Riding with the Big Five

17 April 2019

Dear safari friends!

As some of you may already know, we have started to put together new safari adventures especially for those of you that are horseriders. As always, we have chosen each safari individually and each is unique and special.

We have received many questions and concerns about riding with the big 5 of African animals. The big 5 was used to describe the 5 most coveted and dangerous animals to hunt: lion, leopard, African elephant, rhino and Cape buffalo. Fortunately, few people hunt them anymore, however, the term is still used.

Many of you are enthusiastic about safaris on horseback but have concerns about riding amongst wild animals. You have questions about what to do if a pride of lions starts chasing you and ask ‘is it not dangerous to ride an easily scared animal through the wilderness?’ These are legitimate worries and I too had these concerns before I undertook my first riding safari. To address these worries I would like to explain why it is safe to go on a horse safari.

Firstly, every safari is accompanied by at least 2 professional guides who are very well qualified. One perfectly trained lead guide rides in the front and one back-up guide who rides at the rear. They know more about the bush than you can imagine, can interpret the smallest signs and move through the wilderness as if it were their home- which for most of them it is. They pay close attention to ensure they never put horse and rider in a risky situation and they can recognize dangers before situations can arise.

Secondly, on a horseback safari, it is not the highest priority to watch predators at close range but rather to experience general nature and game in a natural and relaxed way. If you want to focus on predator viewing we recommend game drives when you can lean back and relax in safety.

Thirdly, the horses are well trained, easily controlled by an experienced rider and calm! A horse’s first reaction in case of potential danger is to flee. This strategy has served them well and enabled their successful survival over thousands of years. However, horses are also very curious and intelligent creatures; they have a natural urge to inspect unknown things and get to know them better. Their curiosity has been utilised by humans for centuries as humans domesticated and trained horses for a variety of situations. Ultimately, you can get horses used to anything with enough calmness, patience and training, be it noise, fire, crowds of people or even wild animals and predators. It is no coincidence that they are still reliably used today by police in dangerous situations.

Safari horses are trained the same way. Each of these horses is born and raised in the African wilderness, so they are used to their surroundings. In addition, each horse is trained individually and intensively. Young horses get to know dangerous situations such as meeting a lion, in the safety of a group of experienced safari horses and they are given years of training in the bush. No horses go on safari with guests until they are assessed as being ready and possessing the correct temperament.

I often hear that it is crazy to ride a potential prey species through the bush. A fourth, important point is that horses are not the natural prey of African predators. Yes, horses are closely related to the zebra, which is a favourite prey animal of lions, however, horses did not evolve in the same regions as Africa’s large cats. The biggest difference between a zebra and a horse is their colouration- no lion in Africa has ever seen a zebra without stripes! A horse looks different, smells different, is usually carrying a human on its back and most of all it behaves differently. This all causes potential predators confusion as this is not something they routinely come across or prey upon.

Behaviour in the bush is also key in how predators perceive horses and riders. If you observe prey animals in the wild you will notice that they move in herds. This gives them an advantage in their ability to detect danger and flee. The herd also offers them protection, as it is difficult for a predator to spot a single individual in the crowd.

In contrast to these prey animals during a safari, riders stay in ordered lines. If they meet a member of the big 5 they behave calmly, remain facing it and will never turn their backs or flee.  By standing their ground they do not react like prey. In nature, the rule is: everything that runs is prey and weaker than me! By standing facing any predator, we indicate that we are stronger, have no reason to flee and are therefore certainly not prey to hunt.

Here again, the good schooling of the safari horses comes to the fore. After years of training, such encounters are commonplace for them, which allows them to stay calm and relaxed even in the presence of predators.

In conclusion, we can say that we are confident that horseback safaris are very safe if the horses and guides are well trained. All of the horseback safaris we offer to you meet this standard otherwise, we wouldn’t recommend them to you.


*All the pictures you see here are from Safaris Unlimited. They offer wonderful safaris in Kenya‘s Masai Mara. You can find them on our website.



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