Other Riding Tips

5 Best Horse Breeds for Rugged Mountain Hunting

hunting horses tied to trees

Backcountry hunting requires a physically and mentally tough equine partner

If you’re looking for a new hunting partner, it can be difficult to know where to start. After all, many breeders will tell you that their horses are suitable for everything. That said though, there are some breeds that, whether due to natural breeding or via purposefully selecting horses for their qualities, tick every box. Which is what this article’s about, really.

Whether you’re looking for your first mountain hunting horse, or have already had a long line of hunting horses, we’ve got the best (and of course) most suitable breeds:

  • American Quarter Horse
  • Mustang
  • Rocky Mountain Horse
  • Highland Pony
  • Mule

Disclaimer: All horses are different and while a particular breed may be suited to mountain hunting, an individual horse may not be, regardless of its breeding.

Qualities of a good hunting horse

To some extent, any horse can be trained to do anything, but when it comes to mountain hunting, you need a horse with certain qualities. It goes without saying that a horse should be sure footed and able to deal with a variety of different terrains, but a good mountain hunter also should be unfazed by sudden loud noises, not mind the smell (or sight) of blood, and be able to carry heavy loads.

If you’re an inexperienced rider then your chosen mount should, ideally, be sensible enough to understand that you’re still learning and be able to compensate appropriately.

Best breeds for mountain hunting

American Quarter Horse

You’ll find the Quarter Horse on most ‘best breed’ lists in part because of its popularity, but mainly because they’re such good horses that will excel in most disciplines, especially those requiring a working horse that is able to think on the spot.

Chief Rookie Aside: My AQHA gelding, Monkey, has been borrowed-back several times by his trainer/prior owner to pack out hunting carcasses.

hunting horse

A good hunting horse is worth its weight in gold!

Originally bred by English settlers in the seventeenth century, they were used as everyday horses, but were also raced over the wooden tracks along the unpaved village streets. These streets were generally a quarter of a mile long which is where the Quarter Horse gets its name.

You might be interested in a Quarter Horse if you:

  • Want a horse that won’t spook around livestock: The Quarter Horse is the equine equivalent of a sheepdog, they have natural cow sense and will happily round cattle up on their own.
  • Want a horse with plenty of stamina: The Quarter Horse is excellent at conserving energy, but when you need it will spring into life and have a seemingly endless amount of power.
  • Want a horse that can do anything: While the Quarter Horse is best known as a working cow horse, there’s nothing they can’t do: from working cattle to show jumping, and from endurance to dressage, the Quarter Horse can do it all.

Hold your horses:

Quarter Horses are known to suffer from a few genetic conditions such as PSSM (polysaccharide storage myopathy) and malignant hyperthermia that can cause muscle weakness and abnormalities. As a result, it’s important to check they’re not carrying any of these genetic markers before acquiring one.

Eager to learn more? Visit the American Quarter Horse Association

Mustang

Taking its name from a corruption of the Spanish word ‘mustengo’ which means ‘stray horse’, many horses still run freely across 34 million acres of land, mainly in the Western United States. Many people think of the mustang as a wild horse, but because they’re descended from horses that were once domesticated, they are in fact feral.

Originally from Spanish and Iberian horses, many other breeds have influenced the Mustang over the centuries which is one of the reasons why they’re so good for mountain hunting. Not only have they inherited the best characteristics from other breeds, but they’ve also evolved to survive on their instincts.

You might be interested in a Mustang if you:

  • Want a horse that knows the land: Many Mustangs have grown up roaming free which means they’re better adapted than any other breed to the rough mountainous terrain.
  • Want a horse with endurance: The Mustang is known for its phenomenal endurance as well as its ability to stay alert at all times, especially when it’s tired.
  • Want a conversation starter: While Mustang ownership is becoming more and more common, they’re often a good talking point with many people.

Hold your horses:

You can’t just walk up to the nearest free-roaming Mustang and claim it for yourself. While you can buy a Mustang from a private trainer, all feral Mustangs are sold (or adopted) through the Bureau of Land Management. In order to do this though, you have to meet certain criteria and pay a small fee.

Eager to learn more? Visit the North American Mustang Association and Registry

Rocky Mountain Horse

With the word ‘mountain’ in their name, who could argue with the Rocky Mountain Horse’s ability as a backcountry hunter? A relatively new breed having only been registered since the mid 1980’s, the Rocky Mountain Horse is descended from a Kentucky bred horse known as ‘Old Tobe.’ Despite being considered a young breed, the Rocky Mountain Horse’s popularity is growing quickly and they’re steadily becoming a popular choice for many.

Like so many other breeds that are perfectly suited to mountain hunting, the Rocky Mountain Horse has a great deal of stamina and is extremely sure footed over the roughest of terrain.

You might be interested in a Rocky Mountain Horse if you:

  • Like gaited horses: While some people might argue that gaited horses aren’t suitable for hunting, the Rocky Mountain Horse will definitely prove them wrong. Their four-beat ambling gait makes them extremely comfortable to ride all day.
  • Want a horse that’s good with children: Known for their gentleness, the Rocky Mountain Horse is so calm it can easily be handled by children.
  • Want a do anything horse: Originally bred to carry people over rough, uneven terrain, the Rocky Mountain Horse is widely used to work cattle and pull buggies in and around the Appalachians.

Hold your horses:

While the Rocky Mountain Horse is generally a very good all-round horse they are prone to a number of health issues such as malignant hyperthermia and HYPP (or hyperkalemic periodic paralysis).

