Boost Your Wildlife Savvy

Keep your­self and your horse safe when you cross paths with wildlife on the trail.

Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY HEATHER SMITH THOMAS

Keep your­self and your horse safe when you cross paths with wildlife on the trail.

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.

Ground-Dwelling Birds

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.

Small Mam­mals

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, ac­cus- tom your horse to an ar­ray of un­usual and sud­den sights, sounds, and move­ments. Work with him on the ground and un­der sad­dle. Rat­tlesnakes

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. Deer

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 ag-

gres­sive, 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. Preda­tors

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.

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