Hunting Chukars with Horses
©2012 by Pat Wray
“It will be exciting, Dad. A real adventure!”
I was overwhelmed by a sense of déjà vu when I heard those words from my son, Corky. As a younger man, I often used a similar message to talk friends into doing things that seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Many of those activities later proved to be marginally insane.
But Cork’s idea seemed relatively harmless; as he explained it, hunting chukars from horseback makes a lot of sense. “First of all, you can cover a lot more ground. Second, you can see a lot better. Finally, since we won’t be walking, we won’t get as tired.”
I attempted to visualize the end of a chukar hunt where I was still fresh and crisp but couldn’t pull it off. Experience will do that to you.
We loaded his horses into a trailer and headed out. It wasn’t until we were just short of our destination, an abandoned homestead with plenty of shade, grass and water, that I remembered a small creek bed we would have to cross. Small as it is, the creek is also steep-sided. There may be four-horse trailers that can navigate such an obstacle; Corky’s is not one of them. The goose-neck attachment apparatus would certainly have collapsed his pickup tailgate long before we came out of the creek.
So, we changed our plans and set up camp at another spot we both thought would be perfect. Instead of the steep, rocky hills that are so common in chukar country, our new campsite was surrounded by gentle, rolling, grassy hills with occasional rimrock outcroppings. It’s not a place most chukar hunters would head for, but we’ve killed a good number of birds there over the years and besides, this was more about getting used to hunting with horses (and getting the horses used to hunting with us) than about getting lots of birds. Of course, those priorities changed 300 yards into our first hunt, when Silky, my German shorthair pup, locked up solid.
Because we were not certain how the horses would react, I held the reins while Cork went in toward the dog. When the shooting started, both horses raised their heads but made no attempt to run away. Cork came back with two birds. My horse celebrated by head butting me down the hill. We remounted and headed on.
When the dogs went on point the next time it was my turn to shoot, but this time the dogs were fooled and I came back empty-handed. My horse walked off as I attempted to mount, leaving me bouncing one-footed and yelling “Whoa” across the desert.
When I finally made it into the saddle (Memo to self: next time, make sure the cinch is super tight. It’s always easier to get on when the saddle is on the horse’s back) we headed across a small mesa and down into an adjoining draw. At this point I realized that although the hills were rolling and gentle, the small creek beds between them were steep, rocky and choked with willows enough to stop a tank. They’d been easy enough to maneuver through on foot but horses found them far less fun. I dismounted and led my horse through a thin spot in the willows. He cheered our success by stepping on my foot.
Soon the dogs locked up again and this time we hobbled the horses and walked in together. The birds got up and flew uphill, toward Corky. I had no shot at all, Cork killed two more.
What, I wondered to myself, could possibly cause chukars to fly uphill without giving me a shot? I am magnanimous by nature, so I certainly didn’t have any negative feelings about my son filling his bag while I wrestled my horse across the hills. I was just wondering. Hardly seething at all.
The good news was that I powered up and into the saddle like a professional. The bad news was that before I could get my right foot into the stirrup my horse gave himself a full body shake that loosened my teeth and skittered me across the saddle like a water droplet on a red hot skillet.
We spent an hour or more on the horses before we found our next covey. By that time I’d become somewhat obsessed with the condition of my rear end, which was, too say the least, tender in the extreme. I practically howled with relief when the dogs went on point again, simply because it meant I could dismount.
Unfortunately, I had focused so much on my rear that I’d neglected warning signals coming from my knees. While riding along with my legs astride the horse my knees had gradually become more and more misaligned. By the time my feet hit the ground my legs didn’t fit together right and my ability to stand upright had been severely compromised. Next to me, Quasimodo looked like Tim Tebow. I pulled my shotgun from the scabbard and hobbled over toward the dogs. Cork was already there waiting. The birds got up and amazingly, they all flew toward him again, leaving me with no shot. He killed two more. Luckily a late launcher got up and flew directly away, providing me what should have been an easy shot. Then Silky bounded up between us, putting herself between me and the chukar. I couldn’t pull the trigger.
When I grumbled my way back to the horse he gave me another friendly head butt. I responded with a not-so-friendly right cross to his head. Memo to self: unless you have a part on the movie classic Blazing Saddles, hitting a horse with your fist is never a good deal for the fist. After a few moments spent wrestling with the self-destructive desire to hit him with my other hand I made my way back into the saddle and headed back to camp.
Just before we arrived Corky’s dog slammed into a perfect point. Corky graciously allowed me to take the shot, but I was standing on legs that felt like toothpicks held end to end, thinking about just how blistered my rear was, nursing a right hand that felt broken and limping on a sore foot, so when the bird got up, I just plain missed.
But at least I wasn’t tired.