Anyone who spends time in outdoors should know how to identify poisonous snakes and how to stay away from them. In the United States, four poisonous snakes can be found — rattlesnakes, water moccasins or cottonmouths, copperheads and coral snakes. The first three have fangs and are referred to as pit vipers. The coral snake has no fangs — it injects poison with a chewing motion as it hangs on.
Rattlesnakes range in size from the 18- to 24- midgets to the diamondback — the largest of the rattlers. The diamondback often grows to more than 7 feet in length and weighs 20 to 30 pounds. It derives its name from the diamond-shaped blotches edged in yellow along its back.
Along with its cousin the timber rattler, diamondbacks make their home in the western United States. The diamondback in the dry desert regions and the timber rattler in the upper elevations. The diamondback can be found in the Bay Area home while the timber rattler can be found up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The other three poisonous snakes — water moccasins, copperheads and corals — are basically found in eastern and southern states. Although a few corals have been found in California, it is thought they were brought in as ‘pets’ and then set loose.
Rattlers can be recognized by their coloration, arrow-shaped head and rattles on the end of the tail. Rattles are composed of horny pieces loosely joined together. By shaking the tail, a buzzing sound is emitted. Fortunately, most rattlers will sound a ‘keep-away’ buzz before striking but not always.
Even some harmless snakes such as bull or gopher will imitate a rattler by shaking their tails in dry leaves or dead grass. It may sound like a buzz but only a rattler will lift its tail into clear view when buzzing.
Staying away from snakes is relatively simple — watch where you’re going! And be careful when walking, dismounting and around camp!! Snakes don’t like people any more than people like snakes. Most snakes will avoid humans and strike only when cornered or molested. A snake will not slither along a trail edge to follow a horse and rider! A snake will not see a person sitting on a rock and then crawl over there to strike! A snake laying in the middle of a trail isn’t coiled to waylay the horseman — the reptile was probably just crossing the trail and felt the ground vibrations of an approaching horse. It’s nature’s way of self-preservation, the snake coiled to defend itself.
In Mission Peak Regional Preserve a few years back on the Ohlone Trail, a huge diamondback was in the middle of the trail. He was coiled and buzzing and striking at midair. He was shedding his skin. A combination of Sig’s hoof vibrations and bulldozer churning on new home constructions along with his poor vision from shedding skin was making him mad!! He couldn’t see us that well but he knew there was a lot of ‘action’ in his air so he was just plain MAD and striking.
He’d strike. Recoil. Strike. Recoil. After each strike, he was moving closer to the uphill edge of the trail. Finally, he made it into the dry grass and slithered away. Sig and I proceeded along the trail — but we gave the bank area a WIDE swing, just in case!
To keep from getting bitten, prevention is the key in 90% of all snake bite cases. So watch where you walk or sit. If walking in rocks, wear shoes that protect the feet, ankles and legs. High top, lace-up packers or cowboy boots are worn by many riders for a reason — not to be fashionable. When sitting down, avoid rock overhangs and rocky flats unless you can really see what’s under those rocks you’re going to sit on. Snakes have been known to fall off overhead rocks and even out of trees. As a friend once told me, “There’s nothing more terrifying than to be relaxing in the shade and feel something hit your shoulder and slide on down to land with a plop at your feet. When I looked at that snake crawling over my boot, I came out from under that little oak tree like a bullet. My feet never touched the ground. It didn’t matter to me that it was an old bull snake who had been crawling along a rock and slide off by the tree. It was a snake and all I knew was I had to put some distance between me and that snake!”
If riding in rocks and one wants to dismount, ride a little circle around and through the rocks. The horse doesn’t have to scramble to get over and around the rocks but enough noise should be make to let a snake know somebody’s knocking at his front door! If he can, the snake will crawl off and get out of the way. But if he’s in a rock crevise and can’t get out, he’ll buzz or if he’s crawling off and you see it — move on to another rock. Personally, I’ve never wanted to eat a lunch while sitting on a rock with a snake on the other side!
