Wildlife on and near the trail can pose a danger to you and your horse. Although most wild animals are benign, their rapid, unexpected movements can cause a spook and even a wreck.
Depending on where you ride, you could come face-to-face with a large predator, such as a bear, mountain lion, or even a wolf. You might also need to watch out for rattlesnakes.
To decrease the risk of injury to you and your horse, here’s a handy guide on how to handle wild-animal encounters. We’ve divided the guide into five categories: ground-dwelling birds, small mammals, members of the deer family (deer, elk, and moose), rattlesnakes, and predators (bears, mountain lions, wolves, and coyotes).
You’ll learn the animals’ habits, the potential dangers they can pose to you and your horse on the trail, what to do if you encounter them, what not to do, and how to prepare for (or avoid) an encounter.
Habits: Ground-dwelling birds (such as grouse, quail, partridge, and wild turkey) tend to crouch down and hide in tall grass or low shrubs. As you approach on horseback, they can panic and fly away. Most birds roost at night and are active during the day.
Trail dangers: Ground-dwelling birds are more of a nuisance than a danger, but they can startle your horse, creating a spook. A single bird is scary enough, but the explosive movement and noise of a covey may rattle even an experienced horse.
What to do: Stay calm, and keep your seat; your horse will likely settle down as soon as the birds fly away. If he spooks and tries to bolt, circle him until you can halt, then calm him with a soothing voice and rubs.
What not to do: If you spot a bird or covey, avoid tensing and holding the reins tightly; you’ll transmit your fear to your horse, making him even more likely to spook.
Preparation tips: Put more trail miles on your horse. The more experiences you have together, the more bonding and trust you’ll build with him. This trust will help your horse calm down and listen to you in scary situations. Improve your horsemanship so you have a solid seat. For help, consult a certified riding instructor or reputable clinician.
Habits: Many small mammals are somewhat nocturnal, so you’re most apt to see them at dawn or dusk. Unlike large animals, a small animal can suddenly scurry right under your horse’s feet.
Trail dangers: Small mammals—such as squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, raccoons, badgers, and foxes—can frighten your horse if you come upon them unexpectedly or if they run out in front of your horse. Your horse may spook, spin, or bolt, which can lead to injury of both you and your horse. Small animals rarely pose a direct danger, but some carry rabies. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other rodents carry bubonic plague in some parts of the country.
What to do: If your horse spooks, relax. If you’re relaxed, your horse will be more apt to relax. He takes his cues from you just as he would any herdmate. Speak soothingly to him, rub his neck, and assure him there’s nothing to fear. If the animal doesn’t flee when it sees you, go around it, giving it a wide berth. On a narrow trail, follow slowly behind the animal, or stop until the animal returns to the brush. Keep your distance if you see an animal with signs of rabies (wandering in the open during the day, staggering, and moving erratically).
What not to do: Don’t chase or corner the animal. Don’t try to get a closer look. Even a small creature may attack if it feels threatened.
Preparation tips: At the barn, accustom your horse to an array of unusual and sudden sights, sounds, and movements. Work with him on the ground and under saddle.
Habits: Most rattlesnakes flee when startled, but when they’re shedding or mating (springtime for the Western diamondback; late summer and early fall for the Eastern diamondback) they may strike out at anything that approaches. If they feel cornered, they coil and prepare to strike. They also may strike if startled when sleeping. Rattlesnakes are most aggressive when emerging from their dens in early spring, as well as during their mating season. Rattlesnakes are most active in warm weather. Being cold-blooded, their body metabolism slows in cool weather, preventing fast movement. On hot days, they’re more likely to seek shade in tall grasses. After sundown, they may lie on dirt and paved roadways, soaking in ground warmth.
Trail dangers: Rattlesnakes can startle your horse, leading to a spook. The snake’s rattling may also scare your horse. Rattlesnake bites inject venom into a victim’s bloodstream, which can be life-threatening to you. Most rattlesnake species don’t have enough venom to seriously affect your horse, unless he’s bitten on the face. (A bite on a horse’s nose can occur as he reaches down his head to investigate.) The resulting swelling can close off air passages, causing suffocation. A bite on your horse’s leg may create swelling and possible infection, but isn’t life-threatening.
What to do: Stop and wait for the rattlesnake to move away. You can ride around it, but be aware that there may be other snakes nearby, especially during mating season. If the trail is narrow and the snake doesn’t move away, dismount, and prod it with a long stick, or throw small rocks at it. Stay out of striking distance.
If your horse is bitten on the face, run cool water over the bite site, and apply DMSO (dimethyl sulfoxide), a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, to help prevent excessive swelling and tissue damage. If he’s having trouble breathing, insert a 4- to 6-inch length of garden hose into each nostril. Slowly proceed home or to your trailer, then call your doctor or veterinarian. Call 911 if it’s a life-threatening human emergency.
