Protecting Your Horse Property from Wildlife Predators

Predators such as bears, cougars, wolves, and coyotes can pose threats to horses and other farm animals. Learn how to protect your animals and prevent attacks on your farm.
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Cougars can have a territorial range of about 120 to 150 square miles—a little less for females. | Getty Images

In many areas of North America, horses and wildlife coexist, often peacefully, but farm owners should be aware of the potential dangers that wildlife can pose to their animals. Some types of wildlife can transmit diseases to horses, while others might attack while looking for their next meal. Individuals managing horse farms should know what wildlife is present in their areas and make a plan to keep their animals safe.

Patricia Cosgrove owns a farmette near Seattle, Washington, where she houses two equids, along with dogs, cats, chickens, goats, and sheep. After what was likely a cougar attacked and killed one lamb and injured two others, Cosgrove wanted to protect her animals from future attacks.

“In Western Washington we have a beautiful landscape which includes a lot of hobby farmers with sheep, goats, chickens, and horses. And all this does overlap with carnivore habitat,” says Kevin O’Connor, a Washington State Wildlife Conflict Specialist for King and Snohomish Counties, the most densely populated areas of the state.

Understanding Wildlife Predators

“Patricia has planted a lot of native plant species that are good habitat for birds and small wildlife,” says O’Connor. “Unfortunately, it’s also a great cover for larger predators. They were likely attracted to her place by the habitat.”

In areas where humans live side by side with predators, we need to consider the potential attractants (meant to bring in one animal but attracting another) we make available to predators, says O’Connor. “If you put a bird feeder out to attract birds, it can also attract a bobcat which is preying on the birds (at the feeder),” he explains.

Large predators such as wolves, coyotes, bear, and cougars are at the top of the food chain and often referred to as apex predators. Cougars, also known as pumas, mountain lions, or panthers, live in North America, with the largest populations in the western U.S. “Many of these (predator) species were extirpated (killed off) and are naturally migrating back into historical habitat now,” says O’Connor. “A lot of them are learning to live with humans without any negative reactions.”

With the increasing popularity of security cameras on residential properties, officials have seen a rise in reported sightings of predators, such as cougars, says O’Connor. That makes it appear that there might be an increase in numbers, because more people are increasingly aware of their presence. “Other fieldwork shows that numbers (of cougars) haven’t increased so much,” he adds.

In Cosgrove’s case, her property might feel suburban because of its proximity to densely populated areas, but 1,000-feet north of her property lies the Newaukum Creek corridor, a salmon-spawning stream that provides a passageway for predators to travel unseen, says O’Connor.

Cougars can have a territorial range of about 120 to 150 square miles—a little less for females. “That’s why we might see a depredation (an attack or killing) occur and then we might not see anything for years and years,” says O’Connor. The cougars simply move on to another location within their territory.

Predators and Horse Farms

“The main depredation we respond to is goats,” says O’Connor. “(This is) often at small farms with few animals, most of which are kept as pets and not for commercial sale or consumption. We see this as an educational opportunity for new livestock owners or those less aware.” He talks with landowners about proactive options for protecting their livestock such as guardian animals, adequate exclusion fencing, and securing small livestock at night.

Situational awareness is always important: If you see tracks or scat from mountain lions on or near your property, take proactive measures immediately, says O’Connor. In the evening “secure livestock by bringing smaller animals off pastures, out of forested areas, and in closer to barns and homes with lights.”

Always bring vulnerable livestock such as goats, calves, foals (and their dams), and other young or small animals inside at night for safety, says O’Connor. “Consider adding motion-activated lights around barns or confinement areas,” he adds. “Battery-powered fox lights (lights that come on intermittently at night and wobble as a person’s flashlight would as they walk) in the pasture are good for (repelling) both cougars and wolves.”

Equine guardian animals such as llamas, donkeys, or livestock guardian dogs can also be used to protect farm animals.

