character that periodically would stop and stick his head down between his front hooves, looking for a sign of something that might scare him.

This damnable horse panicked one day with me in the saddle, and bucked me completely over its head. I sailed through the air, landed on a krummholtz bush, then scrambled so the dratted animal wouldn’t land on top of me. The Indian guides, both genuine cowboys who rode in the Calgary Stampede and the big rodeo at Grand Prairie, Alberta, were gleeful and highly entertained by the incident.

A couple decades later in the Yukon, on another sheep hunt, I was issued a mare that I rode for a week. I was thinking that I might finally have learned something about being a horseman, when on the eighth day on our way back to base camp the horse suddenly panicked, fishtailed and almost bucked me over a six-foot bank and into the creek!

Guide James Dick, like most Indians in that country, is a superb horseman. He took over riding her and gave me his horse. It was a long 12 miles to camp, and my right hip almost killed me by the time we arrived.

That was 12 years ago and it was the last time I rode a horse. I don’t care if I never ride another.

Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown

 native, has been

an Outdoors columnist

for the Sun since 1974