When I still lived at home and my brother still rode horses, we went out for a ride one nice cool fall day. We decided to follow the power line trail back behind the barn to the top of the ridge. You can do that a lot up where I grew up because, AVISTA (the local Power Lord), hates running their butts out in the middle of the dang woods to fix the power lines every time the wind blows, so they have created super wide and clear paths on which to run power lines - no kidding, you can drive a truck and/or a large 4-Wheeler up most of them - I know, because I have done it.
I was on my black 4-H gelding, Nightfire, and my brother was on his bay 4-H gelding, Peppy. I had to be around 14 years old making my brother 12. We warmed up, and practiced our horsemanship skills a bit at home, and then headed out. The area surrounding my family's house is heavily wooded with pines in every direction. We liked the woods behind the barn because it was close and yet completely out of sight from our parents. We both had ridden this trail before, and we had built numerous forts in these woods on the flat before the ridge so we were no stranger to that part of the woods.
Nightfire and kiddo Stephanie at a competition.
Photo by Stephanie Dayle (c) 2013
The power line trail cuts through the woods on the flat and then immediately heads up the ridge (my folk's place kind of sits on the side of a mountain ridge near its base so if you are back behind the house at all you have to go up, if you are in front you are going downhill just a little ways to the valley floor) which is why we both grabbed breast collars for the horses while tacking up. We trotted to base of the ridge then started up it. I noticed a deer leg laying in the middle of the trail a hundred or so yards back from the barn. My brother and I blamed the coyotes (this is really not an uncommon sight up here in the southern Selkirk mountains coyotes love road kill and left overs from hunters so they pack the bones and parts around every where).
Part way up the going gets steep and the horses have to pick and choose their footing, so we walk and let them choose the best path with only a little guidance from us. Since it was towards the end of the day when we left I knew we had only a good hour or so worth of light. By the time we hit the half-way point where it flattens out some more daylight was already starting to dim.
The horses were breathing heavily so we stopped for a minute to let them catch their breath. I loved climbing with the horses, the views, the fresh air, all of it really. I think the horses did too they were always in a good mood out on the trail; Peppy and Nightfire were both seasoned pros at trail rides, thanks to hundreds of miles their young owners put on them. On this day though Peppy was acting nervous - he creep walks when he was nervous, never standing still but taking teeny tiny steps in a forward direction. Nightfire was also acting a tad nervous - his habit was to randomly and repeatedly toss his head in the air slowly driving his own mad.
Nightfire was always a bit of a chicken heart so I paid little attention to his nervousness. We were thick in the woods and what light was left in the sky had a hard time penetrating the trees and reaching the forest floor - it would be just like Nightfire to scare the crap out of himself so he could go back to the barn sooner. I figured Peppy was just feeding off of my own gelding. I noticed chunk of deer fur off to the side of the trail and pointed it out. My brother shook his head, "Those darn things drag shit around everywhere..."
Coyotes - probably decedents of the ones mentioned in the story.
Photo by Stephanie Dayle (c) 2013
So we headed up the trail again, I couldn't wait to get to the top - the view was always amazing. It was about then I noticed how quiet the woods had become - I couldn't hear a bird, or squirrel, climbing on we had to split up to get around a big granite bolder right in the middle of the trail. My horse's nervousness tripled the second my brother and Peppy took off to the right and I went left. If it hadn't been so steep I am sure he would've been prancing like an idiot.
When we came back together to both of the horses were starting to blow - something I seen horses do when they catch a really alarming scent or I have also seen them to do it while running around in play. I asked my brother if we should turn around, but he thought they were just picking up on some deer sent that was most likely on the trail directly ahead of us. So we continued on up. The horses were now wide eyed - with ears perked forward and tense - it was getting worse the further up we went. We were so deaf to what they were trying to tell us.
After a little further up the trail my brother agreed that we would to go up just a little further then turn around. He thought if the boys smelled something dangerous maybe we ought to listen to them and go home. Something was starting to creep me out too - it felt as though we were being stalked, not watched, but stalked. I have very rarely felt like it ever, but its a different feeling and it triggers a primeval mind-set. You stop thinking about everything - you think of only going home, getting off the mountain, not of safety or how pretty things are. You are tense and tight during such time and I swear I can hear and see 10 times better than when I am at home safe and secure and relaxed.
This picture is not mine - but it is titled "Dead Deer Walking" this is how quiet they can be when they are stalking. This picture went viral a few years back and I am using it under "Fair Use" Policies.
There one last bolder in the way but it left enough room for us both to use the same direction to get around it - and when we hiked the horses up and around it when came upon a grizzle sight. A deer kill, about 2 or 3 days old it looked. It had been partially eaten, there was lots of fur around - it was miss a front leg. In the damp dirt around the front of the opened gut there were a maze of Mountain Lion prints clear as day. We both looked down and then looked at each other now 100% sure of what was spooking the horses. "Let's get out of here." I said. We pivoted both horses around and started walking down the mountain as quickly as I thought we could. Both horses were pulling at the reins and wanting to go faster, but due the steep grade of the mountain we were still forced at a fairly slow pace.
