“When you enter the ocean, you enter the food chain, not necessarily at the top.” Jacques Cousteau
What does a grizzly bear have to do with horses?
Allow me to tell you a story.
I love Yellowstone National Park. It is as close to the Serengeti as I’m ever likely to get. Now that wolves have been restored, the ecosystem is balancing out (although the rapid warming of the climate is posing severe problems to the Park.). There is no bigger thrill than hearing wolves howling in the wild.
I’ve seen wolves, bears, both black and grizzly, bison, elk up the wazoo, all sorts of wildlife in the Park. Always, from a distance. These are wild animals and the Park Rangers make sure you remember that.
One day, though, Dennis and I went hiking on Blacktail Plateau. It’s a ways from the Lamar Valley, which seems to be the preferred area for the charismatic megafauna. We were alone. It was a lovely day, sunny yet cool, the sky clear blue…a perfect Yellowstone day.
We found several wolf kills, elk felled by the Blacktail Pack. It was fascinating, seeing how the wolves had driven the elk into the rocky outcrops, thereby making it more difficult for the elk to outrun them. A healthy elk can easily outrun a wolf, except in the deepest snows, and even then, the wolf has to run through it, too.
My husband will tell you I’m as elk-crazy as any hunter. So it was with huge joy that I found this elk skull, after puzzling out the tracks. Here, several wolves had ambushed the elk. They’d driven him uphill, trapped him in amongst the rocks, and killed him. The skeleton had been disarticulated, where the wolves had carried off parts of the kill to eat without arguments. There were hunks of hide here and there, although I found no meat. The leg bones and the skull had little scraps of meat and hide still attached. I was so torn: I could not legally take the rack out of the Park. Besides, it wouldn’t fit in our car, it was way too big. Besides, it stank..I guessed it had been killed about two weeks before.
It was while we were still noodling around the kill site that we found the bear track. One. One paw print, of a bear obviously too big to be a black bear. Besides, the black bears stay in the forest, although where we were, there were lots of whitebark pines. Both species eat the cones of the whitebark pine in the fall. They’re full of sugars and carbs, precisely the ticket for a bear wanting to put on weight for the winter.
No, this was a grizzly bear track. Not a big one, mind you, but big enough. I looked at it, at first, with enjoyment: look at this. It’s far bigger than my outstretched hand. Wow. A grizzly bear was here.
Yes. A grizzly bear was here. By this stinky old elk carcass. Right here. In fact, he could still be right here.
The hairs on the back of my neck went up.
I am not afraid of wolves. They don’t attack humans, even when provoked. But bears…bears aren’t known for being all too kindly disposed to humans. This was September, the days when the snows return only too soon (in fact, right after we left the Park, it began snowing.) Grizzlies are busy in the fall, eating around the clock, laying on fat for the hibernation. They’re not too picky about what they eat, either. It usually is whatever they find: berries, carrion, naked apes clad in down vests and hiking boots.
The lovely day, the lovely spot, became one charged with a painful awareness that I was in the domain of the biggest predator in the lower 48.
I wasn’t in some hefty car with the windows rolled up and a Park Ranger saying ‘excuse me you must turn back because there’s a grizzly in the road.’ No, I was on foot, unarmed, possibly in the vicinity of a grizzly bear. Nothing separated us but air and a little distance. They’re not known for the good humor, although most of the time, they’re willing to let bygones be bygones. (as long as you understand that the bygones are his. Not yours.)
Grizzlies are unpredictable. You never know what they’re going to do. While I was pretty sure the bear was no where around, I didn’t know that with absolute certainty. He could have been laying just downwind, watching us intently. And while they are big and not known for endurance running, they are tremendously quick in the short run. Far faster than me, I was certain.
I was wearing a bear bell. It had been annoying me earlier, interfering with my hearing everything else. I was suddenly very glad to have it.
I immediately ran through all the things that I learned may incite a bear attack. We hadn’t surprised a bear. We didn’t see or hear a bear. No cubs present. No food on us. No? NO? What had I just been handling? A big old stinky elk rack, that, while it had merely a scrap of hair on it, still smelled of carrion. Oh, yeah, I smelled like dead elk. Maybe this was the bear’s elk, one he’d stolen from the wolves once they’d killed it. Maybe he was still very possessive of it, despite the lack of any meat on it. Maybe he really WAS watching, waiting for us to try to take his elk.
