Few things are as pleasurable for me as traversing game country on a good horse. The amount of territory you can cover in silence and without tiring, the carefree relaxation of it, the enhanced view, all go toward a most satisfying and rewarding experience. Yet it seems few sportsmen today consider hunting on horseback – probably because few had the opportunity to learn to ride. I was fortunate in this way – though I never had any riding lessons.
I began when I was seven or eight; I spent my school holidays on a farm on which my uncle rode a horse named Shamrock on his daily rounds. He’d return to the farmhouse for lunch each day, and during that hour, he’d let my cousins and me ride Shamrock. Initially I just sat on the horse while my cousin led him around by the reins, but soon I was “steering” him myself. Then I would go for longer rides.
What I didn’t know, was that whenever my uncle got onto the district road on his return to the farmhouse, he would gallop the horse for that final stretch to exercise him. During one lunchtime ride, with my younger cousin Bruce following on foot, I got onto that same stretch of road, and Shamrock instinctively took off. Scared spitless, I jumped off at full gallop and hit the dirt-road tumbling, acquiring spectacular roasties and the beginnings of a lifelong neck problem. The moment I jumped off, Shamrock drew to a halt and looked back as if surprised. Our generation was taught that if you fall off a horse, you climb straight back on so as not to “lose your nerve”, so, with a leg-up from Bruce, I very shakily remounted, and with him walking alongside holding a rein, we restrained Shamrock to a walk.
In time, I gained confidence and wanted to go faster, but this would require stirrups – my legs were too short. My cousin, Alastair, some three years older and lankier than I, could slip his feet into the leather loops from which the stirrup-irons hung, but my feet didn’t reach that low. Then I had a bright idea. I had seen movies of racehorses equipped with very short stirrups, enabling the diminutive jockeys to ride on their legs alone, with their bums clear of the saddle. So I simply flipped my uncle’s stirrup leathers over the top of the saddle, leaving each stirrup-iron dangling on the opposite side, high enough for me to get my feet into them. Now I could ride crouching, bent-kneed and off the saddle. I was soon galloping the horse, and I never looked back. In the years thereafter, on the farms of friends and relatives, I rode at every opportunity, and it was only a matter of time before I was hunting on horseback.
Of course, when hunting, the horse is merely transport. You neither stalk nor shoot from horseback. On spotting game, you tether the horse to a tree or have an accomplice hold its reins while you do the stalk. Horses can be trained to remain on the spot if you dismount and drop the reins straight down in front of them – Magnum contributor Royce Buckle tells me the horses he used for hunting buffalo in Tanganyika were so trained. However, none I ever rode was; in Zimbabwe, we carried rawhide riempies wrapped around the horses’ necks for tethering (reins snap too easily). Horses are also trainable to permit shooting from the saddle, as the Boers did, but the Boers were subsistence hunters, mostly working in groups assisted by dogs to bay the game for close-range shots. Early British pioneer hunters like Baldwin and Selous took their cue from the Boers, but they were mainly ivory hunters who fired at big targets from close range. That was a different era; the hunting ethic has since evolved.
Read the full article in the September 2019 issue of Magnum