Eager to learn more? Visit the Rocky Mountain Horse Association

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Highland Pony

Native to the Highlands of Scotland, these hardy ponies are ideally suited to the most uneven and rocky of terrains, having descended from ponies that lived in such an environment around 2.6 million years ago. Don’t let their 14.2hh height deceive you though, the Highland Pony is far stronger than you might think. They’re capable of happily carrying an adult all day long without tiring.

When out hunting, you want a horse (or pony) that won’t be startled by the gun which is one of the reasons why the Highland Pony is so good. For centuries they were used as war horses and were commonplace on many battlefields, most notably in the First World War.

You might be interested in a Highland Pony if you:

  • Want a pony that was born for mountain hunting: The Highland Pony has a long history with deer stalking, they’re surefooted, have a calm nature, and can easily carry a fully grown man over the rough, uneven Scottish hills.
  • Want a horse with a royal connection: Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain is a massive fan of the Highland Pony and even has her own stud at Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
  • Want a breed with history: Not only has the Highland Pony been influenced by a number of ancient breeds such as the Arabian and the Norwegian Fjord over the years, but its own history can trace back to ponies that were living in Europe during the last Ice Age.

Hold your horses:

If you’re interested in owning a Highland Pony it’s important to check their confirmation, some ponies suffer from stifle problems that can cause joint issues.

Eager to learn more? Visit the Highland Pony Enthusiasts Club of America

Mule

The mule is often overlooked as a mount for backcountry riding, but they are far more suitable than you might think. Wrongly said to be stupid and stubborn, they’re not only highly intelligent (thought to be more so than both horses and donkeys), but are also very hardworking. Capable of carrying a huge amount of weight over challenging terrain, the mule is actually a lot more capable than many horse or pony breeds.

Even today there are many parts of the world where mules are still regularly used in place of vehicles due to their ability to cover the most unstable of terrain. If you don’t want to ride a mule why not take one with you to carry your catch?

You might be interested in a Mule if you:

  • Want a dependable mount: The mule was originally bred to carry people and their luggage over rocky and uneven ground so mountain hunting is their bread and butter.
  • Want a strong horse: You might think that a mule looks like it can’t carry much, but don’t let that fool you–they can carry around 20% of their bodyweight!
  • Want a ride that’s great with children: As a rule, mules have gentle temperaments and can easily be handled by the youngest of children.

Hold your horses:

If you’re looking to breed from your mountain hunter, then a mule isn’t for you. Why? Since their chromosomes don’t match up, they’re unable to have offspring.

Eager to learn more? Visit the American Mule Association

Frequently Asked Questions

Do horses affect deer hunting?

Hunting deer from horseback is often much easier than hunting on foot because many prey animals see the horse as another prey animal and don’t consider the rider. This means that you’re able to get much closer to the deer than you could do otherwise.

Can a horse carry a deer?

If a deer is placed on the horse correctly, so that the weight is even distributed over the shoulders, then most horses won’t have any trouble packing out a deer. Horses can also drag dead deer from the woods, if trained to do so.

In Great Britain, the Queen has a herd of Highland Ponies that have saddles designed especially to carry deer.

horse dragging deer

Horses can be trained to drag carcasses too

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What are safety hints for hunting on horseback?

If you’re new to hunting with horses, be aware that you’re combining two high-risk activities into one. It’s important to follow all of your hunting safety protocols, plus these horse-related tips:

  • Take an experienced horse handler with you, like an outfitting guide.
  • Ensure horses are trained and comfortable with packing, gunshots, and the smell of dead animals prior to your trip.
  • Move carefully — but with intention — around the horses. Avoid standing in “kick range” of the back legs.
  • Provide horses with frequently breaks, both for rest and water.
  • Always be aware of the footing you’re asking your horse to traverse.
  • Know how to tie horses correctly. If you’re not sure, grab a set of Corral Cards.
corral cards horse knots

Click to see them at Amazon

How do you train a horse to carry a hunter?

Horses don’t know whether the person riding them is a hunter or not.

It is critical, however, that your horse is able to safely carry the weight. Many hunters are on the heftier side, and carrying additional equipment only adds to the load (unless you have separate packing horses or mules).

Learn about the best horse breeds for larger riders

What to wear hunting in the mountains?

Always check with your outfitting company (if used) to ensure you have everything they recommend for your specific excursion. In general, though, here is a basic list of gear you may wish to pack for a hunting trip:

HUNTING CLOTHING & GEAR

  • Hunting parka and pants/bibs (wool, fleece or other high-tech, water repellent material)
  • Orange vest
  • Heavyweight fleece/wool hat
  • Early season hunts – lightweight baseball, safari-style or cowboy hat
  • Late season hunts – face mask and/or scarf/neck gator
  • Lightweight jacket, heavyweight shirt and/or vest (fleece recommended)
  • Long underwear tops and bottoms (not cotton)
  • Underwear
  • Campsite change of clothes / sleepwear
  • Wool socks for each day
  • Waterproof gloves
  • Heavyweight, waterproof, insulated hunting boots
danner hunting boots

Click to shop Danner boots at Amazon

ADDITIONAL ITEMS

PERSONAL ITEMS

  • Toothbrush/toothpaste
  • Deodorant
  • Shampoo
  • Comb
  • Razor/shaving cream
  • Lip balm
  • Sunscreen
  • Medication
  • Sun glasses

Parting Thoughts

Having the right horse for the task-at-hand is sometimes a mountainous task — especially when hunting in the mountains. Choosing a breed known for strength and endurance will reward the rider with a truly successful adventure — right down to bringing home the proof.

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About the author

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Lucy @ Horse Factbook

Since learning to ride at the age of five, Lucy has owned dozens of horses and ponies (and a few donkeys). She has also run a successful riding school, teaching both English and Western. Visit horsefactbook.com to read more from Lucy.