One of my more exciting memories from riding camp as a kid involved a trail ride on my 20-year-old grade pony, Pacer. I was one of the few campers who brought my own mount to the riding school that week, and Pacer quickly became known by the instructors as the guest who was a true saint among ponies: In fact, when one punky little mare had bucked off her rider twice in a lesson that week, the instructor put me on the perturbed little pony and swapped the frightened rider to sweet Pacer as a confidence-builder. (I got bucked off, too, as it were.)

But back to our story: The particularly memorable day involved a walking trail ride, which on any other morning probably would’ve been quite dull. Our camp instructor was ahead of us on a path at the edge of a clearing when the second or third pony in the line began balking, refusing to go forward on the path. Cue from the instructor: “Stephanie, please bring Pacer through so the others will follow.”
Pacer complied until she hit the same invisible wall the previous ponies had … and wouldn’t budge. I squeezed her forward with all my might.

Within a few moments Pacer obediently walked on (bless her). She got stung. She bucked. I landed in the hornets’ nest. I got stung. Much of the rest of the day is a blurry memory, but I know it involved an uncomfortable pony, an abundance of tears, a swollen thumb, and a Benadryl coma.

Photo: iStock

Fast-forward 26 years to last weekend, on a shaded trail in southwestern Virginia. I was the last one in a walking-trail-ride string of three. The riding outfitters aptly warned my mom and me that our mounts weren’t fans of horseflies. Pretty standard among horses, I thought, so I wasn’t surprised when my mom’s gelding stopped and began swishing his tail and kicking late in the ride. We all stopped and I tried to assist, looking to spot the horsefly (to help Mom kill it) and puzzling over why nothing seemed to be landing on the horse. His swishing and kicking intensified.

Right about the time my horse began wringing his tail, kicking, and then bucking in place, I spotted Mom’s horse’s flying assailant, and it was yellow. I tried to ride my horse forward, away from the bees, but he stayed put. And bucked, and kicked. And bucked some more. I’m not sure if it was instinct to stay there, or if he knew he was not supposed to get ahead of the trail guide.

I stayed on, and within a few minutes we (as a group) moved away from the threat, but not without a few stings on my mount’s hind leg, and a couple on my neck.

What could I have done differently? I had equal instincts to 1-ride away from the bees, and 2-dismount the horse. But neither seemed ideal at the time, and I’m not even sure our guide or my mom knew what was happening until the bucking commenced and I realized we had bees. These weren’t a threat we could see ahead of time: The path was shaded, and there were grass and leaves beside the trail, so we couldn’t see a hole from which ground bees might emerge. And even though many horses go up and down this trail daily, pedestrians, cyclists, and riders had not reported bees in that area.

Back safely to the office on Tuesday, I spoke with one of my coworkers, Kelly, who trail rides a lot. She said that with a bee encounter, it’s generally “every man for himself.” It can take a few horses walking through a nest area before the bees really seem to react, and then it can be a few confused seconds before riders realize why their horses are acting up. “Then everyone scatters,” she said.

[pullquote source="Winnie the Pooh"]You never can tell with bees.[/pullquote]

I’m sure it’s different for everyone in different areas of the country, on different terrain, and with different bee species. I asked Dr. Nancy Diehl, a veterinarian with an interest in behavior, if there was anything I could have done to improve this scenario.

She admitted she didn’t have any specific interesting ideas or comments on bees, but said, “It's interesting to see what horses do in response to various threats, while my own instinct and what my intuition tell me my horse should do when the bees start attacking is ‘run away!’ However, in both these cases the horses' instincts were to freeze, and buck or kick out in place. 

"I haven't found quantification, but flies and other pests seem to cause tail swishing, kicking, and bucking more than rearing and running,” Diehl continued. “I don't know why. Maybe running from every pest would just be too great an energy expenditure over the course of the day. I tend to believe our horses still have adaptive behaviors to natural threats. It might have been best for both you and your horses that they didn't flee, or bolt, which could have presented with even more dangers and risks.  We prefer horses that have some self preservation initiative, it's the ones who do things that seem to show no regard for their own safety that are truly frightening to ride or work around.”

(For the record, Dr. Diehl, I consider these ideas or comments interesting!)

She also noted that she used to work at a facility with some ground bees in the horse pastures. The horses never came in with many stings; the only ones who suffered stings were the people working in the pastures. Clearly, our horses are much better at detecting and avoiding bees than we are.

In the end, everybody in my recent run-in with the bees—two- and four-legged—was safe and sound. My mount's caretakers set to cold-hosing his stings, and a park official had headed out to check the location of the bees’ nest and see what could be done to manage them. (I'm sure many people might recall the reports of more dangerous sorts of bees out there. I'm very thankful that's not what we were dealing with.) I called the next day, and the horse had recovered well and was enjoying a day off.

Have you ever encountered bees while riding? What did you do?