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.”
Any lion that is inexperienced and goes after a horse soon learns this is not a good idea, according to Sadler, who says the horse is very likely to defend itself with kicks and sharp hooves. “It’s possible a young lion might attack a horse, but would learn its lesson quickly,” she says.
While adult horses are unlikely candidates for a mountain lion attack because of their size, foals and Miniature Horses may be at risk. “There has been evidence that along the California and Nevada border, lions typically prey on wild horse foals less than 3 months old,” says Sadler. “Lions are attracted to small creatures with jerky movements, such as foals.” Goats, sheep and calves have also fallen prey to mountain lions, mostly because of their small size.
Although many horse owners are concerned about lions, Martha Vaughn, a horse owner in Greenville, California, has never had any problems with lions bothering her horses. “Lions are common around here,” she says. “I built an enclosure for my goats because I was concerned for them, but not for the horses. We used to have a lion that came through our property, but he never bothered our horses, even the Mini. The more I researched lions, the more I learned that unless a cat is starving or can’t find food, horses are low on the list.”
Vaughn knows of only one incident in her area where a horse and mountain lion came into contact, and the lion got the worst of it. “The area had flooded and a lion jumped into a stall to get away from the rushing water,” she says. “There was a horse in the stall, and the horse and lion got into it. The horse got scratched up, and the lion died. The cat managed to get out of the stall after the horse kicked it, but the cat was found dead not far from the stall.”
In the past, only people west of the Rockies shared the land with coyotes, which are a member of the dog family. In recent years, though, coyotes have spread throughout the North American continent and can be found as far east as New York.
Native Americans viewed the coyote as a very special creature. This efficient predator was identified as the Trickster in the lore of several tribes, and with good reason. The coyote’s intelligence and ability to adapt is unmatched by most other hunting mammals in North America.
Given the coyote’s proclivity to find food in just about any environment, do horse owners have to worry about coyotes preying on their equines? Again, most experts believe the answer is no. Horses are simply too big to be of much dietary interest for coyotes, which typically weigh between 25 and 40 pounds. Compare that to the average horse at about 1,000 pounds, and it’s obvious that the coyote is considerably outmatched.
“Coyotes typically target small animals, such as rabbits and mice and even small dogs and cats whose owners allow their small pets to run free in coyote country,” says Betsy Sikora Siino, a writer specializing in canine topics and former “In the Wild” columnist for Dog Fancy magazine. “They are extremely adaptable and will figure out pretty quickly what is the most accessible prey around.”
Siino, along with many other experts on coyote behavior, does not believe that adult horses are at risk of being attacked by coyotes.
“Coyotes tend to work alone, which probably explains why they have historically survived so well in all kinds of environments, even those they essentially share with humans,” says Siino. “Their solitary existence requires a smaller territory for hunting than that required to sustain a large wolf pack, and, living alone as they tend to do, they can survive on less food.” And a single animal would have great difficulty bringing down an animal as large as a horse.
The exception to this might be a very young foal, particularly a pony or Miniature horse foal, since these babies can be very tiny indeed. However, a coyote is unlikely to take on one or more adult horses in an attempt to capture a foal. Baby horses that are pastured with adult horses are safer than weanlings left out alone.
Some tales of coyotes attacking adult horses—including those with riders—are circulating among the horse community, but Siino believes that these stories, particularly if they purport pack behavior, are most likely a case of mistaken identity.
“Anything is possible of course, especially as humans continue to encroach on the territory of wild animals,” she says. “But given the coyote’s ability to coexist successfully within human environments—and the fact that they tend to be naturally nocturnal and shy, which in turn brings them into even less contact with humans on horseback—I find it hard to imagine why coyotes would suddenly decide to pack up and threaten humans and their horses.”
While Siino won’t say this can’t or won’t happen, she does have an alternative theory that might explain such rumors. “I would suggest that if packs of wild dogs are indeed threatening human riders, perhaps those animals are actually feral dogs rather than coyotes,” she says. “Most laypeople wouldn’t know a wolf from a coyote from a fox from even certain domestic dogs, and over several generations of interbreeding, feral dogs emerge with an almost uniform appearance, size and even color that aren’t all that different from those of the typical coyote.
“Feral dogs are known to travel and hunt in packs, and, unlike wolves and coyotes, they do not tend to fear humans mounted upon large animals with sharp hooves. A rider who spots a pack of aggressive, medium-sized, medium-brown dogs with pricked ears out on the trail in broad daylight might naturally deduce that the dogs must be coyotes. Thus the rumors spin, again blackening the eye of the coyote that has for centuries been the pariah of the family of wild dogs.”
Jessica Jahiel, trainer and author of The Horse Behavior Problem Solver (Storey Publishing, 2004), agrees. “People who live in areas where there are feral dogs, and packs of feral dogs, may find their cats, dogs, horses and other livestock at risk from those dogs whether or not there’s been any interbreeding with coyotes,” says this rural Illinois resident. “In other words, I’d be far more worried about a pack of feral dogs than I would be about a pack of coyotes.”
Protection from Predators
Although today’s North American predators are unlikely to go after a horse, it’s wise to take precautions just in case, especially for young, old and small horses.
If mountain lions are your concern, Sadler recommends taking a number of specific precautions.
“The number one rule for keeping lions away is not to feed wildlife on your property,” she says. “Don’t put out salt licks or pet food, and make sure you clean the grease out of the barbecue pit. These items will attract deer, raccoons and skunks, and lions are bound to follow since they hunt these animals. While the lion may not come for your horse, a small horse or foal may get the lion’s attention.”
Sadler also suggests keeping plenty of open space on your property, since lions prefer dense cover. And since lions are most active at dawn or dusk, Sadler recommends keeping livestock confined to a barn or stall during the night.
Since both lions and coyotes dislike well-lit areas, consider installing a light with a motion detector near your horse corrals.
Dogs can be a good deterrent for both lions and coyotes as well. While you don’t need a dog that is going to fight off a predator, it’s good to have one that barks loudly when it senses an intruder. The barking alone can scare off the predator, or at the very least, alert you to its presence.
Coyotes, although unlikely to harm a horse, can be dangerous to other smaller livestock such as goats and sheep. Avoid attracting coyotes to your property by keeping cats and small dogs inside (coyotes see them as potential meals) and by not putting out pet food.
Coyotes can potentially harm foals too, since young horses are much smaller and more defenseless than their adult counterparts. “If you have a small foal in a pasture, or many foals in a field, be sure to keep an eye on the pasture at all times,” says Jahiel. “A foal in a field with no protection is an easy victim. A foal in a field with many adult horses, or with a guard donkey or a guard llama, is far less likely to be attacked.”
Horse owners have little to worry about from predators, according to the experts, which is good news. Nevertheless, it’s still a good idea
to take precautions to ensure your horses are safe.