(c) 1997, Willis Lamm, TrailBlazer Magazine


By Willis Lamm

Reprinted with permission of TrailBlazer Magazine for non-commercial use.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of riding in the bush is observing the flora and fauna. There are few things as relaxing as taking a quiet stroll through the middle of a deer herd or having a coyote for a companion as she ambles along close by, probably making sure we don't disturb her pups. This is leisure at it's finest. However this dream-like adventure can quickly become a nightmare when the outback rider encounters the wrong animal at the wrong place.

Other than man, the horse's only natural predator is the mountain lion which is also known by the name puma and cougar. Mountain lions don't typically attack healthy adult horses and they generally avoid humans, however serious encounters have occurred. Bears can be a problem when surprised and aroused. An angry bear isn't likely to try to eat you, but he can easily strike you and kill you.

As a predator species we are far less capable than prey animals, such as our mounts, of recognizing other predators. This handicap presents two significant problems. We're not likely to be sensorially aware of predators from a safe distance. Our horses, often to our surprise, are likely to be aware of and react to predators which we can neither smell or hear. Accordingly we need to prepare for such adventures with the tools which we do have, primarily our intellect, in order to enjoy a safe outback experience.


The most significant advantage we have is our ability to prepare for potential encounters. We can learn about the territory, prepare our mounts for potential encounters and take along the right equipment.


With regard to knowing the territory; doing some reconnaissance into which predators may exist, where they have been seen in the past, what their habits are and how people have successfully dealt with them are important pieces of information which can help you avoid bad situations or better prepare you to deal with them. For state and federally managed lands there is typically a district or park office which can be contacted for such information. If none exist, area sport shops, even hardware stores which sell to hunters, can often provide useful information.

On the subject of hunters, they are statistically your greatest threat. While a vast majority of hunters are capable and responsible, there are a few who may either be intoxicated, are running on too high of a testosterone level or are "a few shells shy of a full magazine." Thus its also important to determine what hunting seasons are open and where hunting is taking place.

If you are unfamiliar with the area in which you are riding, you should procure a map and make notations and/or highlight areas where events are taking place and animals are present which should concern you.


How to prepare your horse is a topic which in of itself would make a large feature. It is one of the most important aspects of outback riding. You are the most vulnerable when your horse unexpectedly reacts to "the call of the wild," loses self control, and either throws you or takes you off on a tree limb.

The key aspect to avoiding such behavior is to develop your horse's thinking abilities; to reason, rather than react to new and unsettling stimuli. This approach involves teaching the horse that it is easier for him to suppress his "flee first" tendency and replace it with more thoughtful responses to his observations.

Such behavior is easy to teach and not only does it give the rider more time to absorb the fact that his or her horse is experiencing a problem, the horse still has an "open" mind and isn't blind to the cues and aids that the rider is applying. (The horse's mind usually doesn't stay "open" for long, however it should be sufficient to allow the rider time to interject a command before that gut wrenching bolt or spin takes place.)

We call this training process "Learn-Learn". It is accomplished through "open training," where the horse is presented with various simple problems and is free to choose between dealing with the problem or having a longe lesson. We call it "Learn-Learn" since the horse is either going to learn how to handle the stimuli or is going to learn on the longe line or at liberty in the round corral.

For this training to be effective, the horse must be allowed to make a conscious decision and the situation must be arranged so that the horse can be sent immediately out on longe when he shies from the training object. The longe work can't be mindless circling, but must also be a learning situation in order to keep the horse's mind engaged. After a few laps, the horse is again permitted to inspect and contemplate the monster which we want him to approach.

The important part about this kind of preparation is that when done consistently over a relatively short period of time, the behavior can be projected beyond the arena or round corral. The horse, through a consistent pattern of negative reinforcement (but not punishment) when he chooses to avoid the problem, contrasted with positive reinforcement (rest, praise, curiosity satisfaction) when he investigates the situation, will develop habits which can reduce the likelihood of a "spin and toss" in the outback.

There is one negative element associated with "Learn-Learn". In the process of controlling horses' fear, many of them learn that it is now enjoyable to explore and satisfy their curiosity. Our stable "grazers," when turned out, have become rather large pests; walking through open doors into buildings, up stairs, climbing sand piles, walking on wooden decks, even climbing onto a flat bed trailer. The interesting part is that they don't panic when they knock things off of tables and turn over furniture. However, you might find you need to "tighten security" just a little bit as your steeds become bolder.


It is a good idea when in bear and mountain lion country to make your presence known prior to coming upon these animals. Cow bells are useful for this purpose. Survival and outdoor recreational stores sell "bear bells", which are not quite as loud. These can be tied to your horse's breast collar or cinch and should minimize trailside surprises with large carnivores.

Bright clothing is important when riding in areas frequented by hunters, especially in areas thick with brush and undergrowth where someone from a distance may see the hide of your horse but not notice your presence. This is particularly important when your horse is the same color as local game.

