Elk hunting with pack animals: Part II
Written by M.D. Johnson
Montana big game guide Robert Albers uses his personal pack animals to ride in during elk hunts. There’s plenty to know about stock before you take them out on a September quest for a big bull.
To me, uneducated in the equine ways as I am, a horse is a horse is … well … a horse. Substitute the word mule for horse, and the same mantra applies. But something tells me I’m mistaken here — that not just any animal can be a pack animal.
Training and caring for pack animals
“Currently, I’m running six quarter horses,” Albers said. “We ride all winter long, weather permitting, and then I’ll start cowboying with these horses around April, just to keep them conditioned. Get some bucks out of ’em before we go to the backcountry and have ourselves a wreck.”
Vaccinations. Shoeing. Overall maintenance and hands-on care. It all goes into the equine equation, Albers explained. Conditioning a horse (or mule) prior to taking that animal into the backcountry isn’t so different from humans getting physically prepared for a hunt.
“We get out and start riding these horses around. It’s just like us (humans). We need to work out and get into shape. I mean, if you sit around for eight months, you’re going to be out of shape and sore and a little bit winded. So,” Albers went on, “we work with the horses. Ride them. With the younger horses, we’ll work with them on packs and such.”
Curious, I was, about the age of Albers’ horses. Young? Old?
“The youngest we’re running now is 7,” he said. “Gus is, I believe, 17 or 18 years old now. Is that getting up there for a packhorse? Not really. You can work them up to 20 or so, but Gus is getting up there.”
Riding pack animals to camp for an elk hunt
I asked Albers to take us through a typical hunting day — if there is any such thing as a typical day afield when you mix elk and horses! — among his pack animals. Step by step, he explained the ways his guided hunts begin.
- “We’re getting everybody brushed out,” Albers said. Here, I assume he means the horses, and not his clients. “We’re getting the animals fed and watered. Saddled and trailered.”
- “Next, we’re making sure all the pack loads are weighing out right. We want them to be even. If you have [more] weight on one side of these animals, they’re all off-balance.”
- “Going through gear once we get to the trailhead. We want to make sure everybody has what they need. That nothing’s broken and we’re good to ride. Pack loads are ready and even.”
- “Maybe it’s two, maybe it’s four hours up the trail,” he said. “Once we get into camp, we get everyone unloaded, water the horses immediately, and then graze the animals. We graze our horses,” he explained. “We don’t pack feed in, unless we have to.”
- Then, Albers said, it’s a matter of setting up camp, settling in, watching the sunset, and discussing logistics for the next day’s hunt.
Blending in on horseback?
One thing I wanted to ask Albers before we parted ways was something — a myth, perhaps — I’d heard years ago: that elk, like deer, pay absolutely no attention to a man on horseback. True? False?
“There are times,” Albers began, “well … it’s both. There are times when you’re riding in the dark. You ride right through a herd of elk, and they pay no attention to you. They might get on edge, but you can ride right into them.”
Still, Albers went on to caution, no backcountry elk hunter worth their salt would camp in the midst of the same animals they’re hoping to hunt.
“If you camp where they live,” he laughed, “they’re out of there.”
Look for more elk hunting tactics and strategies with Robert Albers in upcoming posts on the Slayer Calls blog.