Leonardo DiCaprio is competing for an Oscar for his performance in “The Revenant,” in which he portrays a left-for-dead fur trapper who, among other feats of survival, climbs inside a still-warm horse carcass to keep from freezing during a snowstorm.
If you’re wondering whether the carcass-as-tent technique would work in real life, let us introduce you to Richard Dailey, 68, who is very likely one of the few Americans who has sheltered inside a horse.
“They got the feeling of it right,” Dailey said of “The Revenant.”
Dailey’s story – of an Idaho deer hunt gone awry – appeared in newspapers shortly after it happened in 1983. He later told it in a self-published memoir recounting his capers as a vagabond hippie, backcountry adventurer, father, boat builder, amateur cowboy, Forest Service surveyor, horseshoer and firefighter. It’s a book with lots of sentences that end in exclamation points (some of which we’ve used here as sub-headlines) and tales long on optimism, if not always preparation.
Animalia tracked Dailey down at his home in Gresham, Ore., where his adventures have been slowed by Parkinson’s disease, to hear just how he ended up in a carcass.
‘It should be a good day to hunt!’
Dailey was a 35-year-old firefighter who loved exploring the wilderness near his home in Caldwell, Idaho, on foot, skis and horseback. In late November 1983, as winter loomed, he decided to spend several days hunting on Cuddy Mountain, near the Oregon border.
It’s the kind of Western country with places called No Business Canyon and Starveout Ranch, where, Dailey says by way of foreshadowing, “an old lady who lived back in there used to say: ‘I love this country. With a horse, you can go just around anywhere. Of course, you gotta know where the brush patches and the cliffs are.’ And that was no joke.”
Dailey took his gray Appaloosa, She’s A’Bligin’. He also took his neighbor, Steven McCoy, who borrowed a horse for the trip. McCoy – who could not be reached for this article – had been hunting before, but not for days on end, Dailey said.
“This was the first and last for him,” Dailey said. (Again, foreshadowing.)
On the third day, “big, butterfly flakes” of snow began to fall, Dailey wrote. The next day, McCoy shot an enormous four-point buck and, shortly after that, a second deer. That’s when things started to go south.
They loaded the deer onto She’s A’Bligin’, who, in this moment, was not obliging. She buckled under the weight, and her saddle broke as she fell.
“So I had a 300-pound deer and a broken saddle. And another deer almost that big,” Dailey said.
But they didn’t want to leave the deer. So Dailey made a plan: They would head back to a friend’s ranch with the horses and the smaller deer, borrow a saddle, then go to their campsite, where Dailey’s truck was parked. Then they’d drive around the back of the mountain, where the trek down to the remaining deer would be shorter.
‘Then darkness fell!’
The snow was much deeper on the other side, and when they set out at dawn, fierce winds were gusting. But, Dailey wrote: “With typical Richard Dailey optimism, [I thought]: Oh, it’ll be alright.”
They were not particularly well-attired. Dailey wore a leaky Gore-Tex parka, wool pants and long johns. McCoy had on jeans, long johns and a poncho that soon was shredded by the wind. On the descent, the wind turned to sleet, then rain. They were soaked.
As they rode back up the steep trail with the deer, the rain again became sleet, and Dailey noticed that he was not getting warm despite the effort. At the top of the mountain, dusk was falling, and snow had blown over the tracks to Dailey’s truck.
Then it got dark. And they got lost. And they’d stopped shivering – a sign of hypothermia.
‘Now we were in trouble!’
“Things were really bad,” Dailey said. “So I decided we needed to change our goal. Instead of trying to get to the truck that night, we needed to hunker down and build a fire.”
Dailey had matches, fuel and some kindling. But the wind kept blowing out his attempts to build a fire. The snow was too shallow to build a snow fort.
“We needed a source of heat or we were going to die,” he said.
By then, it was about 10 p.m. That’s when McCoy brought up the Tauntaun scene in “The Empire Strikes Back.”
“So I decided we needed to do the horses,” Dailey said. “I had him pull the trigger because I couldn’t.”
And now they had their carcasses.
‘What a fantastic feeling!’
Lest you think gutting a horse under such circumstances would be revolting, Dailey recalls it as almost euphoric.
“Its guts came out all over your hands and wrists,” he said. “You can’t imagine how good it felt. It immediately warmed you up.”
They’d hoped to shelter together inside one horse but found that was “not doable” – Dailey said he “used to be 5-10,” and he couldn’t even fit his legs inside the rib cage.
“Initially, it was wonderful. It was so warm. It just immediately reversed our hypothermia,” he said. But soon “it got claustrophobic and grotesque.” Not to mention uncomfortable: Every couple of hours, Dailey said, he’d panic and jump out, then start shivering again and “dive right back in.”
By 5 a.m., the carcasses had cooled, but the men felt well enough to resume their hike in the dawning light. Eventually, they found Dailey’s truck.
‘I would be tarred and feathered!’
That, however, is not the end of the story. When word got out about how the men had found shelter, people sent outraged letters to local papers and to Dailey’s house. Some deemed it a publicity stunt. The proprietor of a restaurant in the town of Council, near the mountain, placed a statuette of a horse on a table and labeled it “Flatlander’s Sleeping Bag.”
“That’s the most terrible thing I ever heard of, yes sir,” one resident told the Associated Press.
Others sympathized, Dailey said, including the local sheriff and, according to the Associated Press story, a local representative of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who said she “wouldn’t raise any heck” with men who found themselves in a life-or-death situation.
Dailey devoted an entire chapter of his memoir – titled “Sailing on Edge! Or Jump, Jump on the High Side!” — to the controversy. But he said he has no regrets. He’s not sure about McCoy, who he said moved away shortly after and was far more shaken by the incident.
“I got a lot of second-guessing,” said Dailey, who today has two horses. “But I always came to the same conclusion that if we hadn’t have sacrificed those horses, we would not be alive.”
Silvana Dailey, Richard Dailey’s wife, said he later took her to see the dead horses’ bones – another trip laden with misadventures.
“Everything to Richard is, ‘Gee, this is a lot farther than I remembered,’ ” she said.
Both give “The Revenant” high marks. They found just one thing odd: DiCaprio stripped down before getting inside his horse (perhaps, one expert told Slate, to keep his clothes dry).
“We couldn’t understand,” Silvana Dailey said, “why he got naked.”