I love riding through the beautiful wilds of California on horseback. The terrain, filled with tall oak trees and sagebrush, is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also provides a cool refuge from the summer heat. However, I’m well aware that I’m not the only one enjoying this habitat. Deer, coyotes, bears, and snakes also call this area home, and encounters with wildlife on horseback can be both exciting and potentially dangerous.
When it comes to trail riding, safety is of utmost importance, both for yourself and your horse. How your horse reacts to encountering wild animals can make all the difference in whether the experience is enjoyable or frightening. For example, my experienced trail horse has encountered coyotes many times, and he calmly stops and observes them when we come across them on our rides. However, the first time he encountered a deer, his reaction was quite different. He tensed up and seemed ready to bolt.
Fortunately, most horses can become accustomed to seeing wildlife with time and exposure. However, it’s impossible to expose a horse to every critter that might appear on the trail. The key to dealing with wildlife encounters is building trust with your horse. Lori Walls and Jamie Dietrich, both experienced trail riders, emphasize the importance of establishing trust with your horse both on the ground and in the saddle. Your horse needs to know that you will keep him safe in any situation.
Building trust starts at home and should be an ongoing process. Spend time with your horse both on the trail and in the arena, practicing navigating obstacles and exposing him to various stimuli. Start with inanimate objects like bridges and tarps, then gradually introduce him to domestic animals like sheep and dogs. Regular exposure to these stimuli will help your horse learn to trust you and become more comfortable with encountering wildlife.
Before venturing out on the trail alone or with a friend, ensure that you have control over your horse’s movements. Your horse should respond to your hands, seat, legs, and voice, even when he’s feeling alarmed or anxious. Teach your horse to wait and observe when he encounters something that worries him, rather than reacting impulsively. This takes practice and patience, but it’s essential for both your safety and your horse’s.
While most wildlife you encounter on the trail poses little threat, there are a few species that require extra caution. Grizzly bears, for example, are generally not aggressive towards riders but can become unpredictable if they have cubs nearby. Carrying a “grizzly bell” can help warn bears of your presence and prevent surprises. Venomous snakes, such as rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, can also be dangerous. Stick to designated trails and avoid venturing off into snake territory.
In the rare case that you encounter a mountain lion, the main challenge will be keeping your horse calm. Mountain lions are adept at hiding, so you may not even see them. However, if you do, reassure your horse and rely on your training to handle the situation.
When encountering wildlife, always use common sense and give animals a wide berth whenever possible. Remember that female mammals can be especially protective of their young and may exhibit aggressive behavior if they feel threatened. Be prepared, be cautious, and prioritize safety when encountering wildlife on the trail.
In summary, encountering wildlife while trail riding can be exhilarating and memorable. By prioritizing wildlife safety and building trust with your horse, you can ensure that these encounters are enjoyable for both you and your equine partner.