Again, not my picture - but what we saw was similar. This picture also went viral a few years back and I am using it under "Fair Use" Policies.
The next thing I recall is a large branch snapping to my left. The horses had been compressed like metal springs waiting to be sprung and that branch was the trigger they needed to spring. I was so startled that I let Nightfire go - as I saw my brother do with his horse as well. Both horses half-ran and jumped down the mountain (now this was a steep trail one, I had previously judged only to fit for walking, not jumping or galloping down - it was a good thing we were good little riders back then for we surely sent our horses crashing).
All their fear was suddenly let loose all at once and we "Snowy Rivered" it down the mountain. During this time I was exceedingly focused and its seemed like time was moving in slow motion - I could've sworn I heard something behind us, but it may have been my imagination.
Once we hit the bottom of the ridge and I pulled Nightfire to a stop my brother did the same a few strides ahead of me. After all, what if it was all in my head? What if I had allowed my chicken hearted horse to scare me too.
The second we stopped we heard a loud crash behind us as if something suddenly large suddenly came to a halt - we turned sprang forward again, the only time Nightfire ever performed a flawless rollback. My heart was trying leap out of my chest as I urged my horse on - he was one generation off the track so I was going to see exactly what he had, I knew what the chances were of out running a Mountain Lion so I opened him up.
Photo by Stephanie Dayle (c) 2013
Peppy was an ex-barrel racer so I knew he could move too - and he did. He accelerated at an amazing rate tucking his butt right under himself and he was gone, man even at 14 that bay could still turn and burn. Nightfire always took a little longer to accelerate, spurred on by my flapping legs gained on Peppy once he hit his top sprinting speed. Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes and were blown back into my hair, his mane whipped my face as we caught the bay and begun to pull away.
Both of us kids came barreling out of the woods with our horses, and around the barn where hit the driveway. I pulled up and turned Nightfire around just in time to see a flash of gold jump up into a fur - its bows were moving up and down under the weight of what I guessed a Mountain Lion! Dad was working down in the backyard so we dismounted and ran up to him scared and whining - hurried we told him the story, almost on the verge of hysterics. He didn't believe us - I pointed to the tree with branches that had now stopped moving.
He still didn't believe us. So I said fine, don't believe us, could he at least get a gun and follow us back up to the barn so we could untack? No. He said we had scared ourselves silly, and ran our poor horses into the ground, and now we could go put the horses away ourselves. After all, they were our horses so we got to take care of them.
Heart broken, crushed and scared, I suggested perhaps Mom could come out and go back up to the barn with us, I mean we were just scared - he said to leave mother alone as she was finishing dinner that we were late for and setting the table (without any help from us - this unspoken part did not need to be spoken), now go put your horses away and get your butts inside for dinner.
Hey lets go back up there and hang out with our pal the cougar!
Scared to death my brother and I thought to put the horses in the lower pasture and set the tack on the ground or in the wood shed so we didn't have to go back up near the barn....but that would leave my old pony "Stormy Bear" in the upper pasture by the barn all by himself - essentially cougar food, or so I thought. So armed with nothing we walked our mounts back up to the barn. We got inside, shut the doors, lit the place up and ripped the saddles off and booted the horses outside in the pasture with Stormy. Loose in the pasture they seemed rather unconcerned - where as just minutes ago they were wide eyed with fear.
We tossed them their evening feed and then debated on whether or not to to walk back to the house in the dark on foot. Scared silly we had little choice - if we waited for Mom or Dad to come up there and get us - we would be in big trouble. That being said - looking back on the situation I guess you could say we were more afraid of Mom and Dad than we were a Mountain Lion.
So we killed the lights - because leaving them on was another big no-no (and why not give every advantage to a Mountain Lion who had just chased us off his kill?) - and decided to make a run for it together out a side door. We slammed the door hard because we didn't want to have to have to go back and re-shut the stupid thing - and sprinted for the house. I have never ran faster in my entire life nor to this day. Winded and still scared we hit the front door, and while washing up told mom the story.
Photo by Stephanie Dayle (c) 2013
Dad took 4-wheeler up the trail and found the deer and Mountain Lion tracks - which he tracked to the house. And you know what? Instead of telling us he was sorry, he told us we were stupid for ignoring first signs of the Mountain Lion we'd seen, and that we were lucky we weren't dead. And by the way if it had wanted to get one of you it would have.
It most likely was just chasing you off its kill and when you ran from it - it gave chase. We shouldn't have run, he said. You never run from a Mountain Lion, it triggers a chase instinct, he will always go after you. Stand up and look big, make noise, make it known that you know he's there and you will foil his plan, knowing his advantage is gone many big cats will go away or break off any oncoming attack.
Well that's nice to know now. Thanks for the advice Dad.
PS - Don't be too hard on my Dad, like most Dads he's softened with age and everyone makes mistakes and they live in a very rural area, stuff that makes the news in town doesn't raise an eyebrow out there. I am not mad at him for not going with us to the barn, I forgave him a long time ago as daughters tend to do.