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Lions and Bears in the Wilderness, Oh My!

mountain lion

A mountain lion rests for a moment in the snow. | Photo courtesy of Colorado Division of Wildlife

When it comes to successfully handling wildlife encounters in the wilderness, Colorado Division of Wildlife Game Warden Ron Zaccagnini
(who also owns horses) has 30 years of experience.

Ron sent me a nice email after I wrote about my fear of mountain lions (“Horses, Mountain Lions, and Learning to Shake it Off“) and I immediately seized the opportunity and asked him to give us folks who trail ride in the wilderness some valuable tips:

Horses and Wildlife

by Ron Zaccagnini

man on horse

Ron Zaccagnini on his horse. | Photo courtesy of Ron Zaccagnini

It seems I am getting a lot of calls lately from folks who want to spend more time in the wilderness with their animals—horses and other pets—all with common questions regarding wildlife encounters.  Predators are the most common source of concern.

“What do I do if I meet a lion or a bear?”  “My horse spends most of his life in the arena, and he’s not use to seeing bears.  What can I expect?” “We are planning a pack trip in the Rockies, and are concerned about bears and lions.  What advice can you give?”

My first response is: “Your concerns are justified, and you are wise to ask in advance.”

Bears and lions are both plentiful, as are other wild animals, and the reality is, even for horses who have encountered wildlife before, it’s will probably be a frightening experience.  A person is wise to be concerned, but there are some things that you can do to minimize your exposure to danger.  As always, knowledge is power.

Toward that end, here are some things that you can do to minimize your exposure to danger with wildlife encounters.


The first necessity to safely enjoying the out of doors with your horse, or any animal, is to understand wildlife, make some plans based upon that knowledge, and use common sense.  Think things through before an incident takes place.  Talk to someone who knows the area: Local wildlife agencies, the Forest service or Bureau of Land Management.

Here in the Rockies, we have a large population of both bears and lions.   I spend a lot of time dealing with bear-and-human encounters, and my all-time record is 16 reported bear incidents in 24 hours.   But that’s unusually high.

Any wildlife encounter can be traumatic for both horse and rider, whether it’s a bear on the trail, or a rabbit that suddenly bolts from cover, or a large turkey suddenly flushing from behind a bush.   Any of these can be the beginning of an exciting ride.  And none of them can be totally anticipated or prepared for.  But the more you know about wildlife, and their habits, in your area, or where you are going to be riding, and the more you prepare your horse, the more you can avoid a potentially disastrous encounter that could ruin your day.



A curious bear approaches in a meadow. | Photo by Jason Seger, Colorado Division of Wildlife

In our area, all bears are black bears, not Browns or Grizzlies. While bears come in all colors from white to solid black, the two designations refer not to color, but to two different animals.  To us, the difference is significant, but not so for the horse.  While Black bears are seldom aggressive, your horse will not know that.  It does not matter to him what species it is, any encounter will be a reinforcement of his innate fears of the “boogyman in the woods’” that his momma and all his friends (and instinct) told him about.

Black bears are basically overgrown raccoons, interested primarily, and secondarily, with their stomachs: storing food for the upcoming winter.  Early spring is a time of recovery from the winter hibernation, when their digestive system is shut down.  Eating is an activity that begins slowly, with grass roots, and vegetation.  As the summer progresses, they turn to anything that will fit in their mouths—the stinkier and more rotten, the better.

(Some Wildlife Officers swear by the use of dirty Baby diapers in bear traps).

The feeding frenzy begins in early to mid June, and from that time until the onset of hibernation, eating is the order of the day.  They become more focused on that pursuit as the summer turns to fall.  This is the time when they pose the most significant threat to people, but only because they are so focused on food, that they lose much of the natural fear that we humans rely upon as a safety buffer.

The more often a bear encounters food in the form of garbage, dog food, bird feeders, etc., during the summer around cabins or homes, the more likely it will be to appear aggressive when encountered in the wild.  As more and more people come to the mountains to build cabins and homes, the more bears learn that people equal food.  And the cubs learn form their mothers, so the problems compound as time goes by.

If the bear charges, as they do at times, to try and scare away the threat, just stand your ground (you cannot outrun it).  Don’t scream or yell.  Speak in a soft monotone voice and wave your arms to let the animal know you are human.   Pepper spray is an effective deterrent, and you should consider having some with you.  But, be prepared to experience some of the affects yourself.  You could get some blown back at you, but it’s just uncomfortable, and will not incapacitate you.

