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Firearms on the Trail

Are you prepared if someone tries to attack you?

Guns on the Trail
By Scot Hansen 

One of the most common questions I hear from people while traveling around the country is, “How they can I protect myself when I’m out trail riding?” In almost every instance, given my background in law enforcement, the conversation eventually turns to the issue of firearms.

Men, more often than women, typically tell me that they would use a firearm and will emphatically state that they would shoot anyone who became a danger to them. However, many women also feel this way. Ironically, many of those women haven’t spent much time practicing with a firearm – and the same is often true for the men. In many instances, they only fired the weapon a few times when they initially purchased it, and most people seldom continue to practice on a regular basis.

What does practice entail? If you’re new to firearms and you didn’t practice at least twice a week for the first ten weeks of ownership, shooting a minimum of 50 rounds per practice, then you haven’t really practiced. If you’re a seasoned veteran of firearm ownership and shooting and you don’t practice at least every other month, firing between 50 and 100 rounds, then you haven’t practiced enough to be effective in an emergency situation. 

If you don’t practice regularly, then chances are in an emergency situation you will fumble slightly or be slow at the draw, fail to point the weapon correctly, have poor trigger control, fail to line up your sights, and fail to count your shots so that you don’t empty the gun unnecessarily. This is only the beginning of what it means to carry a firearm as a defensive weapon. 

This article isn’t designed to teach you how to practice with a firearm, only to make you aware of some of the truths to owning, practicing, carrying, and using a firearm. Practicing is the least of your worries at this point. First, you need to read further and decide if you even want to rely on using a firearm for self-defense while you’re riding.

Without even discussing the various “concealed carry laws” in each state (which, by the way, vary wildly), we need to discuss some of the “what ifs” of using a firearm on the trail.

The first major “what if”: when someone approaches you on the trail and simply asks to pet your horse, are you going to un-holster your firearm “just in case” they do something? Probably not. Yet walking up to you and asking to pet your horse is the simplest way for a human predator to get close to you. 

Do you really think that the person about to attack you is going to tell you what they’re planning so that you can be ready? Of course they’re not going to do that. What they’ll do instead is try to get close to you by being friendly or charming. Ted Bundy’s victims didn’t think of him as being dangerous, or odd, or aggressive, and certainly not a killer.

At this point all you have is someone asking to pet your horse and you don’t know if they’re dangerous. In this situation, if you draw and point your firearm at the person, you would be in violation of the law in most states.

Perhaps you would wait a moment longer, but would inch your hand towards your firearm, which is in its holster under your jacket. Suddenly the attacker grabs your reins and jerks on your horse. The horse shies from the sudden attack, and you try to get your gun out. 

Will you be able to draw your firearm while they’re grabbing at you, and while your horse is anxiously moving about? Will you clear the holster without snagging your jacket? Can you control your horse with one hand on the reins and the other on your weapon? As the attacker tries to get hold of you and you lean away from his reach, will you be shoved off your horse? 

If you were able to draw the firearm, can you get it on target while your horse is moving? Even if you can get it on target, can you legally shoot the attacker at this point? Do you know for certain that you can? Do you really know for certain, or would you just think that you could? It might depend on the specifics of the situation and the state in which you’re riding.

For this scenario, let’s assume that you can legally shoot this attacker (this is not to say that in your state you actually could nor is this legal advice in any manner to suggest that you could). But if you could, I have a few more questions for you. During all of the commotion, do you think that he’s just going to stand in one spot while all this happens? Of course not. In fact the attacker, you, and your horse will probably be all over the trail.

What if the attacker gets slightly behind your left leg trying to pull you from your horse? If you’re right handed, in order to shoot him you’ll have to reach across your horse and your own body to shoot him. This will be a difficult shot even though he’s close. Remember you, your horse, and the attacker are still moving, and you’re trying to control your horse and stay balanced in the saddle all at the same time. You think you’re in position to shoot and you do. But the attacker doesn’t fall. Now what? Shoot again?