We very quietly turned and made our way back down the slope to the car which had, somehow, moved fifteen or twenty miles from where we’d left it half a mile back. We didn’t run. We kept our ears wide open and I kept throwing glances over my shoulder. The wind, damn it, was blowing my scent uphill, right towards the treeline where the grizzly may have been. I felt very small, very stupid, very conscious that, despite the fact that my species has conquered the planet, this member of it was very vulnerable, still, to the speed, the temper, the jaws and claws of a grizzly bear.
When I got back into the car, I locked the door and heaved a huge sigh of relief. No bear. I felt glad to be ‘safe’…and yet a bit disappointed that I’d not seen the bear up close.
Was I scared? Hell yes, and yet…and yet…I was thrilled. Very few places are left on earth where I can walk where wild animals live, without a guide, without a fence between me and the creatures, where they are still very wild and still very free to act as they always have. Had I been attacked, the bear would have, unfortunately, been tagged as a dangerous bear. But I would have had it coming, because I was stupid. I was in his land. I hadn’t broken any rules by going onto the plateau, but I had risked an attack, unthinkingly.
This, I learned, was what it truly feels like to be ‘prey’. No movie, no amusement park thrill ride, no house of horrors is as scary, because it was REAL.
And this is what some horses experience every day.
We are so unpredictable. We walk amongst horses, looking at them directly, with a predator’s focused, stereoscopic attention. Our body language is full of intent: I am going to do something to THIS horse. We put halters on their heads, restricting their movements. We put them inside stalls, where they cannot escape. We make them get into trailers where they move without using their legs. We smell: of cooked meat, of perfume (which gives me headaches, I can’t imagine a horse doesn’t feel even worse), of alcohol, tobacco,of all sorts of things that aren’t natural. Our emotions are in full play: “I TOLD him to pay that bill and NO he has to go and FORGET ABOUT IT, like he does every single time I end up doing ALL the housework and he can’t even remember to pay a damned phone bill.” And all the time our body language is saying we are angry, upset, whatever. Your horse knows you are thinking, but he has no idea that the feelings aren’t towards him. Or perhaps they are: damn it, he knows what I mean when I say ‘get over’, he won’t, he’s being stubborn AGAIN. Take the bit, damn it. Christ, I hate it when you blow up like that the girth is NOT THAT TIGHT.
Or we are worse: we are mentally unbalanced, as was June, and broadcasting the most evil of intentions, usually at other humans…but the horse picks it up as evil towards HIM. He doesn’t know you’re mad at your spouse. He thinks, holy shmoley, she is ready to kill something.
And if, like me, you are hurting the horse, unintentionally but still consistently, all he can think is, she is going to hurt me again. She did it yesterday after doing the very same thing she is doing today. I am going to be hurt again.
In self-defense, I stopped riding Hank when it became obvious that he was bolting from the mounting block out of fear of pain, not bad manners. I still feel very badly about it. Outward appearances gave me no indications that his back was sore. I should have realized that his flinching was caused by my scrubbing his back, not from the crazy wind blowing right through the barn. I didn’t listen. I didn’t pay attention to what he was telling me. No wonder he thought, I have to escape her.
But I know there are plenty of folks who would have forced the issue: put a huge bit in his mouth, or have someone stand with a chain shank over his nose, or hobble him, stuff two saddle pads instead of one under an already too small saddle, oh, plenty of ways to make a horse stand for mounting. We have a hundred ways of exerting leverage and restraint on a horse. We may be smaller but we are far smarter.
It’s a wonder we can ride them at all.
But now, I know what it feels to be truly afraid of an animal. It may have only been my fevered imagination, but bear attacks are not that uncommon, and sad to say, as the ecosystem dies, they will become far more common. The grizzly bears are starving, because everything else is dying out, too.
Now, I move slowly, I speak softly, I treat the horse as if I were a prey animal, too. A dominant one, mind you, but not a predator. I never abused a horse, but now I am far more aware of how my actions can be misinterpreted by a horse. I have always been patient with them, but now I am more so. There’s no need to rush. There’s no need to abuse the horse. As I’d said before, with one exception,(that being Smoke) horses usually refuse to do something for one of three reasons: they’re in pain, they’re afraid, or they don’t understand what it is you want of them.
I came away from Yellowstone, having learned an important lesson. And so very glad that I wasn’t turned into grizzly shit.