Take some bright plastic ribbon if you plan to tether your horse in areas frequented by hunters. Pieces can be attached to the saddle, or horse's mane and tail when he is not wearing a saddle. "Flash tape," such as that used to scare off birds, is available at home improvement and garden stores. It is reasonable to conclude, but not proven, that the use of flash tape ribbons would make your horse appear a bit less approachable to bears and mountain lions.

Rhythm Bead necklaces with
bells are available through the
Wild Horse Store

A whistle, such as that used by a sports official, is also a handy tool. If you find yourself in the presence of a surprised bear or hear shots being fired nearby, many long loud whistle blows can serve to shoo the bear away or can serve to alert hunters that a human is in the vicinity.


Large animals generally don't initiate unprovoked attacks on groups of humans and horses. A mountain lion, for example, will generally seize an opportunity to pounce, make a kill and drag off the carcass when he can do so undisturbed. On the other hand, the matronly instincts of a mother bear will likely override her reluctance if she thinks a group is endangering her cub.

You may not want to hear a cowbell clanking throughout your entire ride, however there may be areas where it would be appropriate to unpack it from your saddle bag and use it. If in a group, you could strike up a conversation in areas where visibility is poor to "announce" your presence. In such cases, the mountain lion is likely to remain hidden and mamma bear gather up her offspring and move on prior to your arrival.

In unfamiliar territory, you should stick to main trails which are frequented by hikers and riders. If you stop to observe a bear or other large animal, do so from a safe distance and don't "pressure" it.

When packing in food, store it appropriately during overnight camps and don't hang the food near where your horses are tethered. All sorts of varmints could be attracted which could spook your horses and cause them to break away or injure themselves trying to get loose.


If the area is inhabited by venomous snakes, take along a couple of 6 inch long pieces of 5/8" garden hose to use as "emergency nostrils" in case your horse noses a snake and gets bitten. His rapidly swelling nose will hold the hose pieces in place and they will maintain an airway which will prevent your horse from suffocating.

Some areas have a problem with rabies. Rabid animals do not behave normally and even relatively small ones could bite your horse. Determine if rabies vaccinations are warranted before venturing out in such areas.

When overnighting, scope out your tether areas for animal dens, tunnels or other signs of activity. You don't need your horse falling into a hole or upsetting the local badger or porcupine.

While the unexpected can always occur and is part of the excitement of an outback adventure, rational planning and thoughtful consideration of the various animals which you could possibly encounter should minimize the risk of serious encounters. Take a walk on the wild side, but do it safely! Willis Lamm Trail Blazer Assignment

Want to know more about "Learn-Learn"? Visit the KBR Horse Training Website or go directly to the document that discusses Learn-Learn.

  Wild Encounters

  1. List at least four elements of information that you should obtain when planning a trip into remote, unfamiliar territory:

  2. Why would you want to "challenge" your horse with scary encounters prior to undertaking an outback trip where predators abound?

  3. You and your companions are entering an area with poor visibility known to be frequented by mountain lions. How should you best proceed?

  4. You and your companions come across a bear cub near the trail. How should you best proceed?

  5. You and your companions hear hunters in the area. How should you best proceed?


Since these are thought questions, there are no exact answers. However, here are some factors to consider:

  1. When planning a trip into unfamiliar outback, I would want to ascertain the type of terrain expected (can my horse handle the trip?), the expected weather, known animal problems (large and small) and if hunters were active in the area. Other bits of information I would like to obtain and mark on the map include: known good sources of water, safe and unsafe water crossings along my intended route, the locations of hikers' shelters and any fixed facilities such as a ranger station, resident caretakers' cabin or other generally occupied building where help could be obtained if needed.

  2. With less experienced mounts, I like to "challenge" my horse around the ranch before undertaking any real-life dangerous encounters. I want to know how my horse is going to react to both the negative stimulus and my aids and if I need to work on his responses, I want to do it in a controlled environment rather than on a narrow trail next to a steep drop-off. Furthermore, the more the horse practices encountering threatening objects, the more he is likely to develop a more consistent response pattern which I can correctly anticipate and help guide him through.

  3. When entering thick bush, particularly in steep areas where mountain lions can perch and observe trail activity, I prefer to keep everyone in a tighter group, not so close that people can't maneuver their horses, but close enough to carry on a conversation and appear imposing to a hungry or annoyed predator.

  4. If we were to encounter a bear cub, my first reaction would be to avoid any movement which would appear hostile toward the cub and proceed, if possible, to more open space so that mother bear can see that we are not a threat and we have room to maneuver our horses if necessary. On narrow tracks where we can't get into the open, unless we have reason to believe mamma is behind us, we may likely back up a couple hundred feet and make some noise, observing from a safe distance until mamma calls her cub and moves on.

  5. When riding where hunters are present, I would spread the group out in single file, not real far apart, but arranged so as to make the most visible profile possible to a distant hunter. Hopefully some in the group are wearing bright colors. On a quiet day, the sound of ordinary conversation should travel a good distance. If the wind is up and visibility poor, a cowbell or whistle may help reinforce the premise that our party is not seasonal game.

Our thanks to TrailBlazer Magazine for permission to post this series on our web page.
Visit the TrailBlazer website at www.horsetrails.com.
For related stories see:
Moving Target

Rhythm Beads

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