Whenever I give talks in other states about long distance horseback travel in Nevada, someone always asks about dangerous encounters with wildlife. Were you ever attacked by bears or wolves?, they ask with a look on their face that’s a mixture of hope and horror. I enjoy watching their expression become quizzical once I respond. In my opinion, the most likely, and potentially dangerous, wild animal encounter you can have riding in Nevada… is wild horses.
In the course of riding thousands of miles around this wonderful state, my horse and I have had run-ins with countless wild horses. They are not always pleasant encounters. I don’t think anyone has been charged by wild horses more than us! We’ve dealt with wild horses on the trail, in camp, and even in the middle of the night.
Nevada is home to more wild horses than any other state – more than 40,000 according to the Bureau of Land Management’s last count in March of this year – so chances are good that you’ll run into some if you’re out riding on public land. Wild horses are territorial and they can be aggressive, so it’s important to be prepared to keep yourself and your horse safe. Here are six tips for riding among wild horses:
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Check out the Bureau of Land Management’s herd management area map. It shows the areas throughout the state where horses tend to be found. If you are planning a trip, it will help to know in advance if you’ll be riding through wild horse territory. Keep in mind, however, horses do not understand boundaries on maps, so they may be found just outside the designated herd management areas as well.
NOT ALL HORSES ARE THE SAME
Neighborhood horses (wild horses that live around residential areas and are desensitized to people, traffic, etc.) may just look at you with indifference as you ride by. Horses that have recently experienced a gather (round-up) may flee as soon as they spot you. In my experience, the horses that tend to be the most aggressive are those with the least experience seeing humans riding. As you would expect, stallions are usually the aggressors, but any horse can be dangerous, so never let your guard down.
THERE IS SAFETY IN NUMBERS
I think we have so many encounters because I mainly ride solo. A wild horse might think twice about going after a group of riders. Think of all the noise a group makes – saddles squeaking, talking and laughing, hoof falls and horse sounds, maybe a few dogs around the group. Noise is a good deterrent. But, if you are like me and prefer riding solo, just know one horse is more of a target.
WATCH FOR SIGNS
Stallions get in the habit of defecating at landmarks where they frequently roam. These stud piles can get very big if horses are passing by regularly. The manure piles tend to be at intersections of roads and trails or breaks in fence lines. Keep an eye out for them and note the age of the manure. If you’re seeing a lot of stud piles with fresh manure, it’s a good sign that wild horses currently call that area home. If you aren’t seeing any sign, or the manure looks really old, then horses probably aren’t in the area often.
If you are charged by a wild horse, you must protect your horse. In all my encounters, there has only been one thing that worked 100% of the time to scare them away, whether it was one horse or 50 horses. A plastic bag. Yes, a plain old plastic bag from the grocery store. I keep mine tied to the end of a short English riding crop. Your horse should be desensitized to the noise and sight of a plastic bag (from the saddle and the ground) but trust me, it will strike terror in the heart of any wild horse. I like the plastic bag because it takes up no space and weighs nothing, and it is high impact with the least amount of damage to the horse.
If you are camping in wild horse areas, you’ll want to sleep with one eye open because at some point you’ll probably be awoken by the sound of thundering hooves. Here again, the plastic bag is handy, but just about anything that flaps and makes a noise will work, like a tarp or jacket. To deter wild horses from coming into camp, you can make a perimeter of plastic bags on stakes. It might not stop them completely, but plastic bags blowing in the breeze will give them pause.
All of this isn’t meant to scare you from heading out into the backcountry! I have had just as many herds run away or ignore us completely. There’s something incredible about riding by wild horses out on the range, so don’t be scared. Just stay alert and be safe, like you would with any other wild animal.