by Laura Crum
A wise person (and I think it might have been Aarene, at Haiku Farm, listed on the sidebar) once said, as we discussed the need to wear a helmet while riding a gentle horse, “It only takes one bee.” I would add, “Any horse can fall.” But it’s the bees I want to talk about today. Because I was recently treated to a very good demonstration of the bee issue.
In our part of the world one of the biggest dangers for horsemen and hikers is yellow jackets—a sort of ground wasp. Some people call them “meat bees,” but I believe them to be wasps. They nest in the ground. And in my own lifetime I have known literally dozens of people, some riding, some walking, who disturbed such a nest, not knowing it was there. And the yellow jackets attacked.
They seriously do attack. The horse (or person or dog) does not get stung once or twice. They get stung dozens of times, if lucky. The yellow jackets swarm them and pursue them and sting relentlessly.
The best defense is to run. The one and only time this happened to me I was riding in the mountains on a green four year old. He crowhopped and tried to bolt at the first sting, and I had the wit to understand what was happening and encouraged his bolt into a controlled long trot and we got the hell out of there. He probably only got stung a couple of times and we were fine. But it doesn’t always happen like that.
A very good friend of mine who is a competent horse trainer was taking some beginners for a ride last summer and they disturbed such a nest. My friend was thrown when his gentle horse began bucking uncontrollably, as was a very young beginner girl. The child was also stung numerous times. Everybody survived, but it was not a good moment.
And this time of year (late summer/early fall) is the dangerous season for yellow jackets. I actually limit my trail riding in August and September to dirt roads and places where I doubt I will disturb a nest. But this is no guarantee, as recent events proved.
We gather together with friends a couple of times a week in the summer to ride and rope at my uncle’s arena. We’ve been doing this all year. And last week, to our great surprise, a horse that was tied along the fence where we tie horses every single roping day, managed to disrupt a yellow jacket nest, which was there in the ground, right in the tie-up area. The yellow jackets swarmed the horse and he began bucking, kicking and pulling back violently.
For a moment no one knew what to do. The owner started toward her horse, but realized the danger of approaching him, as he was kicking out in a blind frenzy. In another second we all realized that the only safe way was from the other side of the fence. The owner scrambled over the fence and cut the leadrope (getting stung numerous times in the process), freeing the horse, who galloped away, bucking and leaping in the air.
It took awhile, but the horse was caught, and the vet was called. The horse was swelling up with hives and eventually got a shot of “dex” and some Banamine and was sent home. The owner later reported that her horse colicked that night. The hives persisted for a couple of days, but eventually the horse was fine. The rest of us were pretty freaked out, however.
My uncle destroyed the yellow jacket nest the next night, but we all avoided that area of the arena, anyway. And then, yesterday, the dog disturbed a nest (somewhere nearby, we didn’t see where) and came running in with yellow jackets stinging her. One of the ropers got stung. All I could think about was what if they swarm my son’s horse?
It didn’t happen that day, but it IS a serious risk. Even a bombproof horse will come unglued when swarmed by yellow jackets. I gave my son a short talk about staying aware and getting Henry away as fast as possible if there was any sign of yellow jackets bothering the horse. But no one knows better than I do that it isn’t always possible to protect yourself. If you step right in a nest, you are toast.
And as for my idea that I can prevent this sort of disaster by riding only on reasonably well used dirt roads and avoiding little used trails, it’s obviously a worthless concept. Because our friend’s horse stepped in a nest that was located in a place where we all tied our horses—each and every time we roped. A well traveled spot for sure. I guess it was just luck that the nest wasn’t actually disturbed until that day. But clearly if it could happen under those circumstances, it could happen anywhere.
So here’s my question for today. Does anyone else have any insights on this subject? Any experiences you’d care to share? And most important, any survival tips?