Bears have poor eyesight, but a well developed sense of smell.  So, when you encounter a bear, it may stand on its hind legs and stick its nose in the air.  It’s trying to get a better look at what you are, and perhaps pick up a scent to help him make up his mind if he should stay his ground, or run.

This action is often mistaken for a sign of aggression.  But, most of the time, if you give him a bit of time, and space, he will gladly go his own way, and avoid contact with you. Remember that his stomach is his driving incentive, not aggression.  They are not killers by nature.  In fact they are naturally quite shy and fearful.  A mother with cubs can be more aggressive, but not always.


Lions are much different from bears, and a little education will go a long way.  You don’t normally see a lion in the wild, even where they are plentiful.  They are very secretive, and deadly.  Most prey animals that are taken by a lion are never given a warning that danger is imminent.

Cats prefer to strike from above, leaping from a rock outcropping or ledge, landing the back of their prey.  I’ve investigated a number of horse attacks, and while it is true that the cat is not always successful in killing the horse initially, the wounds can be fatal in the long term.

With lions, the general guideline is to make yourself look as large as possible to discourage the cat.  Do not make eye contact, as that focuses its attention on you—something you do not want.  If you are with other folks, join together in a group.  Gather children with you, as well as pets.  Back away—don’t panic or run. It would probably be good to make noise, which helps to discourage the lion.

If you encounter a dead deer, or other animal, which appears to have been partially or totally covered up with leaves, sticks, or dirt, be especially wary!  A lion will cover up a kill and return to it until it’s eaten.  He’s not far away.

Also, watch for lion tracks, especially in the snow.  Many times you will notice the tracks, if you are watchful, and never see the cat.  A lion track looks similar to a dog track, a bit more rounded in shape, but no claw marks will be seen.   Cats often travel trails and roads.


In any wildlife encounter, the worst thing you can do is panic.  Your horse will know you are out of control, and this fuels his panic.  Remain calm and focus on calming the horse.  Follow the guidelines outlined above.


Unfortunately, there is not much you can do to desensitize your horse to a bear or lion encounter. But, you can teach your horse to look to you for guidance during a fearful encounter of any type.  This can be done by the repeated use of a key word or phrase that he will recognize.  You can start this at any time in the horse’s life. All it takes is a concentrated effort on your part to develop a consistent pattern.  This will serve to derail his survival flight mechanism.   If he is use to hearing something that he understands, from you, he will focus on that, and you will avert a runaway through the spruce trees and rocks, or worse.  Combine that with a practiced turning one rein stop, and you should be able to control the horse in a panic situation. But, you must work on this every time you ride!

I’ve found that horses are uncomfortable with the smell of a bear, and I can’t blame them.  If your horse gets a whiff of a bear, he is going to be agitated and scared (and maybe a bit nauseated).  It’s the same fear they exhibit the first time they encounter a llama.  Even a backpacker can look strange to a horse the first time he sees one, with the big hump over his head.   So, this preconditioned safety technique will come in handy more times than you realize.


Here are a few suggestions concerning making camp, whether you are packing or camping at your vehicle.

  • Keeping a clean camp will help minimize the risk of a bear encounter.  First and always, keep things clean!  Food cannot be left in the pans or dishes.  Don’t sleep with your favorite chocolate bar in your bag.   Peanut butter and jelly is a no-no too.  Store food away from camp.  You can buy “bear proof” plastic containers that do help.  I have never felt totally comfortable hanging food from a tree, as it can increase the range that a smell can be detected by a bear.

But, on the other hand, it’s better to have it high and out of reach, than in your panniers next to the tent.  In over thirty years, often packing and camping alone, I can honestly say that I have never had a bear-in-camp encounter.  Yes, there have been nights when the horses are especially agitated and that certainly could have been bear induced, but it’s never been more of an issue than that.  The secret?  Keep the camp CLEAN!

