Riding with Mountain Lions

After I had  guided ten of our guests for a day down the trail back to the staging area, I rested and watered my horse and turned back, wanting to make camp before nightfall.

I was riding my mare, Belle. She is a 16hh dark bay appendix.  Regal in appearance and attitude, she does however have a soft side. More than one person has referred to her as my soul mate. I can’t argue with that.  I don’t have to think about riding with her; the right things just happen. We are greater together than individually, and I really feel that when I’m on her.

So it goes without saying that we trust each other about as much as two living beings can.

We have learned many things from each other and about each other.

So when Belle has something to say, I listen.

Like I mentioned, it’s a long trek back to camp. After the first couple of miles, it’s rare to meet another rider. On that afternoon we walked, trotted and loped where we could.  At a walk, it’s a five hour ride; I was aiming for two. As we entered the last few miles of our journey the sun was setting.

The ride was uneventful; we have done it many times. Belle kept her pace up and we were enjoying the ride. We reached a fork in the trail, where we could choose our path. One direction took us to a shallow crossing of the river, the other led us into a pool of water where we would jump in and swim across.  I had seen Belle jump into that spot on her own before, so I thought we would opt for the more challenging route.  We only made it twenty feet down that trail.

Then Belle stopped. Her head was up; she was fixated on something ahead of us.  I followed the direction of her eyes and ears into the forest but could see nothing but darkness in the dense brush, with the sun dipping below the horizon. What my senses could pick up though, was her heart pounding, her body tensing, and every hair on my back standing up.

Belle doesn’t  spook at just anything.  I have  tried everything I can possibly think of to bother her, scare her, and annoy her, and I can tell shes just thinking, Stupid humans. So this was something different.  I had never seen her do this before, and so unsure, I gave her a little encouragement.

She didn’t budge but kept her focus on whatever was scaring her.

I trust this horse.  And so I listened.  We turned around.  I repetitively glanced behind me, and a shiver went down my back. I saw nothing, but through her I could feel something.  The word creepy is appropriate. We backtracked the short distance and took the other fork in the trail.  As we crossed the river, Belle relaxed somewhat, but her pace was still hurried and tense.

Crossing the shallower part of the river we came to what is known as The Rails.  It’s basically a few rails serving as a makeshift gate.  It’s kept more than one horse from heading home.  There were some folks camped out at The Rails.  I had had coffee and breakfast with these guys a few times, so I stopped to chat.

As I recounted Belles strange behaviour I was interrupted by one of the guys as he pointed to where we had just crossed, “Do you see the cat over there?”  And he didn’t mean a house cat.

We are talking mountain lion.

So I will  sum this up.  Scott and Belle go down the path.

Scott wants to go right.

Belle: Holy s&*t, there is a mountain lion right THERE!

Scott: Huh?

Belle: Seriously RIGHT THERE! Don’t you sense it!?

Scott: I’m not sure what you are saying girl, but I trust you, and we will  go the way you think is best.

Belle:  Thanks, buddy, but let’s keep the pace up!

Who knows what might have happened had I forced her down that route?   Maybe nothing. Maybe we both would have been cat food. What I do know is that I listened to my horse when she told me there was something life-threatening, and we are both healthy and happy today.

An event to ponder, for sure.

[singlepic id=20 w=300 h=225 float=right]Several days ago my mountain riding excursions took Belle and I out west again, but with a fellow rider.  I could feel the winter season getting closer with every ride, and didn’t want to pass up on an opportunity to hit the trails.  We enjoyed a short but quick paced ride in the area.  We cantered and trotted much of the trail, enjoying a speed and freedom that one can only experience on the back of a horse.

We took a loop trail which took us east of the nearby campground, alongside a river. And it happened again, for the second time in the years Belle and I have been together. She planted her feet.  Her heart raced. Her head was up and she was scared.  But she didn’t run; she looked to me for direction.  I turned to my friend and said, The last time this happened, there was a cat in front of us.  As she turned her horse around, she replied, I trust ya!  We backtracked a short distance, and then rode through the bush to find a trail that paralleled the one we were on previously.

But this time was different. Although we were further from the point she became so alert, Belle did not relax. Her attention was planted on the spot where she had scented or seen what scared her.  She stared into the dense trees as we rode on.  If I would have asked, I’m certain she would have happily gone into her thoroughbred gear and galloped home.  But I didn’t want to add to her anxiety.  So we walked.  And she was tense the entire time. After we had passed the spot she sensed something, her attention was beside us.  As we turned north and headed back to the truck, her attention was behind us.  I could pinpoint the center of her attention like watching the needle on a compass.

It was eerie.

We crossed a road and took the trail back to the trailer. As we neared the truck I fished out my keys and unlocked the doors with the remote just in case.  I hopped off and tied her to the ring on my trailer. Belle was literally on her tip toes. Her head was as high as she could raise it and her tail was up. Her eyes and ears were glued to the direction we had come from.

A shiver went down my back.

My friend saw this and said, let’s get out of here. We didn’t waste any time loading up.  Once the horses were in the trailer and those truck doors were closed we relaxed.  Driving down the road as the sun set, we glanced into the darkening bush.

And saw nothing.  But what was there?

Neither one of us saw a thing. But Belle saw, or sensed something that had her more on edge than I have ever seen.  I trust this horse and her instincts.  She had her attention focused to one spot the whole way back. If the simplest explanation is usually the right one, then I am led to only one conclusion:

Whatever it was, it followed us a few miles back to the truck.

On Belle, I have encountered bears, deer and elk. We have come across dead animals. She is fine with all of those. She is even chased moose out of the pasture. We’ve ridden with dogs, hikers and bikers.  We’ve worked cattle and buffalo, and ridden by sheep and llamas.

She doesn’t care.

Neither time did I see a cat, but I can put two and two together.  In the first instance the facts are: she told me something bad was up ahead, and the folks across the river saw a mountain lion in that exact spot. In the second instance although again I saw nothing, I recently spoke with some friends that were hunting just south of that area and caught cats on their trail cam during the day.

That’s enough for me.

Thanks Belle, I trust you.

(originally published Nov 6, 2011)

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About amazingh

Scott has a wide variety of experience in the horse industry including mountain riding, outfitting, training horses and riders, starting and re-starting horses, producing horsemanship webinars and podcasts, running the Canadian Cowboy Challenge and of course, operating Amazing Horse Country. He affectionately refers to his herd of horses as his "kids". Scott has uniquely integrated his horsemanship with a knowledge of equine bio-mechanics and psychology to gain a thorough understanding of these great animals.

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