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Scott: Private land best place to saddle up

February 1, 2013

One of my high school pals was a teenage horse whisperer. He used his skills — and possibly his father’s — to train two mares to be as steady to wing-and-shot as any bird dog.


This was during the Soil Bank years, when most farmers allowed the cropland the program forced out of crop production to grow up to wild sunflowers and other tall weeds. Billy’s horses were an ideal way to roust roosters out of these often multi-hundred-acre, all-but-impenetrable pheasant fortresses.


One of the mares loved the sport as much as we did. When a rooster burst out of the cover, she stood stock still until the shooting was over, and she was urged forward. Naturally, Billy rode her.


The other mare did yeoman service unless the shot charge passed what she considered to be too close to her ears, but, even then, she only managed to sidestep out from under me once or twice a day — an easy price to pay under the circumstances.


Fast-forward to about 10 years ago, when a young member of one of the conservative Amish or Mennonite denominations and I crossed paths on a gravel road south of Green Ridge. He was dressed in his faith’s traditional clothing, was astride a beautiful horse and was carrying a modern compound bow in his free hand.


Like me, he was obviously on his way to spend the evening deer hunting, but I’ll admit to being more than a little jealous of the advantage that horse gave him.


I don’t know how many saddle horses there are in Missouri, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was several hundred thousand. I’m quite sure that there are thousands of expert horsemen who also hunt, living in the state. So why don’t more people hunt from horseback?


One reason could be the decidedly cool reception horses get on public land. Even when horses are grudgingly allowed, their use is severely limited.


For example, horses are allowed on some of the properties owned or managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. The only way to find out which Conservation Areas allow horses is to go to mdc.mo.gov and click on “Conservation Lands.” Click on “detailed search” and then “horseback riding” from the list of activities. Searches can be further refined by selecting a specific county or region.


Read the area’s brochure before loading your horse trailer. In every case, you’ll find that horses are only allowed on specifically designated trails and they’re banned entirely during the deer and turkey seasons.


The latter restriction probably makes sense, given the hunting pressure on many CAs. But not allowing a horseback rider to roam freely while scouting or simply enjoying an unfettered experience at other times of the year seems a little over the top to me.


Of the roughly 200,000 acres within the Truman Project’s boundaries, horses are confined to a single equestrian campground adjacent to the Berry Bend Recreational Area.


Both the campground and its two associated riding trails are nice, but much of the project’s hinterlands simply beg to be explored on horseback.


Approximately 95 percent of Missouri’s rural acreage is privately owned. In stark contrast to the attitude our collective selves display toward the tiny minority of us who would like to ride a horse beyond the beaten path, it’s a rare private landowner who would grant permission for someone to enter his or her property to hunt or fish that would turn around and forbid that invitee to bring a horse along.


The Wildlife Code doesn’t include horses within its definition of the term vehicle, so it’s legal to hunt and to shoot while astride a horse here in Missouri.


Using extreme caution is advisable when riding a horse in the woods during the firearms deer season, even on private property.


At a minimum, I’d figure out a way to outfit my horse with blaze orange both in front of and behind the saddle, and I’d do so whether I intended to actually hunt while mounted or merely to use the horse for transportation to and from the vicinity of my stand.


Deer hunters will find horses most valuable before and after hunting season. A saddle is an unbeatable platform from which to scout deer habitat. At times, the unexpected appearance of a horse will temporarily spook deer, but a horse will never contaminate a bedding area or an otherwise perfect ambush side with human scent.


Billy rides on the other side of the river these days, but I’m sure he’d be proud that a few of you decided to carry on his legacy.