(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.
KNOW THE TERRITORY:
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.
PREPARE YOUR MOUNT:
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.
TAKE PROPER EQUIPMENT:
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.
USE COMMON SENSE
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
Since these are thought questions, there are no exact answers. However, here are some factors to consider:
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