“If the (predator) animal is seen, we encourage hazing,” says O’Connor, referring to the use of reactive deterrents such as airhorns or paintball guns to scare these animals away from the property.

“I would really like to emphasize electric fencing,” says O’Connor. “A 6-foot-high electric fence can be a great tool for protection from bears and smaller carnivores like coyotes. This can surround a pasture or (chicken) coup at a very reasonable cost.”

The exclusion for cougars, however, is to create a completely enclosed structure with a hard roof because they are able to jump higher than other predators and can use trees to get into livestock areas, he adds.

“If you live in cougar or bear country, identify and remove attractants,” suggests O’Connor. This can include human food resources, so he recommends that property owners consider electrifying fruit trees, compost areas, and livestock pens. He also advises against feeding wildlife such as birds and deer because that can also attract predators.

Clear brush away from buildings and pens so you and your horses and livestock can better see predators. In pastures and grazing areas clear tall grass and brush so you have an open view, and avoid adding plants that create a private habitat for predators. “A low, flat open field is going to have less likelihood of attacks,” says O’Connor. “However, creating and maintaining valuable wildlife habitat, through vegetation planting and management, is crucial for a variety of species including some that are considered sensitive or endangered.”

Horses and Cougars

Are horses safe from predators? “I’ve almost never heard of a cougar, wolf, or black bear attacking a horse,” says O’Connor. “A lot of these large predators will go for the easiest prey and not the ones where they are likely to get injured themselves; if they are injured, they can’t hunt” and provide food for themselves—or their families.

Fortunately, smaller equids, such as ponies, are not particularly at risk for cougar predation either. “Not being in grizzly bear habitat, this kind of a (predation) incident in Washington State is extremely rare. In fact, we often recommend donkeys (or burros) as guardian species.” When horses are foaling, O’Connor recommends bringing them closer to the house or barn in a pen and adding motion-sensing lights.

Implementing Changes to Protect Your Horse Farm

Cosgrove now has only full-grown sheep, which she brings into the barn with her goats about an hour before dusk and turns out only after morning daylight.

She also has adopted these other recommended practices to make her farm less predator friendly:

  • Scattered a series of solar-powered motion-sensor night lights around the back pasture wildlife plantings and the barnyard.
  • Installed a fox light in the back pasture which emits random intermittent lights all night long.
  • Set up two solar-powered motion-activated alarms.
  • Moves these lights at random since predators can easily become habituated to them. To simplify that task Cosgrove duct-taped each light to a temporary fence post, which is then easy to pull up and step into place at the next location.
  • Locks up her goats and sheep at night in the barn.
  • Takes daily walks with her dogs in the back pasture. O’Connor told her that humans and dogs are a big threat to cougars, so frequent trips into her wildlife area can help reduce the predators’ presence.

Take-Home Message

Key concepts to consider when managing a horse property with predators on the landscape are coexistence and tolerance, says O’Connor. “Predators are equally as valuable to an ecosystem as are birds and other wildlife species that live in native plants,” he says.

Determine whether cougars and bears live in your area and, if so, consider how you can be tolerant of their presence while keeping your animals safe. Even if you have not seen predators on your farm, perform regular checks of your property for signs of predators, and work with local experts to create a plan to prevent attacks.

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Written by:

Alayne Blickle, a lifelong equestrian and ranch riding competitor, is the creator/director of Horses for Clean Water, an award-winning, internationally acclaimed environmental education program for horse owners. Well-known for her enthusiastic, down-to-earth approach, Blickle is an educator and photojournalist who has worked with horse and livestock owners since 1990 teaching manure composting, pasture management, mud and dust control, water conservation, chemical use reduction, firewise, and wildlife enhancement. She teaches and travels North America and writes for horse publications. Blickle and her husband raise and train their mustangs and quarter horses at their eco-sensitive guest ranch, Sweet Pepper Ranch, in sunny Nampa, Idaho.

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