A hunter's wife insisted on going along one hunting season despite her husband's misgivings at her lack of experience. "I'll be fine!" she snapped impatiently, "I can hunt as good as you can!" So he takes her to the woods and sets her on a deer stand some distance from his. He no more than sits down when he hears a shot from her direction. He goes back to where he left her and as he approaches he sees his wife arguing with a man. "It's my deer!" she insists. "No it's not!" he insists. They go back and forth, it is, it isn't, and the woman is getting more and more insistent that it's her deer. Finally the guy throws his hands up in the air and says, "Okay, it's your deer. Just help me get my saddle off it."
This old joke illustrates a serious situation. Fall is the time of the year when hunters and horses often take to the woods at the same time. The news media tends to focus on the dangers posed by hunters to themselves and other people who use the woods with them. Hardly a season goes by without accounts of hunting accidents. Every year, we hear of farmers who lose livestock senselessly to hunters. The news media has done an excellent job of spreading the bad news because the usual reply to a fall woods trail ride invite is a quick "What about the hunters?"
When we look at the situation objectively and consider the number of hunters that take to the woods in any given season and compare that to the accidents that occur, we find that as a rule, hunters are as safe a group as most. In Michigan, my home state and a mecca for deer hunters 1/4 of the year, approximately 800,000 hunters buy hunting licenses. During the years I was an avid hunter, if memory serves me correctly, the number of accidents (not necessarily fatal but serious enough for news coverage) averaged about 17. This works out to about 1 in 47,000 which is better odds than you'll get working at a Speedy In-Out Mart next to an expressway in Anytown USA.
The bad reputations of hunters in general are caused by the actions of a few. Just as there are those who drive cars or ride horses carelessly, there are those who hunt carelessly with no regard to safety. They are the ones who'll combine alcohol with guns, just like those who combine alcohol with motor vehicles. They are the ones who say things like, "Didn't see anything, but I got two sound shots!". The results of these and similar actions by an irresponsible few are called accidents, when in reality they should be called intendents.
There are also those who see deer when actually they're looking at something else. If you want to see something bad enough you'll see it, and the intense desire to have a successful hunt makes a few hunters mistake other things for deer. A flash of white, a patch of brown, an arrangement of sticks, clumps of grass, and practically everything else have been mistaken for deer at times. Most hunters are aware of this "buck fever" phenomenon and will take care to be sure their target is what they think it is.
Now we come down to the basic question, would I ride my Chestnut, Palomino, or Buckskin horse in the woods during deer season?
Yes. But only after taking every precaution to prevent my horse (and myself) from being mistaken for game. Common sense tells me not to ride any color horse, like a Buckskin or Palomino, through an area where there are hunters behind every tree or where gunfire tells me there are hunters. Deer hunters can be found almost anywhere deer are found. Many deer are harvested in residential areas. During the fall of the year, unless you want to give up trail riding till spring, you may come across hunters on your favorite trail. Besides exercising regular good sense, there are a number of things that can be done to minimize the danger.
First and foremost, make your horse look as un-deerlike as possible by making him as visible as you can. Hunter's Orange has been shown to have the highest degree of visibility under the widest range of conditions. Some states actually go so far as to require hunters to wear this color. Get as much fluorescent hunter's orange on him as you can. At a distance, through brush and branches, horse ears can easily be mistaken for deer ears so get the orange as close to them as you can. Do that by heavily decorating your tack by tying orange ribbons to it. Hang the ribbons from every place you can find, browband, curb, stirrups. You can even braid orange ribbons through the mane and tail. You can convert a pair of orange colored fabric dog leashes for hunting season trail riding reins. If your horse resembles an orange colored clown, so much the better.
Make your horse sound as un-deerlike as possible. The reason farmers, wranglers, and other herders use bells on their animals is to make it easier to locate their stock. Sleigh bells serve to tell the sleigh's location to other sleighers in low visibility snow swirls. Hang a few bells from your horse. Bells on the stirrups, hanging from your cinch, horse's tail, bit shanks, or reins turn all the horses movements into tinkling, presence announcing, tones. Even the most inexperienced hunters know deer don't wear bells. Also, you'll want to talk to your horse, to the trees, your riding companions or even yourself. The human voice carries surprisingly well in the woods. After all, even the most inexperienced hunters know deer don't talk human.
Make your horse travel as un-deerlike as possible. Keep to the open as much as possible, if you have a choice between moving through a clump of brush or through an open area off the trail, choose the open area. Choose the harder packed and leafier portions of the trail instead of the cleaner softer portions. The resulting noise is greater, and since horses walk different than deer, their noise patterns differ, and the message you're spreading through the woods is "I'm too noisy to be a deer!"
The only deer habit you want to adopt is that of looking. Be on the lookout for things that don't belong in nature or are out of place. Locating these things will help you spot where hunters are waiting. Look for straight lines while riding, straight lines are not common in nature, these could be rifle barrels. Watch for metallic glints or other shiny spots, smoke from cigarettes, vapor from coffee cups and warm breath on cold days, anything that can betray a hunter's location. Don't depend on the fact that hunters may be required to wear orange to tell you where they are. The law may say they have to wear it, but they don't have to stay in plain sight while they're doing it.
Adopting a few hunting season trail riding tactics will go a long way toward insuring your fall trail riding safety and enjoyment.
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