When warm temperatures and sunny skies made March 22 a perfect day for a trail ride, 74-year-old horseman Ed Rorke saddled up his Thoroughbred gelding Tara. Rorke had owned Tara for most of the horse’s 24 years, and both horse and rider were intimately familiar with the hillside trails near Oakland’s Piedmont Stables. Halfway through their one- to two-hour ride, as they navigated the steep and narrow French Trail in Redwood Regional Park, Rorke and his horse encountered a pair of hikers and their four dogs. Tara pricked his ears at the oncoming dogs, and Rorke, consistent with his practice, shouted out “Horse!” to let the hikers know they were coming. But the hikers failed to notice the horse or rein in their dogs, which were running ahead out of voice control.
The winding single-track trail, only three to four feet wide, did not allow room for the 1,300-pound former racehorse to move out of the dogs’ way. With nowhere to go, Tara panicked and spun toward the downhill side of the trail. Then Tara lost his balance, falling off the trail and down the steep slope it bordered.
“The dogs came at us very quickly, and Tara turned so fast that I didn’t have time to think,” Rorke remembers. He fell hundreds of feet with Tara, staying in the saddle despite being rolled over by his horse several times. Underbrush eventually stopped Rorke’s fall, but Tara fell a few hundred feet farther, fracturing his leg and neck before coming to rest where the hill ended in a ravine. Rorke was wearing a helmet and escaped serious injuries, although his head struck a tree as he fell, causing temporary loss of sight in one eye. But the horse died instantly, already lifeless by the time Rorke slid down the hill to tend to him.
The dog owners called 911, but there was little rescuers could do. The French Trail’s inaccessibility made it impossible to remove Tara’s body from the bottom of the steep ravine. In a dark moment that could have been lifted from the pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel, Rorke was faced with the heartbreaking task of removing saddle and bridle from his dead horse, and leaving his friend behind forever. The horse’s body remains there today.
Rorke and Tara’s accident was the most severe incident from a reported increase in run-ins between dogs and horseback riders. During a recent visit to Piedmont Stables, it seemed as if half the riders were nursing injuries incurred from dog-related incidents. Stories of an incident in which a dog jumped high enough to bite a mounted rider’s leg, and multiple tales of aggressive dogs that chased horses even after their riders were thrown, fed the flames of an increasingly anxious atmosphere among the equestrians. The collective opinion was that off-leash dogs were causing unsafe conditions on public trails, leading some equestrians to forgo weekend trail riding altogether. Some riders have taken to carrying mace and loud whistles with them on rides to deter out of control dogs.
Tara’s death stoked the fear of wary horse owners and led many to call for extreme measures to be taken, including leash laws on trails. In the days after Rorke’s accident, one rider printed out an information sheet about the accident and distributed it to other trail users in an attempt to spread awareness. Conversely, park officials could make certain steep and narrow trails at Redwood off limits to horses, as is the case at neighboring Anthony Chabot Regional Park.
While the general consensus among East Bay horseback riders is that random incidents with dogs have been on a steady rise, out of 126 personal injury incidents reported to the East Bay Regional Park District in the last year, only two involved horses and dogs, and one was the accident involving Tara and Rorke. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem, but without data to support it, there is little that park police can do. “If we start getting a lot of reports in an area, we’ll address that concern,” said Lt. John King of the park police. “But we can’t be in all places at once. If we don’t hear about incidents or complaints about certain activities, we assume that things are going well. It’s critical that we hear about incidents and they are reported.”
The park district works constantly to maintain trail safety. Commercial dog walkers are required to obtain permits to use park trails, and are limited to walking six dogs at a time. Dogs are required to be on leash in all staging areas, and mountain bikes are banned from most single-track trails. The Park District also oversees a diverse group of two hundred volunteer patrollers, who logged 16,257 patrol hours on area trails over the last year. The volunteers on foot, mountain bike, and horseback are in some ways more effective in raising awareness among their fellow trail-using groups than park police.
Lack of awareness caused Tara’s death. Dog owners sometimes assume that since they know their dog is a friendly lug with a gregarious personality, everyone else will immediately think the same. But when a dog stops listening to its owner, or a rider finds that they are unable to control their panicked horse, a situation can turn deadly in a matter of seconds. By the same token, equestrians can forget that their animals are intimidating to people or dogs unfamiliar with horses.
Dogs are natural predators likely to stand and fight when they feel threatened. By contrast, horses are, by nature, prey animals. When confronted with a threat, a horse’s first instinct is to panic and bolt. “You do not have to be an expert to understand how horses think,” said Monty Roberts, internationally respected horse trainer and bestselling author. “Horses never act without reason. They live life in the moment, with two goals: to reproduce and to survive. … Every action they make is for good reason.”
While dogs and horses are natural adversaries, the two species can be trained to respect one another. The real challenge is accessibility. In the Bay Area’s urban climate, the relatively minuscule population of horses lies in stark contrast to that of the ubiquitous dog. Dogs raised in Oakland and surrounding cities can easily reach adulthood without being exposed to a single horse, cow, or other farm animal. That is, until the day Mom or Dad decides to take them on a long hike in the East Bay hills.
Sarah Wharton, K-9 manager for the East Bay SPCA, hopes to teach dogs and their owners about desensitization to unusual animals and circumstances during a trail manners class for dogs to be held in area parks. The four-week class begins on July 26 and is a first for the area. For more information, visit EastBaySPCA.org.
“What I envision is helping people become aware of how their dogs impact other trail users and how other trail users perceive their dogs,” Wharton said. “People do feel it’s important to have their dog under voice control, but I see a lot of people who don’t understand what that means. They think they have their dog under control, but when their dog encounters the unfamiliar — a bike, horse, or cow — and stops listening, they tend to see that as beyond their control. It seems that it’s acceptable to many people to have the dog under voice control only 90 percent of the time. Changing that perspective would be a step in the right direction.”
Similarly, while Rorke was an experienced horseman who had ridden and owned horses for the majority of his life, not every rider is so qualified. There is no licensing or regulation process that recreational or competitive horseback riders have to pass before being given responsibility over a 1,000- to 2,000-pound animal. With the funds to buy riding supplies and a horse, enthusiastic participants also buy the ability to leave the confines of an arena and roam the open trails. Private trainers are available only to those who seek more knowledge. As a result, it is not impossible for a hiker with loose dogs to come across a rider who doesn’t fully understand the scope of their horse’s instincts or behavior patterns.
Horses and dogs continue to encounter each other on local trails every day, and the only sure thing about accidents is that they will happen. The severity of Tara’s accident drew attention to the need for safer practices in shared parkland. Safety begins with a realistic grasp of one’s own influence over their animal. The more an individual understands about their animal’s behavior patterns and thought processes, the more prepared they will be to face any given situation. It is the best advice an animal expert can dispense; knowing your animal, and training that animal diligently, results in safer interactions all the way around.