Remember snakes are not looking for you. Or your horse. With all the camping and trail riding I do — snakes are not my biggest concerns. In fact, over the 40 years of trail riding I’ve only ridden across and seen three snakes. The first on Mission Peak, the other two over in Sunol Regional Park.
In Sunol, both snakes were coiled up in the trail just napping. One raised its head and then crawled off the trail. The other crawled a couple feet and recoiled in the shade. Neither buzzed or struck — they were just trying to cool off. But again, Sig and I left ’em alone, avoided ’em and gave them lots of trail room when going around.
As when sitting down, always remember before setting up a camp to check the ground. Carefully look for holes under trees, rocks, tables, etc. Poke a stick around a stack of scrub oak and especially in old log piles that may have been there for some time. They are ready sources of campfire wood but home to snakes who hunt mice and small rodents in the stack.
When moving anything from a rock to a log to a picnic table, always do a little stomping first and then lift the object towards you. If a snake is under a rock or a log or even under a feedsack that was left out all night, the snake underneath may strike and (hopefully) hit the rock or log or feedsack instead of you. Better yet, once a camp has been pitched always put gear on a picnic table or back in the trailer. NEVER stack saddles, pads, blankets and sleeping bags on the ground — put ’em up on something so not only snakes but other insects cannot crawl inside.
If boots are left outside, check them out by turning upside down and shaking vigorously — while holding them away from you. Snakes on cold nights will crawl into anything left lying around on the ground and that includes boots and shoes.
The old tale of a horsehair rope stretched around a campsite or bedroll keeping snakes away is just that, an old tale. Snakes will crawl over cactus needles and objects a lot sharper than the hairs in a horsehair rope. And the old movie action of a horse rearing to pound a rattlesnake into the ground is just that — movie action. About the only way horses protect people from snakes is by the amount of ground vibrations they make when milling and moving around at night when highlined, tied to a trailer, or in a portable corral.
A horse will often stand and never see a snake crawl by. Or never bat an eyelash if he does see a snake. A horse will not go hunting for a rattlesnake to protect his owner but horses can get bitten by rattlesnakes. Some horses become curious at ‘that moving rope’ through a paddock or corral or pasture and will reach down to sniff it and get bitten on the nose or head by the disturbed reptile. Or horses grazing in a pasture with rocks will be eating grass around rocks and get bitten on the face, neck or ears. Usually, the horse will suffer only reaction to the venom and will not die unless the horse is very old or very young. But it can take weeks and months of care and nursing on the part of the owner to bring the horse back to riding health.
My old horse, Sam, was bitten on the muzzle with what from the size of the fang marks was a baby rattler. His head swelled to about twice its normal size. Eyes swelled shut and to keep his nose and air passage open, soft rubber tubing was inserted and taped in place. When one ran a finger along the side of his head, it sounded like the beans in a bean bag chair being displaced.
For about two weeks, Sam’s head and neck were hot/cold packed every three hours and he was on antibiotics to keep infection down. After two weeks, the packing went to every 8 hours and after four weeks his eyes and nose swelling went down and he could see and breathing tubes were removed.
It was a long six months but Sam completely recovered except his right eye and nostril tended to weep and drip plus he had sort of a silly smile when he’d roll his lip up. According to vets, it was nerve damage. Sam went on to live a long life but never again investigated ‘moving ropes’ on the ground.
A snake bite kit is handy but TALK to your family doctor about buying one, how to use it, if one should be used — there is new medical advice on snake bite kit uses — and if bitten, what should one do! All doctors will agree that if bitten, don’t panic. Running around screaming “I’ve been bitten!!”, “I’ve been bitten!!” with people chasing you does no good except spread venom through one’s system faster. So talk to your doctor and get his advice.
By being aware of what’s around you, where one walks, sits, camps plus knowing what is and isn’t a poisonous snake can help to avoid the reptiles and keep one from getting bitten. (And remembering that in hot, dry weather snakes and reptiles seek cool, moist places such as underwater tubs, along barn aisle walls, underfeed tubs and even under parked horse trailers will also help to KEEP you from getting snake bite). Plus the odds of getting snake bite are about as good as winning the California Lottery!