How well did you train your horse to accept gun fire from his back before this encounter? Did you know that of those who say, “I pack a gun and would shoot,” less than 1% have actually shot a firearm while mounted on their horse more than once or twice. Of those who have, when asked if they practice regularly, they tell me, “No”. And no one has told me that they do it while their horse is spinning or rearing or going sideways. At best they shot off their horse while standing quietly.

Let’s hope that the horse doesn’t begin to buck or rear at the first shot. If he does, how well can you ride your horse while you’re holding onto your gun with one hand and your reins with the other?

What about the attacker? Let’s say you actually DID hit him with your first shot, but did you know that there’s a good chance he won’t fall down like they do in the movies? Your gun won’t “blow him off his feet” and send him flying into the bushes. Was your first shot even lethal? Maybe -- maybe not. 

In the meantime, with your horse rearing or bucking, did you lose your grip on the firearm? Does the attacker now have it? When you shot the attacker the first time, did the bullet go through him and into your horse? Did it go through the attacker and ricochet off the ground kicking stones and dirt under your horse’s belly or into his legs?

Wow, lots to think about, huh?

To make it easier on you, let’s say that you hit the attacker, he went down, your horse only spun a little bit, you hung on, and everything looks great. You’re still in the saddle, and the bad guy’s on the ground. Now what? What are your responsibilities? Can you just leave him there and ride away? Do you need to summon help? He’s obviously only wounded, now what? Do you let him get away, try to restrain him, shoot him as he flees?

At this point in the conversation, someone will inevitably say something along the lines of, “Make sure you kill him.” Do you know that if you shoot and wound the attacker and he stops his attack and you then shoot him again, you could be tried for murder? Why? Because the law allows you to defend yourself, and when the attack is over and you can get away or the attacker is incapacitated, you’re no longer in eminent danger. To shoot him again could be a serious mistake. What does your state law say about it? Do you know?

In most states, you can still shoot a fleeing felon, but if he isn’t fleeing then you don’t get to shoot him again for good measure. I can hear someone say, “No one’s going to know. I’d shoot him anyway.” That’s all well and good – but YOU will know. Can you live with the fact that you killed someone after you didn’t need to? More importantly, how do you know that no one saw it? Could there be someone else further up the trail that saw it from a distance? What if they come into view just as you’re taking your second unnecessary shot? 

Again for the sake of argument, we’ll say that everything went as well as it could, and for all practical purposes it appears that you had the right to shoot, and that the attacker was a repeat offender and that the prosecutor in your district or city isn’t going to file charges. Are you prepared for the possible civil lawsuit that will come from the attacker’s family?

When someone suggested you pack a gun, did you think about all of these issues? Did you discuss it with them? Did you ask questions? What’s their experience? Why should you rely on their advice?

As a former law enforcement officer with over 20 years of experience, including riding the streets in uniform, I can tell you that this is just the beginning of this discussion. It’s just the start of the questions you need to ask yourself. While carrying a firearm is a right in our country, it carries with it an incredible responsibility. I don’t believe it is my place to tell you what to do, but I do think it’s my responsibility to help you understand the issues.  

Because a firearm isn’t always the best choice for everyone, I created an instructional video called “Self Defense For Trail Riders,” a non-lethal answer to surviving an attack on the trail. You can see a snippet of it at my website www.HorseThink.com  and you can read a review in the June 2004 issue of Western Horseman (pg 183).

Safe Rides.

Scot Hansen 
Copyright 2004 

Scot’s bio information:

Scot is a natural horseman and retired mounted police officer, having trained both riders and horses to work the streets. His award-winning “Self Defense for Trail Riders” clinics and training video have been widely accepted as the principal resource for safe trail riding and self protection. He has extensive knowledge of how horses think and learn and offers professional training and clinics in “Thinking Horsemanship” and other topics for both adult riders and youths. Find out more about Scot and his work at www.HorseThink.com . To inquire about hosting a clinic in your area, call 425-830-6260.

Copyright 2004 HorseThink™ and Scot Hansen 
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