The fictional character Sherlock Holmes once said he didn’t much like horses: “They’re dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle.” People who work with horses daily sometimes agree—even though we love our equine companions. Many of us have been kicked, bitten, stepped on, trampled, knocked down, pinned against walls, run away with, bucked off, dragged or fallen on. We wear the scars and walk the limps of these events. But some of our friends don’t walk again, some are brain-injured to lifelong incapacity, and some die on the spot.
[Disclaimer: EQUUS may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our site. Products links are selected by EQUUS editors.]
Horse sports are unique in their dependence on an extremely powerful prey animal—that’s their greatest draw and greatest danger. When 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of horseflesh meets 50 to 200 pounds of human, the results can be extreme. Horses are also easily startled and super-quick to react. For these reasons, injury rates are 20 times greater among horse handlers than motorcycle riders.
All of us become lax on occasion. The barn gets busy with too many horses or too many people, and standards slide. Trainers hate to harp about footwear, and even the most experienced equestrian may have trouble teaching children the fine line between fear and caution. Adults roll their eyes and huff when told how to hold a lead rope. We forget that barn friends often model their safeguards after ours. By increasing our own safety, we can also increase theirs.
So, based on my own experiences and self-reflection, I offer six easy habits that help keep us from harm and make the horse world a safer place. They’re basic and, in a sport where every practice is dredged in opinion, relatively well accepted. Follow them daily with every horse, and they will become automatic.
1. Respect Your Limits
People tend to be over-confident, especially around animals. We pride ourselves on our intelligence and forget that equine brains don’t work like ours do. But horses are humbling. Just when we think we can predict their behavior, they often prove us wrong.
That’s why, when you work with horses, it’s important to learn your limits—physically, mentally and emotionally—preferably under the supervision of a qualified trainer. When brushing a horse, for example, you learn where to position your body in relation to his; which behavioral signals to watch for and what they mean; and how to move smoothly and calm him with your voice. Likewise, if a training session isn’t going well, it’s wise to be aware of your level of frustration and how it might make you do things you regret.
Occasionally, you will see someone handle a horse in a manner that may be appropriate for their level of expertise but would be unsafe for you. Respect your gut feelings and stay true to your limits. People have very different skill levels. A trainer with a thousand hot horses under her belt will handle them differently than the part-time rider who is just getting to know his first mount. Do what’s safest for you at your level.
2. Always use a Halter
Whenever you are going to work around a horse, halter him first. The halter gives you some control, but more important, it reminds the horse to mind his manners. Horses are usually permitted to buck, rear, run and kick as forms of play when they’re free of tack. They learn that such activity is unacceptable while wearing a halter.
We might save a few seconds by leaving the halter on the post while applying fly spray or tossing a blanket over the horse’s back, but the risk is enormous. When unexpected sounds or movements cause your mount to spook, even the calmest horse could land in your lap.
Sometimes, in a hurry, we pull the halter’s headpiece over a horse’s ears but fail to snap the throatlatch. Or we loop the halter around a horse’s neck and tie it just behind his head, with the noseband dangling. These practices also place us at risk. Five seconds of extra time to fasten the halter properly could save you an injury. You never know when a gang of loose horses will come galloping down the road, or a semi driver will pull the air brakes with a loud whoosh. To a horse in a human world, scary things happen all the time.
3. Keep your focus
Your horse is paying attention to his surroundings even if you aren’t. If something goes awry, his instincts will move him out of harm’s way in the blink of the eye. Humans have duller senses and delayed reactions due to all the cognitive gumbo in our minds. So grooming, tacking up and riding aren’t the best times for multi-tasking. Put the phone away. If you have a truly critical call, tie your horse safely and move out of her space but within her sight. Save detailed conversation for the times before and after handling your horse. Watch for equine cues that something might be wrong—tensed neck muscles, a raised head, a swish of the tail. He’s warning you of possible hazards … be sure you’re listening.
