“They are totally silent, and they approach from the back,” says Burlingame. “Barred owls tend to be the most aggressive, and they’re huge. They will go after your head. The joke is that one of the barred owls here has a baseball cap-collection.”
Though owl attacks are rare, it’s one more good reason to wear a helmet. Wildlife encounters can be spectacular at a distance. But dealing with them up close and personal can cause problems, from your horse spooking to an attack that could injure and even kill you or your horse.
As with any facet of equine safety, taking precautions in advance can help you avoid wild animal encounters and perhaps save you and your horse from injury if and when they do occur.
Know Your Territory
Not every trail has the same wildlife, of course. A horse owner in Washington State will see very different animals than a trail rider in Florida. Even trails within the same county have different inhabitants.
In Southern California, for instance, an urban trail might be home to a few birds and an occasional opossum. But bears have been known to wander out of the foothills to lounge in backyard swimming pools, and rattlesnake encounters, though rare, are always possible.
Before riding in a new area, do some research about area wildlife, advises Ray Randall, DVM, of Bridger Vet Clinic, in Montana, who used to ride to move cattle and hunt.
Riders around Bridger must watch out for bears, mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes. Knowing which animals are prevalent and how you might encounter them can help you avoid many undesirable situations.
For example, Randall says mountain lions (cougars) like to attack their prey from above. “If you are riding in country where there are a lot of canyons and cliffs and overhangs, that’s more dangerous as far as the lions are concerned,” he says.
Randall recalls an incident several years ago in British Columbia where a mountain lion attacked a woman and her children on horseback: “The lion jumped on the horse of one of the kids,” he says. “The woman tried to rescue her children and she was killed.”
Knowing how to deal with each type of animal can help. Running away from a cougar, for example, isn’t a good idea because as cats they like to chase their prey.
Burlingame’s mule is more confrontational than a horse. She recalls an incident when a cougar approached her as she walked her property. Her mule, Buckshot, galloped across the paddock to put himself between her and the cougar. He threatened a fight, and the cougar left.
Differences exist even among a predator family’s species. While the black and brown bears in Burlingame’s area aren’t much problem if left alone, Randall’s area is home to aggressive grizzly bears (a brown bear subspecies).
“Black bears and brown bears are not usually hunters, though some black bears can be,” says Randall. “The grizzlies are a totally different problem and can be extremely dangerous. There are a lot more grizzly bears now than there were 25 to 30 years ago. It’s important to learn to tell the difference between a grizzly bear and other bears.”
Randall says grizzlies have occasionally killed joggers and hikers in his area.
“If you are making enough noise (as you ride), that will tend to spook the bears, and they’ll avoid you,” he says, noting that some people with pack strings put bells on their horses. The noise “advertises to wildlife that they are there.”
Trail safety protocol dictates that you never ride alone. A group naturally makes more noise than a solitary rider, and in many cases that deters animals.
Michael Gotchey, DVM, with the Steamboat Veterinary Hospital, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, says that in addition to bears and mountain lions in his area, he also frequently sees moose.
“We have a lot of elk, too, but moose are a little more aggressive,” Gotchey says. “Moose will stand on the trail, and they’ll charge at a horse, especially if you’re riding with dogs, because wolves are the only natural predator they have.”
If dogs are ahead of the horses, encounter a moose, and turn and run back to the horses, the moose might come after the dogs, right into riders and horses.
Gotchey says charging bull moose especially can be a problem during rutting (mating) season. The National Park Service says rutting season runs from late August to early October.
“Bull moose are well-equipped to fight,” say Park Service publication authors. “At up to 1,600 pounds, they are enormously powerful. During the rut, the neck muscles of bull moose expand to twice their normal size.”
If he encounters a moose, Gotchey says he tries to get off the trail and calls his dogs away from the animal.
“Moose will stand their ground,” he says. “I’ve heard people talk about how moose will stand on a train track when they hear a train whistle and go head on with a train.”
Know Your Horse
The more you know your horse and how he responds to animal encounters and to your cues, the better you will be able to avoid nasty confrontations.