  • Keep a flashlight handy, and sleep in moccasins.  You will probably need to check on the horses several times during the night, and if there is a wreck, it’s much better to have those on your feet than to go dancing around in the dark, barefoot.  I always have a pistol handy, but have never really needed it.  It’s more for my own peace of mind than anything else.  As a Colorado Law Enforcement officer, I would strongly suggest that if you carry a gun, at the very least complete a Hunter Education or other Gun Safety course.  Again, training, preparation, and education is vital.
  • I have used many different setups for keeping a horse overnight, from tying him directly to a tree, using a one-legged hobble, turning them loose with a two legged hobbles, using a high line, and using a portable corral.

The worst arrangement is tying them directly to a tree.  I’ve used that more than any other method, but now it’s a last resort.  Many horses will not stand still all night, but will paw and complain and keep you awake.  A high line works better, but it’s not foolproof, and a horse can still get into problems, or spend the night pawing and complaining. I’ve had them roll and get tangled up in the rope.

From my experience, the portable electric corral with a D-Cell battery operated power supply is the way to go.  Your horse will spend the night eating, and in the morning will be ready to go, not concentrating on filling his belly.  He will stand quietly all night, and you will sleep soundly.

  • One note of caution: get a book, and learn to identify noxious weeds.  Nothing would be worse than putting a corral up in a field of loco.

I hope this information helps you in your enjoyment of the wilderness by horseback, whether it’s a one-day or two-week pack trip.  It’s just a matter of a little knowledge, preparation and common sense.  As the man said, “Keep your left leg on the left side, your right leg on the right side, and your mind in the middle.”

Ron Zaccagnini is a Game Warden (District Wildlife Manager) with the Colorado Division of Wildlife, in Lake George, Colorado.

His thirty-year career, involving law enforcement and wildlife management, has entailed a great deal of wilderness horse use in his 2,400 square mile district. He has spent twenty years teaching Western riding, starting colts, and training horses for trail, pleasure, cutting and reining.    At this time he has five horses:  Two Paints, a Quarter Horse stallion, an Appaloosa and a Thoroughbred, all of which are “wilderness certified.”   He also trains problem horses for other owners.

Categories: Trail Riding.

Tags: , , , , ,

3 Responses

  1. Thanks Amy, that’s timely information. I’m planning a ride this summer across an area of Northern Idaho. At first I thought my biggest concern would be mountain lions and Grizzly bears. Last summer we scouted the route and it turns out that while there are plenty of both, there are also now large numbers of wolves in the area. It’s a good reminder that my biggest concerns will be handling a bad spook and keeping a clean camp.

  2. You are welcome! Stay safe and have fun!


  3. I wanted to add a couple of suggestions if I might. For 30 years I ran the Rocky Mountain Ark Wildlife Center outside of Telluride Colorado. For 23 of those years we had a Mountain Lion named Ruby. She had been with us since she was 10 days old and was “Fully Armed”with her canines and claws her entire life. Ruby & I helped Pat Parelli a few years ago with predator/prey classes for “desensitizing” your horse to predators. People would, understandably, always have a difficult time getting their horses to be able to walk past our property because we had resident lions, lynx, bobcats, bears & coyotes etc. at the Ark. Their horses would be spinning & rearing as they approached the edge of the property yet my own horses would be grazing right next to the lion enclosure without a concern in the world. No doubt, my property was an olfactory NIGHTMARE for most equines but there IS a way you can help desensitize them to the odor. For Christmas one year I gathered “combo” predator poop and put it into gallon zip locks bags and gave these away as “gifts” to some of my horsey friends with instructions to put some of the contents in a bucket with a little water and soak a rag in the nasty mess overnight. Then hang the rag in their horses stall for the horse to become accustomed to. Then “recharge” the rag by putting it back in the liquid mess every few days & rehanging it. The horse will get desensitized to the smell fairly soon. Once on the trail if they were to encounter the odor of a predator they will be “on alert” but usually not PANIC and stampede blindly through the trees leaving you in the dust. It is usually the SMELL that they will encounter before they EVER actually SEE that bear or lion so this pro-active desensitizing tactic will at least give you some forewarning to start to calm your horse and assess the situation. If you have a zoo or wildlife education & rehabilitation center in your area, they are usually more than happy to “part with their poo” if you request a bag of predator droppings a couple of weeks before you are planning to make your trip into the backcountry. (ps, When you are done with the mess in the bucket, add more water and water your garden with it, the predator smell will deter the marauding deer from munching on your greens for a little while too)

    melissa margettsFebruary 25, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

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