Give me a snake over a horse any day
When I first moved to England, I used to tell people how relaxing it was to be able to go for walks in the countryside without the fear of meeting any deadly wildlife. After all, the chances of coming across a Brown Snake on my path here in the UK are zero. But what this country lacks in deadly wildlife it makes up for in dangerous domesticated beasts.
As an Aussie, I know exactly what to do if I see a snake on my walking trail. I know to move back slowly, stomp my feet a bit, and wait for it to slither away. I know the difference between a friendly Carpet Python and a not-so-friendly Red Belly Black Snake. And although I never enjoyed coming across these kinds of reptiles during my bush walks, I always felt confident in my ability to safely handle the situation.
I never would have imagined that walks through the countryside in England would cause me more fear than in Oz but that has been the case.
As much as I adore the lovely walking trails here in the UK – I have come across many that require you to venture across private fields with livestock in order to continue the trail and often there’s no ‘option B’ to avoid the field.
Last year, after standing at a stile beside a paddock where a large bull was grazing (shitting myself at the thought of entering his territory), I was met by a more experienced walker who advised me that as long as I moved calmly through the paddock, I’d be okay. She reassured me the bull and wouldn’t be interested in me as long as I showed no interest in him. Her advice proved correct.
Following the incident, I’d heard from others that farmers here in England will never put a dangerous animal in a paddock when there are public footpaths that run through it.
With this knowledge, I reluctantly followed the public footpath signs yesterday climbing over a stile into a paddock with four horses, in order to get to the other section of my walk. I told myself to stay calm and walk slowly. I told myself that they wouldn’t be in a public-access field unless they posed no threat to humans.
Half way across the field I heard the sound of a horse galloping towards me.
What the f*ck do you do when you are in the middle of a paddock and a huge beast is running full-throttle towards you? What the F*CK do you do?
Do you turn and face it?
Do you run?
Do you shout at it?
Do you pretend to be dead?
I told myself to stay calm and just keep walking slowly even though I could hear this huge thing bounding towards me. I told myself that if I just kept walking and paid no attention to the animal, it would stop running at me.
The horse galloped right up to me until I could feel its breath on the back of my neck. It then began butting the back of my head.
What the f*ck do you do when you are in the middle of a paddock and a huge beast is head-butting you? What the F*CK do you do?
My heart was thumping so hard in my chest that I thought I would faint. I tried to keep it together but after it head-butted me for a third time I couldn’t help but let out a guttural cry which must have scared it off.
I then continued to walk slowly, feeling like I was going to collapse from the fear of the horse coming back at me again, until I got over the stile at the other end of the field and balled my eyes out.
Most people are aware that Australia is a land of deadly animals. But how many tourists are aware of the risks of walking in the English countryside? And what information is out there to educate walkers about what to do in this kind of scenario?
I Googled the hell out of the topic when I got home and there seems no consensus on what to do. Some say to turn and face the animal – raising your arms to appear bigger. Others say that any sudden movements can spook a horse and cause it to rear up. Some websites tell you to make a lot of noise, others say that that’s the worst thing you could do…
Last year an 87-year old woman was trampled to death as she walked through a public field with grazing cattle. Apparently at least two members of the public die each year in these kinds of incidents. I read another story of a young horse running after a child and biting it aggressively for no reason and one of a man who was kicked severely by a horse as he walking on a public footpath through farmland.
In England and Wales there are estimated to be 140,000 miles (225,000km) of public rights of way including footpaths and byways. Many of these trails run through fields where cattle and horses are kept. There are laws that are meant to ensure farmers don’t put dangerous animals on these parts of their land – but what exactly does ‘dangerous’ mean? A horse that is considered friendly by its owner could become dangerous if it encounters someone who doesn’t know how to react when it runs towards them.
I guess I just wish there was some kind of ‘move back slowly, stomp your feet a bit, and wait for them to slither away’ rule that someone could teach me so I could go forth with confidence as I explore the English countryside.