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Grab the Reins

“For a mountain hunter to admit being a little afraid of horses is to imply a sheltered background, a certain lack of understanding and even a weakness of character. I was almost 40 years old before I openly confessed that my craven attitude toward horses was other than healthy respect. I am much more comfortable now that I have come clean about it. I am a little afraid of horses.”

– Charles F. Waterman, “Hunting Horse” from The Part I Remember, 1974


The most common question I hear from hunters in a camp before a week of hunting is, “What are the horses like?” 

It seems everybody has a bad story about horses and hunting. As a result, you have your horse people and you have people that don’t like them and are afraid of them. I’ll admit, I’ve been afraid of horses and mules plenty of times, mostly the ones with bad attitudes. Horses are a great tool but a certain amount of awareness and knowledge is a must to have a positive horse experience. 

I was taught to ride at a young age with my brother in the mountains of Northwest Montana. Our use of stock (horses and mules) was intermittent and it wasn’t until we both starting working for the Forest Service in the Bob Marshall Wilderness that most of our backcountry travel was by horse. If you weren’t riding, mules were probably carrying your gear or you used mules to pack equipment for trail projects. Four full summers of packing mules was not only a great learning experience but prepared me for my future as an elk hunting guide immediately after my Forest Service work.  

If you want to have a successful experience hunting with stock, you have to be in tune with their personality and quirks. They’re nothing more than big dogs! They need to be scolded when misbehaving and positively reinforced when they are being good. 

As with any good disciplinarian, consistency is key. If you treat them well and take care of them, they’ll take care of you. During my Forest Service days, often everybody used a different horse each week and every rider is at a different experience level. Because of this, inconsistent handling and discipline made an easy scenario for a mishap to develop. 

During my days of full time guiding, using outfitter stock was a luxury! I usually had the same horse all fall, which allowed for a close relationship with the animal and resulted in only very minor blunders.


Horses are great for going down a trail. Generally, they lead well and mules follow. Once you get a horse going, he’ll go until you tell him otherwise. They are generally easier to work with and of course, less stubborn. 

If you tell a horse to run itself to death, it will. If you want a horse to go down a steep embankment, it probably will. A mule usually won’t. Mules will stop when they’re tired and if they’re scared of a spot in the trail or don’t like something they see, they’ll take a safer route. 

However, it’s hard to categorize horses. The personality of a horse can vary to the extremes. I’ve ridden horses that jump when they see their own shadow and horses that are calm as a sloth and won’t move a muscle when a gun goes off nearby (I don’t recommend finding out for yourself). And when you do get a mellow horse, one minute you’ll be lazily plugging down the trail, the next minute, he could be belly up in the river while you’re kicking and cursing your way to shore. 

Don’t let any of this scare you because they are plenty of good horses out there. Rest assured that if you’re hunting with any sort of reputable outfitter, they have good stock. And you’ll probably get some sort of instruction before you depart on horseback. 

The first thing I do on a new horse is ride with the tips of my toes in the stirrup for an easy exit if things get hairy. Once you ride for a bit, you’ll get to know that animal. It’s like driving a manual transmission in a truck, once you get the hang of it, it’s not that hard to switch vehicles and know what you’re doing. It’s usually all easy from there. 

What makes a good mountain horse?

A good mountain horse is usually a gelding, surefooted and calm. He knows when to work and when to relax. He needs to be a good leader and listener. Blood shouldn’t scare him and he should be able to stand tied to a tree all day. 

It is also necessary to have a good herd-dominating horse to lead a mule string. Mules are less herd-oriented than horses and will back down in any equine pecking order. The benefit of this is that once a string of mules knows the ringleader they’ll stick with him. During the night, you only have to picket the horse and the mules will stick around. 

In general, if you pack mules without horses, which is rare, they’ll probably end up back at the trailhead if you don’t have them picketed. 

What to look for in a good mountain horse:

  • Large hind quarters for climbing
  • A good, thick, front chest for handling a load when coming back down
  • Long legs to navigate deadfall timber
  • A good set of withers to sufficiently hold a saddle on uneven terrain
  • All black hooves for best hardness
  • A gelding. I never kept a mare in my string. It seems they tend to fight, and bully the other horses even when tied on a pack string. 
  • An iron-tough attitude that makes a horse not give up when the going is rough
  • Mike Eastman, Elk Hunting The West-Revisited, 2003


For those that don’t know, a mule is a cross between a male donkey and female horse. The term “stubborn as a mule” is a little misleading mostly because mules won’t do what a horse will do. In short, they have a strong sense of self-preservation, so they will refrain from what they think is risky behavior. 

Have you ever heard of a messenger running his mule to death? Me neither. When they are tired, they’ll stop – it’s that simple. They’re no dummies. 

It’s not always cotton candy and lollipops with mules though. There are a few flat-out stubborn, nasty, mean mules out there but they won’t usually last long in a herd. I’ve been bitten, bucked, kicked and even had a mule that gave me “the look” after she kicked me square in the quadricep for no identifiable reason. 

Let’s not let that ruin it for the rest of the mules out there because the large majority of them I’ve seen and worked with are quite the opposite. How do you like to be treated? Treat them the kindness and respect and you’ll be on your way to being BFFs. 

