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Tips for Handling Dog Attacks from Horseback

Nothing can turn a nice ride into a nightmare faster than encountering an aggressive dog. Here are some tips for keeping yourself and your horse safe.

Top photo: Flickr/smerikal/Creative Commons License

“Man’s best friend” can sometimes be a horse’s worst enemy. While many of us have undoubtedly encountered the rude and uneducated dog (and dog owner) in public places or at horse shows, the aggressive dog is a much scarier issue to encounter; an attacking dog and a spooked horse make a recipe for certain disaster. How can you safely handle the situation?

Read the scene. You only have a few seconds to assess your horse’s behavior, the dog’s behavior, and the overall environment. If you’re on a public trail system and the dog is in a well-fenced yard, you may only need to worry about keeping your horse calm enough to pass by. If you’re riding along a busy roadway and the dog is streaking towards you across an open lawn, you’ll need to make a decision quickly. Is the dog with a handler? Does the handler appear to be in control and aware of the problem? On shared trails, horses always have the right-of-way but some hikers may not be aware of this rule.

Fight or flight? If you can do so safely, remove yourself and your horse from the scene. If the dog is threatening and not in full-blown attack mode, it is safest for all parties to move away from the dog if possible. Know your horse: If you have a steady-eddie mount who is generally pretty unflappable in surprising situations, you may have better luck moving across the road or looping off the trail to get away from a threatening dog. A spooky horse that’s likely to bolt in tough situations will need to be calmly walked away from the scene–a horse in full flight mode can increase the aggression level in a dog and encourage it to give chase. Some horses may behave better if you dismount, but others may act spookier: if you feel more comfortable controlling your horse from the saddle, stay mounted whenever possible. In an extreme situation with a truly panicked horse and a viciously-attacking dog, you may need to keep yourself safe by releasing your horse and getting yourself to safety.

Defend yourself if necessary. In a dog attack, the victim can legally defend himself by whatever means necessary to stop the dog; many riders likely are not carrying handguns and would not be comfortable in killing an attacking dog though it’s within a victim’s legal rights to do so. Pepper spray is a great tool to keep on your person–generally a blast or two of pepper spray is enough to deter the average dog. (Police dogs are trained to ignore pepper spray but the average civilian dog will not be so hard to deter.) Carrying pepper spray is also advisable for trail riders anyway, especially for solo riders–it’s excellent defense against both human attackers and bears if you’re riding in the wilderness. Again, it’s up to you as a horseman to decide if you are better suited to use your pepper spray from the saddle or from the ground.

Did you bring your own dog along? In New York state (where this author and her source of information for this piece live) if a dog is attacking your dog you are responsible to break up the fight (and do not have the same rights as a victim of a dog attack to your person in killing the dog.) This is important to keep in mind if you bring your own dog on the trail with you–especially if your dog is off the leash.

While ultimately nothing can really and truly prepare a horse for a dog attack, as horsemen it’s also our responsibility to do our homework whenever we can–familiarize yourself with public areas where you intend to go riding and mark out the places where you might be likely to run into dogs, especially if you riding on roadways or near private property. While we hope that other public trail users are also familiar with guidelines and trail rules, we have to keep in mind that some hikers or dog walkers may not be experienced in dealing with horse encounters. If you encounter a dog owner on the trail who is letting their dog run underfoot of your horses, explain to them how best to keep their dog under control to keep everyone safe–this will help prevent messy encounters in the future.

If you run into a truly aggressive dog, remember that your first priority is your own safety. Do what you need to do to keep yourself safe, whether that includes dismounting, releasing your horse, riding away from the situation or using pepper spray.

Do you have your own dog attack experiences and tips that have worked for you? Please share!

Special thanks to Lieutenant David Bentley for his advice, both as law enforcement and as horseman.

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