Pay attention to yourself also. If you’re rushed, upset, hungry or tired, alter your plans. Groom your horse instead of riding him, clean tack, start early to your next appointment, or go back to the office to finish remaining tasks. Horses really do pick up on human emotions. They become nervous because we’re tense or resistant because we’re annoyed. Go home, regroup, come back tomorrow.
4. Watch your footing
Most discussions of footing center on how slippery, hard or soft footing poses injury risks to horses. But bad footing puts your safety at risk, too. Horses have a remarkable ability to navigate through the worst muck. But they have their limits and, in fact, slip and fall on muddy conditions all the time. If yours loses his footing, you could end up with 1,300 pounds of horse lying on your chest, plus four large hooves scrambling midair as the horse tries to roll over and get back up. Avoid mud and ice or deep, sloppy footing. It’s not worth a fall: You’ll get hurt and chances are, your horse will, too. If you negotiate snow, have your farrier apply rim pads and borium in winter to give your horse’s shoes some traction.
In addition to mud or ice, stay away from heavy equipment lying on the ground. If something went wrong, you could land on it. Although jumpers need jumps and barrel racers need barrels, needless equipment should be moved outside the arena and away from trails.
5. Take special care with young children
Do you want your small children or grandchildren to learn to ride? You may be tempted to put them on your own horse. Don’t. The size differential between little kids and full-size horses is huge: It’s a long way to fall, and it’s hard to learn with your heels so near the withers. Instead, find a nice steady pony. That’s what ponies are for! And hire an experienced trainer who insists on safety. Also, for most children under age 6 or 7, use a lead line so you’re close at hand.
Watch children for signs of boredom, fatigue or fear. A student who is scared or sleepy cannot learn well. I once taught a young girl who had been out stargazing with her father long past midnight. Her eyes were drooping; she was falling asleep—hardly the best reflection on my efforts at enthusiastic motivation—and I had to stop the lesson. It was simply dangerous for her to continue riding in that state.
Riding at a fast rate, like a canter, can tire a child’s muscles until he suddenly falls off without warning. He doesn’t know his body well enough yet to determine when he needs to stop. We all perform better when we’re fed, watered, energized and awake!
6. Wear boots and a helmet
This is the easiest of all safety tips. Yet if you make an impromptu visit to the barn, you may be tempted to ignore it. Don’t. In the saddle, of course, boots with heels will keep your feet from sliding through your stirrups. But boots are vital on the ground too—protecting the tops, bottoms and sides of your feet. A horse can’t see where your feet are when you’re standing close to him. Even if he could, his brain wouldn’t allow him to anticipate the consequences of stepping on you. Any horse can spook off all four feet or stomp away a fly and land full on your arch in a heartbeat. With boots, you might get by with a crush injury that cuts short your career on the dance floor or hiking trail. Without boots? Forget about it.
As for your helmet, well, head injuries are common in many sports, but even more severe when you’re flying through the air from an unnatural height with a cannon full of horsepower behind you. Riding helmets are available in Western and English styles, cushioned for comfort, ventilated for air, and open around the eyes and ears for good perception. You can spend $50 or $500 on a helmet—just make sure your model is certified to meet ASTM/SEI0 standards.
As a horse trainer, longtime jumper rider, and brain scientist, I’ve seen the damage of brain injuries up close and personal. You do not want a brain injury! Your sense of fashion, your hair, and your pride will all survive beneath a helmet.
I talk about safety habits frequently. Experienced handlers nod–sometimes with a sheepish smile—and agree that we all need to keep our safeguards up to par. Every one of us has made mistakes and seen the damage that can occur. Novice riders often respond with something like, “But I’ve walked up behind him before and never had a problem.” Yep, that might be true. And it will remain true until the moment it doesn’t.
None of these tips can guarantee our welfare, but they will reduce our risks. They also model safer behavior for our barn friends, young and old. Horses are fun. Let’s all be safe so we can enjoy them for many years to come.
This article was originally published in EQUUS 485, February 2018