Owning stock year-round for a few weeks’ worth of hunting might not be in your budget. Then again, renting stock for a hunt may not be in your best interest, either.
More than a decade ago, my hunting buddies and I were “throwing loads” at a remote trailhead in the heart of the Greater Yellowstone Area’s elk country. We were on fire with the eagerness that always comes when you are about to head into wild country for a long hunt with a good string of stock.
As we were working out the hitches and weighing the loads, into the parking lot drove a local horse operator who leases horses to elk hunters. He unloaded a couple of nice horses and left them tied up to a hitch-rack, along with some pack and riding gear. About 15 minutes later, along came a couple of dudes.
We watched out of the corners of our eyes as they walked circles around the horses, scratching their heads and trying to figure it all out. They didn’t even know how to saddle them. Finally, we walked over and showed them a few things, helped them a bit, then we were on our way. We never saw those guys again, and honestly, I wondered what became of their hunt. I felt sorry for the animals.
Using pack stock in the mountains comes with a lot of responsibility. Sure, if you lease an animal, you don’t have to pay for its care year around. You can pay a fee and sign some papers that will commit you to paying even more if you hurt or kill that animal. But if you don’t know anything, and if the person who leases you the animal doesn’t teach you anything, you are in for a world of trouble. In fact, you may come off a bad experience swearing to never again use pack stock for elk hunting. Worse yet, you can unintentionally be inhumane to the stock, damage the backcountry, or even kill the animal that is supposed to be helping you and is entrusted to your care.
I like owning horses. I like looking out my office window at my mountain horses grazing in a springtime pasture. I like the friendship I develop with my animals and I enjoy their companionship. I appreciate knowing the “likely” tendencies of animals when I’m in tough, tall country. For me, all of this is worth the vet bills, the pickup and trailer payments, the shoeing costs, the hay I put up, and the fence repairs I do all year long. The real costs of owning stock don’t come from the purchase price, or even the vet bills, as much as they come from the costs of owning or leasing pasture and buying that expensive truck and trailer setup. Nevertheless, some of us believe those are just the costs of living the life we want to lead.
There are many reputable leasing companies operating in elk country and for the DIY elk hunter, who wants to get deeper into the backcountry, this can be a good way to get a camp in and an elk out. But again, you need to know what you’re doing. The best leasing agents will take the time to teach some of the fundamentals. Make no mistake, learning the horse game for a remote elk hunt takes a lot of time. You are way ahead if at least one of your party has been around pack stock and knows a thing or two about them instead of having a group that is totally and completely new to it. The other disadvantage to leasing—and this is a significant one—is you don’t know the animal. If I’ve been around a horse all year long, I know, generally speaking, how they may act when it comes to a backcountry experience.
But that said, the good leasing agents also know their horses, and they can’t afford to provide a horse that is not at least somewhat predictable. What’s more, they will have taken care of all of the costs of shoeing and will provide you with tack, especially on the shorter trips. If you want to go out for longer trips, even leasing a horse for several months, you’ll probably have to spend a bit more, but your cost per day goes down. For example, a leasing agent may charge $250 per horse for a four-day lease, or $450 for a 14-day trip. The longer duration keeps your daily costs down and, if you have the time and the place to keep the horse, you can lease for a longer period and spend the first part of that getting to know the horse, riding it in an arena or pasture.
A friend of mine used a leased horse to explore his interest in owning a horse. He leased a great old horse for a summer and rode often. Then he decided he liked riding so much that he wanted a horse of his own, so he bought the horse he’d been leasing. Today, he’s an avid rider who uses his horse every hunting season.
Leasing agents also will have a refundable fee, so if an unfortunate accident happens and a horse is killed or injured significantly, you may lose the kill fee—usually around $1,200 or so.
All in all, leasing is a pretty good way to go if you aren’t sure that you’d like hunting with horses, or want to learn more before jumping out and buying all of the things—not to mention the responsibilities—that come with owning an equine.
Another option is the drop camp, in which you hire an outfitter to drop you and your gear into the backcountry via horse or mule. Then they come back to get you and, hopefully, the elk that you kill. You’ll probably pay more for this service than leasing, but then again, you don’t have to deal with the stock at all. You can concentrate on hunting and enjoying the mountains with your friends, even if those friends don’t wear horseshoes. Drop camp prices vary, particularly if the outfitter is supplying camping gear and many outfitters also ask for an additional fee (around $250 or so) to pack out meat if you are successful. Moreover, they may require the meat to be at camp, meaning you’ll have to get it there from the kill site on your own. Expect to pay $1,500 to $1,800 if you use an outfitter’s drop camp (at their pre-determined location), or $750-$1,000 if you use your own gear and ask them to drop you into a site you’ve picked out for yourself.
To me the top two packing books are:
- The classic Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails by Joe Back, considered by many to be the “Bible” of horse packing and is still valid many decades after it was first published.
- Packin’ in on Mules and Horses by Smoke Elser and Bill Brown, is also a famous and well-known book with packing basics explained in photos and text.
Research the Internet too for more information on horse packing. There’s a load of information out there. Spend some time listening and take a pack trip or two with a veteran, and before long you’ll begin to soak it all in.