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December 11, 2019

Safety When Working Around Horses

Be prepared, not scared

One of the most critical lessons I’ve learned in working with horses is to always be prepared for what could happen. Safety when working around horses should always be at the top of your mind. Horses are a flight animal; humans are prey animals. If we understand this, it’s a little easier to understand how to respond when working around a horse. They can pick up on our fear quite easily so it’s important to be in a calm frame of mind when handling horses.

Approaching, Leading and Tying Horses

Horses can see with both eyes separately, which is called monocular vision. There is a region directly behind the horse where they cannot see you. Therefore, it's important to make a sound when approaching a horse so they know you are there. Watch their ears. Pinned ears are a good indication that something is wrong or you’re about to get kicked or bitten. When walking behind a horse put your hand on the rump and walk close. The farther away you are the more momentum they have should they kick.

When leading a horse walk on the left side at their shoulder. Keep a loose but firm hold on the lead shank holding the rope with both hands. Keeping a tight hold on the lead shank can frustrate the horse so just use short, quick jabs on the lead shank to correct the horse should they walk in front of you, try and pull away or walk on top of you. They should walk comfortably by your side moving with you. Beware of standing directly in front of an out of control horse on the lead line. Horses can strike quickly without warning. Learn to watch the signs of a horse in distress.

One of the most dangerous times to be leading a horse is turning them out to pasture. If your horse has been stalled overnight or for an extended period of time they can be wound up and ready to take off as soon as they feel you take hold of the halter or lead shank to remove it. I’ve been dragged, nearly had my arm pulled out of the socket or had my feet stomped on with an overly anxious horse during turnout time. A good practice is to lead the horse into the pasture and make him stand quietly for a few minutes before removing the halter. Having your stalls and pens setup so you can just open gates to let them out is the safest way to handle turn out. Never be in a hurry.

Tying horses can be dangerous if you don’t follow a few simple precautions. I use a rope halter and lead rope with no hardware to break with a young or unfamiliar horse. Make sure that whatever you tie them to is secure. I see quite a few stables using Blocker Tie rings ( or bowline knots which can be quickly released if a horse panics. I always tie a horse high (above the shoulder) to avoid injury to the horse. Best practices include making sure your horse knows how to tie before you leave home or before you buy the horse! Carry a spare halter in your trailer or on a ride.

Use a Blocker Tie Ring - Safety when working around horses
Blocker Tie Ring

I’m always watching when in a group of horses. Things can go wrong quickly so always be aware of your escape route whether on or off your horses. I tend to ride with people I know. Riding in large groups with unfamiliar horses can pose a danger if a horse becomes out of control. Inexperienced riders should always ride with a group of seasoned riders and horses for safety.

Trailer loading safety

Hauling horses is a necessary part of owning a horse. Whether you have your own trailer or want to ride with someone else, be sure your horse loads safely and easily. You never want a horse that won’t load in case of emergency. Take the time before you want to go somewhere to teach your horse to load and unload.

Make sure you have quick release snaps on your trailer ties or lead shank. The quick release should be on the side that’s tied to the ring on the trailer. That way you aren’t trying to unlock the snap close to the panicking horse. In the older straight haul trailers make sure to teach the horse to load without being led in. Not all trailers have an escape door and trying to get past a horse or crawl under a divider is never safe. There are many good trailer loading videos out there to help you teach your horse to load safely.

Horse Trailer Loading Safety when working around horses
Heading out for a trip. Photo by NW Horse Source

If loading the horse yourself, load the horse by laying the lead rope over the neck as the horse steps into the trailer keeping the rope from dragging. Snap the butt chain and close the door before going to the side door to tie the horse. On the angle haul trailers, lead the horse in, tie with a trailer tie, remove the lead rope, close the partition and keep the rope handy by the back door of the trailer.

When unloading your horse from a straight haul trailer, hook your lead rope to the halter after unhooking the trailer tie so his head is free. Walk to the back of the trailer, open the door, undo the butt chain and tell the horse to back. Catch the lead as he comes out of the trailer. In the angle haul I recommend opening the partition, snapping the lead rope to the halter, then unhooking the trailer tie. BACK the horse out. It’s much safer than having them turn around too quickly to come out and step on you in the process.

Be careful around ramps when tying your horse to the side of the trailer. If a horse pulls back and slips, they can get a hind leg under the ramp causing great injury. Always put the ramp up when tying to your trailer. Be careful with blanketed horses and straps. Always open both doors on your trailer when loading and unloading. Horses can and will panic if they get caught on a door handle or hinge when getting in or out of the trailer. Be sure you know the condition of the trailer before putting your horse in someone else’s trailer. Know that the flooring and brakes are good. Haul with an experienced driver. Drive carefully with the understanding that your horse is bracing and balancing in the trailer constantly. Be mindful when braking and turning. I recommend taking a truck driving short course to learn how to back and turn with a trailer before hauling any distance.

Final thoughts

Keep in mind when you’re around horses that they are a 1000-pound, fear-based animal. Even the most well-mannered, well-trained horses can panic, or spook given the right circumstances. With horses it’s not a matter of if you will get hurt, it’s a matter of when. I say this, not to discourage you but to always keep in mind they have the ability to really hurt you. Know your horse. If you’re having an issue, get help. Find a qualified person to give you lessons or help you find the right horse. There are so many good mounts out there you don’t have to be stuck with a spoiled or dangerous horse. Many senior horses make good partners for inexperienced owners. Go for safety, not beauty when buying your first horse. Leave the young or spoiled horses to the trainers. Find and enjoy the right horse. Have fun and be safe!

Karen Pickering
Owner/Publisher Karen’s lifelong love of horses began at a very early age when she wore out a couple of rocking horses before convincing her parents to get her the real thing. That ill-tempered bay gelding, Brandy, was a challenge for the young horsewoman, but it drove her ambition to become a horse trainer. After attending Canyonview Equestrian College’s Horsemanship Program, Karen realized she needed work that was a little more lucrative than training, so she took a job with Customs Brokerage to pay the bills. There, she discovered an affinity for computers and a talent for creating informative, entertaining newsletters. The Northwest Horse Source began as such a letter in December 1995, with a distribution of 1000 copies for its 12 black and white pages.  Now 25 years later, it's an online magazine and website with a reach of over 19,000 per month and growing! Not bad for the results of one woman’s dream to work with horses!

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