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Sighting Opportunities On Trail Rides

It's interesting what you get to see when riding the trails. One would think it's not much different from hiking the trails, but it can be. The difference is caused by certain traits of horses.

For example, as a nature and landscape photographer, I've spent a lot of time outside and a lot of that time has been in forests. Occasionally, I catch wildlife other than squirrels, chipmunks and small birds, but it happens much more frequently when on horseback. Why? Because most wildlife is afraid of humans, and with good reason.

First and foremost, we're predators. In fact, we're at the very top of the predatory chain. But, we're not only predators, we're loud, messy, disruptive, and some of our worst examples litter the environment. So, the animals that have survived are the ones who's natural inclination was to run away. After millennia on the continent with humans, those that didn't run ended up on a skewer spinning slowly over a fire — the one's that ran, didn't — natural selection.

But on a horse, those animals see four legs on the ground. While a horse with rider might look like a funny animal, at least it doesn't look human, and much wildlife is willing to tolerate a closer distance than from those scary, loud, two-legged litterers.

I've had several instances of deer watching me ride and letting us come to within 50 feet or so before walking away — they didn't feel the need to run. In the summer of 2008, five of us on horseback at a walk came upon a brown fox that stayed about 150 feet ahead of us. He/she stayed on the trail and seemed to match our speed for a while, obviously not terrified of these weird, two headed, but safely four-legged animals. Similarly, I see more falcons and owls sitting in trees and watching us as we ride closely (15-30 feet) beneath them on horseback each year than I've seen over most of my life on foot.

Once, we were on one of our ranch's "dinner rides" and were happily cantering quickly (ok, mildly galloping) down a trail when we came upon a couple with their backs pressed hard against the trees as if we were going to run them down. Their faces showed expressions of shock and their dress was in dishabille — we had obviously interrupted something.

Imagine their predicament: a long walk to a very secluded spot several miles deep in the forest. Everything is perfect: the location; the weather; the quiet; the mood; UNTIL…

The silence is quickly broken by the unusual sound of a low rumble; a couple seconds later it's the sound of lots of hooves hitting the ground — many hooves! "What is that? " The hooves are getting louder — FAST! "What the Heck Is That? A pack of dogs? A herd of deer? Rhinos?" They're getting closer even faster, and LOUDER! "Elephants??? STAMPEDE! What? In a New England forest??? Quick, put your shirt on! QUICKER, stand up, and get off the trail — STAMPEDE!!!!! "

And there we came! About nine horses and riders quickly passing through and wondering about the state of a very surprised 40ish couple pressed against the trees and bushes fearful they'll be trampled or sucked away by the horse-generated slipstream — it was precious!

Such a thing couldn't quite occur like that if we'd been on foot yakking away. The surprised couple would have heard our voices many minutes before we arrived. But on horseback, it merely took seconds.

Yes, riding horses opens up all kinds of interesting opportunities to see many forms of wildlife in their natural environment doing the things they do everyday that we don't often get to see.

Editor's note: The horses and their riders shall remain nameless to protect the guilty in case the victims are still seeking to avenge a thwarted rendezvous.

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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