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April 11, 2020

The Danger When Turning Horses Out

Springtime always makes me think of fresh grass and fresh horses. A little sunshine, a little taste of the luscious green Pacific Northwest grass, and the horses are feeling good! Perhaps feeling a little too good! The danger when turning horses out comes at the gate: Two things can happen; 1) Your horse rips away from you before he’s unhooked, launching you off your feet or burning your hands on the rope or 2) You have more than one horse in the pen. Herd dynamics may dictate their focus is no longer on you and getting away from the other horse. If you get caught in the middle, you could be seriously injured.

My story

My mare, April, is the sweetest horse on earth. She would NEVER intentionally hurt me or anyone. Because of her tendency towards Laminitis, she lives in a sacrifice area eating hay most of the time. Her pen is large enough to move freely but she longs for the big field where she can frolic and burn up the excess energy she has. We also keep our horses off the main pastures during the wet season to maintain the ground, avoiding damage to the fields.

April. NWHS Photo

Every Spring when I begin the morning routine of 15-30 minutes of grass in the morning, I’m pretty careful about the process. In the past when I’ve used a halter and lead to bring her from her pen to the field (They’re not adjoining) she gets pretty amped up and almost impossible to hold still while I get her unhooked. Several times she has tried to take off before I get her halter offer or the lead shank unsnapped. I have had rope burns on my hands and my feet stomped on as she launches herself away from me.

What my solution was

After much frustration and realizing that punishing her for pulling away didn’t work, I found the following steps to be the most helpful:

  1. After opening the gate to the field and leading her in, I found standing there quietly for a few minutes before letting her go lessened the impact of her departure.
  2. Leaving the halter on and just quickly undoing the lead shank usually kept me a little safer. I always made sure I was well away from her front feet. I found that turning her towards me usually meant that my feet were more likely to get stomped on as she wheeled around to get away. (Note: this did not correct the situation, just felt safer).
  3. Running her around her pen before taking her out helped take the edge off.
  4. I have tried using a chain over her nose to make a correction helped but it was again, more time to get it off her face when letting her go.
  5. Making her the first horse out to an empty pasture lessened the chance for getting hurt.
  6. If you have the time (and you should take it) use two halters. Unhook the 1st one and be ready to grab hold of the second one when the take off. They will eventually be a little less likely to bolt away from you after catching a bite from the halter. I would use a rope halter for the 2nd one.
  7. Working with her in the round pen was the most effective way to get her to leave me safely. When they take off, they can’t really get away from you so be sure and teach them using a whip to never turn away but always face you. You get quiet as they turn and approach you. Basic ground manners are paramount.

As she’s gotten older and less energetic, I just lead her out with my hand under her throatlatch. There’s no halter to remove or lead shank to unhook. She will generally just amble away now. This is how I got my horse to be respectful when turning out. There is certainly more than one way to get a handle on this problem, but this is what worked for me.

Here’s some good resources for training a horse that bolts when being turned out:

Safety is a big deal in leading horses. This is really an issue of respect. Do your groundwork and spend some time training. In the long run you will have a much safer departure in the field. Feel free to share your experience by emailing [email protected].

Be safe, have fun and do the work!

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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