“You have to get the horses exposed to things on the trail,” says Gotchey. “The biggest thing with horses is repetition.”
Methods of training that get a horse to trust his rider work well in these situations, says Gotchey.
“Taking a whole group of green horses on the trail is not a good idea,” says Randall. “Probably the best thing you can do is be sure to have some veteran horses on the ride. Horses that are acclimated to the area get pretty trail-savvy, and it takes a lot to spook them.
“Time spent turned out as a young horse can make some situations a lesser problem,” he adds. ‘They learn about a lot of things that happen to them during their day-to-day activity.”
A horse spooking can sometimes pose more danger than the wild animal itself. Randall says wild turkeys can be scary for horses because of the amount of noise they make, and other fairly harmless animals, such as pheasants, rabbits, and deer, can cause similar problems. Gotchey injured his shoulder because a horse bucked him off after grouse flew up and hit the horse in the chin.
Burlingame recommends teaching a horse to spook in place. She has taken clinics from trainers who condition horses for mounted police units, and she regularly finds teaching moments on the trail.
“Work with your horse when there is not an issue,” says Burlingame. “If they’re afraid of a rock on the side of the trail, make them go up to it and around it. Then they can trust you so that when you say, ‘We’re not running,’ they will listen to you because you’ve already done it repeatedly with stones and sticks.”
Also listen to your horse. “A good trail horse will tell you something is out there,” she says. “A mule will point with his ears at whatever it is. (They) are like constant radar going around. It’s not unusual for my mule to point up in a tree, and there is a cougar or a bobcat above us on the trail.”
Safety measures you can take no matter how much you trust your horse include carrying a cell phone, bear spray, and/or pepper spray, though Burlingame says some animals don’t react to pepper spray the way people do.
A gun is another safety precaution, provided you know how to handle it. Gotchey carries one to use if necessary, primarily as a tactic to scare off the animal. Shooting is a last resort only when life and limb are threatened, he says.
Several organizations can also provide you with advice. Randall suggests the American Endurance Ride Conference (aerc.org), Back Country Horsemen of America (bcha.org), and the North American Trail Ride Conference (natrac.org).
At the Farm
Wild animals don’t confine themselves to the wilderness. They can also wander onto your farm. Cattle ranches, with their vast pastures, are particularly appealing.
The best precaution you can take to avoid unwanted visitors is to make food unavailable. Buying bear-proof trash cans, feeding dogs and cats indoors, and making sure your hay and grain are inaccessible will help keep critters away.
Animal control personnel also have a few tricks. A bear once tore the door off one of Burlingame’s buildings to get inside. Animal control trapped the bear and executed a “hard release,” which entailed releasing the bear while shooting it with beanbag bullets and chasing it with trained bear dogs in hopes it wouldn’t return to the site of such an unpleasant experience.
Only trained personnel should try such tactics. But you can employ other methods yourself. Burlingame lays red hot peppers on top of her trashcans. Bears have bitten into the hot peppers, reacted to the spicy taste, and never returned.
Knowing what wildlife you have will help you better manage your acreage. Mountain lions pose more of a danger to young horses than to full-grown horses. Randall suggests figuring out “where the lion doesn’t want to go and putting your young horses there.”
Sometimes it’s impossible to avoid putting food out, such as when feeding horses on pasture during the winter. Gotchey has had elk come into his pastures to eat the horses’ hay.
“We’ve had some horses get gored by the elk,” Gotchey says. “If they do come, you’re not going to be able to get them to go away. So you feed the elk your old, junky hay far away from the horses because they don’t want to be near the horses. They’ll finish their hay a lot slower than the horses will.”
Before heading out on the trail, research the types of animals you might encounter. Know wildlife habits—different techniques deter different animals. Riding in company and making noise help keep wildlife away. Train your horse to spook in place and to trust you. Listen to him because he can sense wildlife presence before you can. On your farm or ranch, try to keep food and other attractions stowed where wild animals can’t get to them.