What not to do: Don’t attempt to pursue and kill a fleeing snake; a cornered snake may become aggressive. If you or your horse is bitten, don’t rush home; the increased blood circulation will pump more venom through the body. Don’t slash the bite area with your knife and suck out the venom; this may lead to further tissue trauma or excessive bleeding. And don’t ice the bite site; ice can also cause further tissue damage.
Preparation tips: In rattlesnake country, pack water, lengths of garden hose, and DMSO gel. Ask your veterinarian for use guidelines.
Habits: You’ll likely see members of the deer family—deer, elk, and moose—in wide-open spaces. Mule deer generally inhabit foothill and mountain areas, while white-tailed deer tend to frequent valleys, waterways, and brushy regions. You might even encounter white-tailed deer while riding in the suburbs. Elk are more elusive, but readily lose their fear of humans and horses in non-hunting areas. Moose frequent stands of willows, marshlands, and lakes.
Trail dangers: Deer aren’t very aggressive, although a white-tailed doe may occasionally come toward you to protect her fawn. The biggest threat to you and your horse would be a spook, spin, and/or bolt. An elk will stand its ground and even come toward you. Most aggressive are bull elk during fall’s mating season and cow elk with young. Moose can be dangerous; they act before they think, and they’re not afraid of anything.
What to do: Back off, especially if you encounter an elk or moose. Retreat until you can safely go around the animal. On a narrow trail, slowly turn around, and move off to the side. If an animal follows you, get off the trail to give it room to get by.
What not to do: If faced with an animal that doesn’t leave, don’t panic. If the animal challenges you, don’t turn and gallop off; your horse can’t outrun these animals.
Preparation tips: Be alert, so you can control your horse if he’s startled. Ride a green or spooky horse with a friend on a calm, experienced horse to settle your mount. Watch for moose, and try to avoid them. Steer clear of dense stands of willows.
Habits: Most large predators (bears, mountain lions, and wolves) are most active at night; while riding, you’re more apt to encounter them hunting at dawn and dusk than during the day. Coyotes will hunt anytime.
A black bear usually won’t attack a horse, but a grizzly is more unpredictable. Bears are most aggressive when emerging from hibernation in the spring or protecting their cubs. In spring and summer, you’ll encounter bear in berry fields and along the river corridors. As the snow melts, they move up in elevation, following vegetation growth. In late summer and fall, they frequent creeks where chokecherries are ripening. In late fall, they forage all day to put on fat for winter.
Mountain lions (also called cougars and pumas) have a fairly tight home territory they defend against other mountain lions, although they make large hunting circles. They often keep to rugged areas and steep slopes; you’re not likely to run into them on most trails.
Wolves can be more fearless, especially in a pack. They hunt in pairs or packs, often leaving their pups in a meadow while they hunt. If you encounter wolves in a meadow and they don’t run from you, they likely have pups there, which can trigger aggression.
Coyotes are most aggressive during their mating season in late February and in summer, when they have pups. At other times, they’ll generally flee.
Trail dangers: Often, the biggest danger to you is a panicky, uncontrollable horse that may fall down a steep mountainside or bolt, buck, or go over backward in his attempt to get away from the scary predator. Rarely will a predator actually attack a horseback rider.
What to do: If you suddenly meet a predator face-to-face on the trail, and it doesn’t flee, halt your horse, and try to keep him calm and still. If he’s panicky and you think you’ll lose control—especially on unsafe footing—dismount, and continue to calm him.
If there’s room, move to the side of the trail to allow the animal to move away. Most of the time, predators will leave, if given a chance. If you’re on a narrow trail where there’s no room to maneuver, back out slowly. If the animal holds its ground, make noise to encourage it to leave you alone. Talk loudly, yell, and clap. Avoid riding between a mother and her offspring.
If you encounter a bear, make yourself look big by turning your horse sideways. If you encounter a grizzly, you’re safer on horseback, as you’ll appear larger. Horses generally aren’t afraid of wolves, considering them to be dogs. But your horse may become nervous if wolves follow or circle you. If you stand your ground, most wolves will leave a horseback rider alone.
What not to do: Avoid eye contact with the predator, which can trigger an aggressive response. Don’t leave hastily, or the predator may chase you; your horse can’t outrun large predators.
Preparation tips: Most predators come back to their kill; watch for scavenger birds and mammals. Make noise as you ride to give the less-aggressive predators a chance to leave. Attach a bear bell to your cinch. (Accustom your horse to the bell’s sound before you leave home.) Learn how to use pepper spray formulated for bears, and carry it on your belt in bear country.