For horses and the people who work with them, injuries are common—and a lot of those injuries take place right in the barn. But that doesn’t mean you have to provide opportunities for trouble. Here you’ll find ten steps you can take now to make your stalls and aisles safer for horses and humans alike.
“If horses can find a way to hurt themselves, they will,” says Betsy Greene, associate professor and extension equine specialist at the University of Vermont. Her booklet, “Self-Guided Horse Facility Analysis,” is available through the University’s Extension (call 802-656-2070 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org); and from Bob Coleman, extension horse specialist at the University of Kentucky. The booklet includes simple things like small fixes that may require a trip to the hardware store, and upgrades that may call for professional help. All are cheaper than a vet call—or a lawsuit.
1. Patrol for problems.
Sharpen your powers of observation as you work around the barn, and try to spot problems as they develop.
• Check stalls daily, when you clean them, for damage from chewing, kicking, or rubbing. “Look for hair stuck on any surface,” says Greene.
• A hazard hunt is a great activity for kids, Greene suggests. “Have them hunt for problems, and give prizes to the kids that find the most. This gets them used to looking and sharpens their observation skills.”
• When you find problems, fix them promptly. “Have a routine for fixing the little stuff that tends to get overlooked—loose screws, broken boards, etc.,” says Coleman. “Don’t give an accident a place to happen.”
2. Clear the aisle.
Clutter tends to accumulate in barns, but anything that could block free passage, trip a person, or fall over and spook a horse is a hazard.
• Keep the aisle clear of tack trunks, tools, chairs, wheelbarrows, and anything else that could get in the way.
• Hang up equipment. “Think about where you use equipment and how you can store it for easy access. Position it out of the way of horses, but in an area where you can get to it easily,” says Coleman. “Then get in the habit of putting stuff away.”
• Put trash cans out so they’re easy to reach but out of the way of horses.
3. Replace hazardous hardware.
Anything that’s sharp or protrudes could catch on equipment or injure a passing horse or person.
• Blanket racks and other stall-front fixtures should be rounded. Sturdy hooks made of hard rubber are great for hanging halters and lead ropes.
• Typical hose racks stick out eight inches or more and have sharp metal edges. Options include rounded holders made of tough plastic self-coiling hoses, caddies that retract the hose and can be rolled out of the way, and brackets that coil the hose close to the wall over a larger area. (See www.geckostoes.com for a clever design.)
• Stall door latches must retract completely—a projecting latch can cause a serious wound to a passing horse or person. A latch that locks in the fully open position and in the fully shut position is safer than one that can accidentally slip open. A pin latch leaves the door opening free of exposed hardware. So will a finger latch, a feature on some custom and prefabricated stalls. For sliding doors, gravity latches are an option. They’re covered by the door when it’s open and drop automatically to secure the door when it’s shut.
• Use closed eyehooks and double-ended snaps to hang water and feed buckets, rather than open hooks. Or install any of the rounded bucket brackets on the market. The bucket itself can be a hazard—the horse can cut himself or tear out mane on the ends of the metal bail (handle). Get buckets in which the bail ends are protected, or protect the exposed ends by wrapping duct tape around them. (“But you must check to be sure that horses aren’t chewing the duct tape,” Greene notes.)
4. Baby-proof stalls.
Horses spend a lot of idle time in stalls, which means lots of time to get in trouble.
• Walls must be sturdy so horses won’t kick through them. Two-inch-thick lumber, preferably hardwood, is best. Metal walls should be lined with wood to a height of at least five feet.
• Gaps below doors or partitions should be less than three inches, to prevent a horse from getting a foot caught. Likewise, any space between boards or bars must be either too small for a horse to slip a foot through or large enough to let him easily get it out.
• If you cap boards with angle irons or similar metal protector strips to prevent wood chewing, be sure the ends are hidden or protected.
• Safety-check stall fixtures to eliminate sharp edges, protruding corners, and other hazards. Buckets and feeders are safest in corners. If you feed with tubs on the ground, remove them when the horse is done.
• Solve the hay-feeding quandary. Hay racks mounted high on the wall drop dust into the horse’s eyes and nose. Hay fed on the floor gets mixed into bedding and wasted. “Hay nets are never really safe in stalls. The horse will paw at the net and get caught up, even if the net is properly hung,” says Greene, who saw one horse manage to get both front legs tangled in his hay net. One solution is a low wooden hay bunker, built straight across one corner of the stall so that there’s no protruding angle.
• Tie rings should be bolted securely to the wall, high enough to “tie eye high” but not so high that people can’t safely reach them without standing on something—that in itself will be a hazard. Be sure all clients know how to tie safely.
5. Accident-proof grooming areas.
• Nonslip footing is a must in aisles, wash stalls, and tack-up areas. (See “Walking Down the Aisle,” October 2008 Stable Management for some options.)
• Crossties should be just long enough to meet when there’s no horse in them. Shorter ties restrict a horse too much and may invite panic. Longer ties provide too much slack; horses may get a leg caught.
• Crossties must have light-duty panic snaps or string “fuses” that will break. If a horse pulls back and the ties don’t release quickly, he may flip over and be severely injured.
• If you can, position ties so there’s a solid wall or bar behind the horse, to prevent backing.
6. Check doors and windows.
• Stall doors should open outward or slide. “Sliding doors are better because they don’t block the aisle, but they must fit into bottom guides on both sides so a horse can’t push the bottom out and get a foot caught,” Greene says.
• Consider sliding doors for feed, tack, and utility areas too, Coleman suggests. Or reconfigure these rooms so the doors can open in.
• If your doors swing out and changing them isn’t practical, install hardware so they can be latched open, flush against the wall.
• Windows within horse reach should be made of unbreakable material like Plexiglas, recessed, and protected from horses by sturdy bars or heavy-duty mesh.
7. Upgrade lighting. Dim and poorly-placed lighting invites accidents.
• Position electric fixtures at the fronts of stalls and down each side of the aisle, rather than in the middle, for shadow-free observation.
• Place the fixtures high—at least eight feet—to keep them out of the way of horses. Protect bulbs with unbreakable covers or heavy-duty wire cages.
• Keep fixtures free of dust and cobwebs, which are fire hazards.
8. Check electrical service.
• Electrical wiring must meet code specs and be enclosed in conduit for protection from gnawing rodents and horses. Have the wiring inspected by a professional electrician if you aren’t sure.
• All outlets and switches should be recessed and have protective covers to keep dust out. Wash rack outlets should be out of the “spray zone” and have a safety breaker.
• Get rid of extension cords by adding outlets near stalls. “They must be out of the reach of horses but not so high that people will have to stand on something to reach them,” Coleman says.
• If you must use an extension cord to run equipment, unplug it and put it away when you’re done.
9. Plan for fire.
• Have the fire department out to check the locations and operation of fire extinguishers and smoke alarms. Make changes as necessary.
• Set up a schedule for checking the alarms and changing batteries.
• Have a detailed, written fire-evacuation plan for your barn.
10. Spread the word.
• Post barn rules and emergency instructions where everyone can see them, and provide copies for your clients.
• Educate workers, boarders, and students. “A lot of safety boils down to human behavior,” Greene says.
When you’re dealing with horses, eliminating all accidents may not be a realistic goal. But these ten steps will make your barn a safer place.