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Bernie Kuntz: Thoughts on horses

For the last fifty years I have been wearing western felt hats but I assure you that I am no cowboy. As one who regards horses as necessary evils on full blown packtrips, I'm not ashamed to admit I'm a little bit afraid of them too. As an acquaintance has said, "A horse will kill you and never shed a tear."

On my very first packtrip in British Columbia almost fifty years ago a horse walking in front of my partner kicked, its hoof grazing his lips and nose. It resulted in swollen lips but had he been an inch or two closer to the horse he could have been seriously injured or killed.

Over the decades 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, make it several miles back down the trail.

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. We used a different horse to pack the elk quarters.

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, unless he had a couple dozen porters carrying everything. But this is not the 1920s and it is not Africa so we use horses.

A rider generally can cover twice the distance in a day than the average 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 and it has always impressed me.

One would think, then, that an animal that has long been separated from any serious predators, and is 800 to 1,300 pounds of muscle and power, would fear nothing. You would be mistaken. A squirrel running across the trail can send a 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 you are liable to be kicked into the middle of next week.

I have written before about a pokey horse that I was assigned on my first Stone sheep hunt in B.C. I squawked and requested a different horse. I got one--a skittish animal that periodically stopped and stuck his head down between his front hooves, looking for something that might scare him. This horse panicked one day with me in the saddle, and bucked me completely over its head. I sailed through the air, mercifully landed on a krummoltz bush, and even more fortunately, was able to scramble away so the dratted horse wouldn't land on me. The Indian guides, both genuine cowboys who rode in the Calgary Stampede and the big rodeo in Grand Prairie, Alberta, were highly entertained by the incident.

On my last Stone sheep hunt in 2002 in the southeast Yukon, I was issued a mare that I rode for a week. I was thinking that I might have finally learned something about being a horseman after riding some 500 miles over the decades, when on the eighth day on our way back to base camp the horse suddenly panicked, fish-tailed and almost bucked me over a six-foot bank and into a creek!

Guide James Dick, like most Indians in that part of the country, is a superb horseman. He took over riding the mare and gave me his horse. It was a long 12 miles to camp with my right hip causing me terrible pain by the time we arrived. That was sixteen years ago and it was the last time I rode a horse. I don't care if I never ride another.