Imagine living in a world of ferocious saber-toothed cats and huge dire wolves, always on the lookout for prey. The ancestors of today’s horses had to cope with this reality. The large predators of the Ice Age regularly made meals out of wild horses, who were considerably smaller than the horses of today. Those ancestors only survived their savage predators by being both fast and alert.
These days, the hunters that roam the North American wilderness are much less intimidating. In fact, many predators have been nearly wiped out over the last 100 years, including the grizzly bear and the timber wolf. However, a few meat-eaters do remain in significant numbers, including the mountain lion and coyote.
Do modern horses need to worry about today’s predators, particularly the coyote and the mountain lion? Not really, according to experts—though rumors and stories might suggest otherwise.
Mountain lions, also known as cougars and pumas, are large felines weighing between 90 and 200 pounds. Found mostly in the western half of the U.S., mountain lions are shy and prefer to avoid people, although a few rare lions have been known to attack humans. According to experts, these are usually young cats with poor hunting skills and a lack of experience choosing prey.
Fortunately, mountain lion attacks on humans—and horses—are rare. In the eyes of the mountain lion, humans and horses are not viewed as ideal prey. “Mountain lions don’t typically attack horses,” says Lynn Sadler, president and CEO of the Mountain Lion Foundation, a conservation and education organization in Sacramento, California. “In fact, dogs kill more horses than mountain lions do.”
Mountain lions, like all other predators, prefer to focus on prey that is small, relatively easy to catch, and poses the least amount of threat. Lions most often hunt rabbits and other small mammals, including small dogs and cats. Deer can also become prey for mountain lions.
Typically, a lion may attack a horse if the lion is extremely desperate for food, or is young and inexperienced in hunting.
While statistics on mountain lion attacks on horses are hard to come by, rumors of lion attacks on horses are not. Horse owners sometimes assume injuries to pastured horses are the result of lion attacks when no real proof is available. For example, in August 2004, a resident of Southern California found her horse scratched up one morning after hearing a commotion during the night, and reported to the California Department of Fish & Game that the horse had been attacked by a lion. A veterinarian who examined the horse did not find the scratches consistent with a mountain lion attack, however, igniting a local controversy over whether a lion was actually to blame.
According to Sadler, a horse that has been attacked by a mountain lion will have significant wounds to show for it. “A mountain lion’s claw can shred a tree,” she says. “They are amazing predators, and leave huge claw marks and bites after an attack. The wounds would require stitches. These would not be small scratches.”