Do you like standing around for hours with an uncomfortable pack on? Heck no. Do you get an appetite after a long day of work? Mules are no different. Mules can be ridden just like a horse if broken for it as well. Its not as common as horses but a good riding mule is very tough to beat all around!

Why would anyone prefer a mule over a horse?


    • Mules endure heat better than horses do. It has been proven that mules are like camels. They hold water well, and only drink what they need.
    • Mules eat less than horses do. Mules eat less than horses do and don’t required to be grained, even if they are being worked. 
    • Mules rarely have hoof problems. Mules have small, boxy feet which is part of the reason they are so surefooted. They are tough and flexible and generally not as brittle and shelly as those of a horse. 
    • Mules live longer than horses do. Most mules will last you 20 years on the trail while horses will give you slightly less. Some mules have lived up to 40 years in good conditions.
    • Mules have a strong sense of self-preservation. Simply put, a horse will jump off a cliff if you tell it to. A mule will not. Perhaps this where a mule can be seen as stubborn.
    • Mules are more surefooted. Mules have smaller, boxier feet and are more careful with how they place their feet. Fewer stumbles and falls mean less injury and more peace of mind if you’re traversing a steep sidehill.
  •           Mules have a smooth gait. Mules walk, trot and run with a smooth gait, more so than your average horse. 
  •           They can carry more weight than a horse of the same weight. A mule can carry “dead weight” up to 20% of its body weight and even more when it comes             to “live weight” like a rider, at 30% of its body weight. 

Elk Don’t Know How Many Feet a Horse Has

 If you’re a backcountry hunter that has nearly killed yourself on a pack out that was “longer-than-I-thought-it-would-be,” you’ll find out the importance of stock next time you have an elk on the ground in the backcountry. Hunting off a horse or mule on an extended backcountry hunt will improve your ability to cover more ground and keep your feet fresh. 

If you don’t mind the small hassle of the logistics of taking stock, the question becomes, “Why wouldn’t you take a couple pack animals on your next backcountry hunt?” 

Just think, a good riding horse and an even better pack mule is like hunting the backcountry off a Cadillac! 

Packing is easy nowadays. Even a city slicker can do it. 

Panniers are the most common method of packing among outfitters but pack boxes on Decker saddles are still used. Simply put, panniers are big saddlebags attached to each side of the saddle. Saddle panniers are a slick way to turn your riding horse into a pack horse in a matter of seconds.

It sounds good on paper, but getting your hands on an animal or two that’s good in the mountains may be the hardest part of the equation. Keeping horses and mules is costly and takes a lot of time and space. Then factor in about $1,500 a year per head in hay alone if you don’t have pasture, along with vet bills and a horse trailer, etc. 

For most of us, keeping stock isn’t even an option. But having friends with reliable animals is. Or rent a couple pack animals from a outfitter near your hunt area. Be careful with this, as I’ve heard horror stories about renting pack animals to nonresident hunters that turned their elk hunt into a full time rodeo. 

Do some research and find references to an outfitter with good stock. If you have zero stock experience and have no desire to learn, a drop camp may be your best option but we’ll save that for another article.

The Four-Mile Rule

I don’t hunt alone much anymore but if I do elk hunt solo more than four miles in, I’ll make arrangements ahead of time to have some stock on standby, at the minimum. Keep in mind you’ll have to be in cell service or have a communication device like SPOT to get into contact with your packer from the backcountry. 

To me, it’s not worth pounding myself into the ground packing an elk out 24 miles (three round trips) by myself and possibly hurting myself. This also seems to be the range at which you can get your animal out of the field in a timely manner and reduce risk of spoilage. 

Maybe you are jacked out of your mind from countless hours of pumping iron in the gym, but that doesn’t prepare you for packing an elk out five miles deep. If you don’t believe me, flip back a few pages (pg. 62) and take a look at “Knowing your Limits” by Scott Reekers.

“Most humans like peace and quiet and more so does the horse. Of course, carrying a heavy load isnt exactly peaceable, but if you keep it quiet, you and the horse will have more peace.” 

Joe Back – Horse, Hitches, and Rocky Trails, 1959

Hittin’ the Trail

I’m by no means an expert in pack stock and horse use and I’ve only scraped the surface of knowledge in this article. In my short time of slinging packs and riding trail in the backcountry, I’ve had the best teachers along the way and feel that horses and mules aren’t all the hassle and pain in the butt that most might think. 

There’s nothing that beats a good horse or mule and a bond can be built as strong as man and dog. To all of those who are hitting the trail this fall with stock in tow, good luck and God bless.

About Dan Pickar

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  1. Dan, overall a very good article. The one thing missing is the importance of being the herd leader. Horses when introduced to each other sizes each other up and establish a pecking order. Some do it with body language and others can use different levels of aggressiveness. You don’t have to hurt a animal to be the herd leader. You want to be the leader at the beginning. Livestock will always follow the leader and if things start to go sideways they will watch the leader. If you stay calm, it might take a few minutes but they will too. If you have seen the person that all their animals are relaxed and mind well it’s because they are the leader and their animals trust them.

    If you aren’t the leader on the ground you won’t be on their back.

    Nothing like having a good pack string.

    Happy hunting.

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