Handling Horses Safely

Leading a horse with a bridleMost people would place riding high on a list of potentially dangerous sports. However, figures show that only a minority of equestrian accidents actually occur during riding. Most happen during routine handling and, although the injuries are less serious (mostly to feet and hands), the occasional accident is fatal.

Another surprising statistic is that most accidents involve experienced people. Beginners may see danger all around them but as the saying goes ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. It is all too easy to become careless and fail to notice warning signs the horse may give you. We should all remember that, potentially, horses ‘bite at one end and kick at the other’ - even the trusted family pony could react instinctively and injure you unintentionally. This doesn’t mean you should be scared of handing horses – indeed nervousness can be passed on to the horse. But whether you are experienced or a beginner, a little knowledge of horse behaviour and adopting a few good habits could help prevent accidents.

Instinctive Behaviour

To anticipate when horses might bite or kick we need to understand their basic instincts. Over millions of years horses have evolved a 'flight or fight' reaction which can be provoked by an unexpected noise or movement, or a strange object. Each horse reacts differently depended on previous experiences and breeding. Thoroughbreds, for example, are invariably more nervous than Shires.

Flattened ears - a warning sign When a new horse enters a herd of horses he has to establish his position in the herd. This is usually done with threats as horses will try to avoid injury. Flattened ears or a swishing tall are generally sufficient. If not, bared teeth or a flash of hooves will follow before resorting to a bite or a kick. Unfortunately iron shoes add to the power of a kick. Once the hierarchy is decided there is little need for further aggression.

For safe handling, the horse must recognize you as being above him in the hierarchy. Fortunately, this is achieved through firm and consistent handling rather than biting and kicking! Allowing a horse (particularly a youngster) to get away with bad behaviour can result in an unruly and potentially dangerous animal.

Leading the horse

Accidents often occur because the horse is startled. Always approach a horse from the front or side so that he can see you properly. Horses have almost all-round vision but cannot focus clearly on objects behind them. However, they are very sensitive to movement and if in doubt will react as though to a predator.

Horses are usually led from the left but should be trained to lead from either side. lf you have to pass something spooky, putting yourself in between will help reassure him and, if he should jump, it will be away from, not towards you. The exception is on the road where you should always stay between the horse and the traffic.

When leading from the left hold the lead rope in the right hand, about one foot from the horse's head, and take up the slack with the left hand. Never wrap the rope around your hand or attach it to yourself or your clothing: if the horse pulls away a nasty injury can result and, in the worst case, you could be dragged.

With a bridle, pass the reins over the horse’s head and hold in the same way. lf the horse has a martingale, however, leave the reins around the neck and hold both reins a short distance from the bit. Stay near the horse’s shoulder and do not pull from in front of the horse. If necessary, holding the noseband can give you more control.

lf the horse rushes, jerking the rope or noseband is the most effective way to retain control. A constant pull will encourage him to pull against you and, with his greater strength, there will be only one winner! A bridle will give you more control, but is not advisable when turning a horse out as it is difficult to take off quickly and could make the situation worse. Wearing gloves will prevent rope burns if he does manage to pull the rope through your hands.

Move the horse away from you when turning. This keeps him balanced and prevents him stepping on your foot. There are many situations where the horse could tread on your foot and, if this does happen, push him backwards. You may think he has his full weight on you but if you pull him forwards you will soon realise the difference! Steel toe-cap boots can prevent toes being crushed or broken.

Tying the lead rope

Tying the lead rope to a string with a quick release knotAlways tie the horse up to something fixed – anything which can move (e.g. a gate) may frighten him. However, if the horse does panic for any reason he should be able to break free. A piece of string attached to a metal ring or bar on a wall is ideal as the string will break if he pulls back hard enough. Horses which learn to deliberately break the string need to be retrained.

Tie the rope with a quick-release knot, leaving enough slack for him to put his nose to the ground. Be careful not to get your fingers caught between the string and the rope when you tie it, as the string (particularly baler twine, which many people use) can slice into your finger. Also make sure there is nothing close, like a dangling headcollar, which he could get caught up in.

The reins should never be used to tie the horse. Pulling back could damage his mouth and broken reins are expensive to replace. Tie them out of the way and put a headcollar over the bridle. Alternatively attach a rope to the noseband.

On the yard

A horse cowkickingIt is surprising how many people put their under the horse's stomach while oiling hooves or grooming. A horse will instinctively kick at an itch on its stomach (cowkicking), and won’t stop to check whether your head is in the way. Mares often dislike being groomed under their stomach and may try to bite as well as cowkick. So be gentle and use your hand instead of a brush if necessary.

When you need to work behind a horse (such as when putting on a tail bandage) place a straw bale between you and the horse to give you some protection.

Lastly, don't forget to turn off the iPod - if you have music blaring in your ears you much less likely to notice anything that might startle the horse or any warning signs the horse is giving you. However experinced we are we should never become blasé around horse.

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Posted on 6 July, 2011

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