Hounds and Horses for Hunting Squirrels

It may have originated in the backwoods of America, but some squirrel hunters have added a blue-blooded element to this common pastime. These guys are not aristocrats, but what they do and what they get out of it is as close as you can get to an Old English fox hunt. It’s about the horses and hounds and the thrill of the chase.

Mostly, it is about the hounds, and the elements that make a good dog are as hard to pinpoint as their pedigree.

“The main thing I look for in a potential squirrel dog is alertness,” Ron Murphy said.

Murphy has been buying, trading, raising and training hounds for 40 years.

“If he’s always chasing squirrels in the backyard, that’s great. But as long as he’s always watching birds and other movement and seems alert to everything, he’ll probably make a good squirrel dog whether he’s seen a squirrel or not.”

He added that most, unless they’ve got quite a bit of hound in them, won’t bark on the trail.

“Most won’t bark unless they see a squirrel or hit a real hot trail. And you can tell by their bark if they are on a trail or have one up a tree,” Murphy says. “Like with most hunting, a good nose is important too, so sometimes a mixed breed with a lot of bird dog in him will make the best squirrel dog.”

He says the only thing he doesn’t like from a dog is shyness.

“If a dog is shy or sluggish or doesn’t want much to do with me, I don’t want much to do with him.”

Even though papers and pedigree is not as important, breeding is.

“If someone was wanting to get into hunting squirrels with a dog, I’d recommend they buy a dog from proven stock. If his parents or ancestors were known to be good squirrel dogs, he’ll probably make a good one too. I wouldn’t want a real big dog, either,” he added. “About 25 to 30 pounds is plenty big.”

The best way to train a new dog Murphy said is to run them with an experienced dog.

“It’s just experience. Take them hunting often and be patient. They’ll come along.”

Murphy has passed this passion and knowledge on to his son Kevin, who rides instead of walks and loves weaving his way through the woods on a steady steed.

“Riding a horse through the woods is like walking through the woods,” Kevin says. “You’ve got to pay attention and be careful. You never know when a horse might step in an old stump hole or trip on an old, broken-down fence. A lot of things can happen. That’s why I usually carry a first-aid kit and duct tape in my saddlebags.”

The size of horse he rides is important too, especially for clearing under any branches.

“I like a fairly small horse, about 14 hands or so. A smaller horse is also better because you have to get off and back on a lot. We’ll shoot from a horse sometimes if the squirrel is headed for a hole when we first get there. But most of the time we get off to shoot.”

It is a rugged sport, and while you may want an alert, even hyperactive dog, you want a horse with the opposite personality.

“You want a calm horse,” Kevin says, “because you don’t want him getting excited when something happens, like getting hung up in a fence or vines. That’s why we also carry wire cutters and a hatchet. Thick hair is a plus, too. Smooth, thin-skinned horses get scratched up a lot.”

He says hunting on a horse is better because you can cover a lot of land and it’s better for visuals.

“You’re up higher and can see a lot more things. And, the horse does most of the work.”

Kevin added that they average about 10 miles a day. This is not something you do in the little wood lot out back—you need a forest.

Both father and son do the bulk of their hunting on the Kentucky portion of the nearby 170,000-acre land between them and the Lake National Recreational Area. The large tracts of national forests in the southern Missouri and northern Arkansas Ozarks are ideal too.

Hunters there that I have joined prefer the mules.

“I’ve had mules,” Kevin says, “but I like saddle horses that have been gaited—Tennessee walkers or Missouri fox trotters. We don’t go very fast through the woods, but sometimes we’ll kick it up a bit when going across an old field. Sometimes we happen to end up a few miles from the trailer when it’s about time to quit. A gaited horse saves on your back, and your backside.”

Still-hunting squirrels is done mostly when the leaves are full and the nuts are ripening. People who hunt with dogs, on the other hand, usually don’t turn them loose until after the leaves fall and deer season ends. They would probably hunt right through to spring’s green up, if the laws would allow.

The action can be fast and frantic, and the excitement of the hounds primal and contagious. Squirrel hunters who use dogs, and those who ride during the thrill of the chase, are a dedicated bunch, adding intrigue and regal elements to the hunt.