When we wander around our properties, it’s easy to overlook hidden hazards because we “see” them all the time and often disregard their presence. However, the inquisitive nature of horses can turn these unrecognized dangers into a serious injury. Many of the suggestions made in this article come from my experiences from more than three decades in equine practice. It is truly amazing how many ways a horse can hurt itself, sometimes improbably so, yet there are just as many ways these injuries can be prevented.
Hazards range from the small to the large: Nails on the ground around old barns or new construction; bolts and nails protruding from posts; machinery (harrows, rakes, tractors) with sharp metal points and edges; trailer hitches; old junk piles; portable panels; and fences and stalls in need of repair work.
Stall hazards are common since horses take a toll on their surroundings by stamping their feet, rubbing to scratch, and nibbling on wooden planks. Protrusions like bucket hooks or salt block hangers can create injury. Rough edges of chewed, broken wood, or curled metal trim are also a source of potential trauma.
Fencing can pose a variety of dangers when it is not maintained in excellent condition. Barbed wire isn’t much in use anymore, but even smooth, high-tensile wire or braided wire can cause significant injury. Wooden boards splinter and break. T-posts can impale a horse; however, t-post caps mitigate this problem. In general, it is a good idea to run an electric wire or tape around the inside perimeter of paddock or pasture fencing to keep horses from directly contacting posts and fence barriers.
The insides of barns can also be filled with hazards. Equipment in the aisleways is problematic. Don’t leave wheelbarrows, rakes, pitchforks, buckets, or chairs where horses have access to them—even if the horse is being led briefly from one place to another. Be sure to close saddle racks flush against the wall.
It may seem obvious that stall doors should shut firmly against the door jambs so a leg can’t get stuck, but you have to check for this. It is very difficult to extract a limb that is jammed between a stall door and the wall, especially while a terrified horse struggles against the restraint. Examine metal feeders and ensure they are free of sharp edges. Some horses kick walls so it’s best if walls are constructed of strong, non-splintering wood and padded when necessary. To avoid disputes across walls or fences, stall compatible horses next to each other. Check that stall mats fit snugly and flat to avoid entrapment of a foot. Dirt floors tend to develop holes, which should be filled in so a horse doesn’t get cast.
Lights and electrical cords
Shield low-hanging light bulbs in a metal cage. If a stall has glass windows, cover the inside with bars or screening. Electrical cords throughout the barn should be run through metal or plastic tubing so a horse’s inquisitive mouth doesn’t attempt to bite through. Sheath electric tank heater cords in PVC pipe to protect against electrocution, and check that the heater is grounded and not shocking a horse when he takes a drink.
It is common to place a horse on cross-ties in a barn aisle. To avoid a potentially fatal calamity, use breakable twine to secure the ends of the cross-ties to the bolts in the wall. If the horse blows up, the line will break rather than causing him to flip and fall.
Another area to pay attention to is the feed room. Horses take note of where all that yummy food is coming from, and if they somehow break loose from their stall or paddock, that may be the first place they head to. It is important to secure the feed room with competent latches and locks to avoid a grain overload that could cause laminitis. Gate latches on stalls, gates, and paddocks should be fool-proof so a horse with versatile lips can’t break free. Check latches frequently to ensure they close tightly. And, check that a horse can’t impale its face with parts of a broken latch. Additionally, make efforts to keep the feed room as rodent-free as possible, using rodent-proof storage bins for grain and supplements. Sweep up spilled debris to discourage attractants for varmints. Keep feed dry to avoid the danger of moldy grain poisoning.
Closing up a barn creates respiratory challenges from ammonia fumes and endotoxins in the air, both of which create inflammation of the airways for both horses and humans. Work with your veterinarian and/or barn designer to establish appropriate ventilation in the barn. On that note, consider that running a tractor in the barn pollutes the air with diesel or gas fumes so this is best done when horses are out of the barn. If there is an overhead hay loft, keep in mind that hay dust and debris filter down into the stabling area, further creating respiratory challenges, especially for a horse already affected with inflammatory airway disease.
Often there is a medicine cabinet in a tack room or lounge where drugs are kept. Be sure it is locked to keep out children, pets, and unauthorized individuals.
Another hazard to horses is the potential for fire—both structure fires and wildfire. Make a special effort to develop an evacuation plan, including having halters available on each stall door or paddock gate, with lead ropes tied in a uniform way so they don’t get tangled. Show people where fire extinguishers are located and how to use them. Put up No Smoking signs throughout and around the barn. Ideally, keep hay in a separate shed and check that freshly baled hay doesn’t become hot enough to spontaneously combust.
Turn Out Areas
Pastures often have hidden hazards that could trip a horse or entrap a limb. Walk the pasture to identify rocks, low spots, ditches, or holes. If problem areas can’t be corrected, then fence horses away from these areas. Culverts can cause catastrophic injury from sharp metal edges—cover them with dirt or rubber tires, or fence horses away from a culvert.
Irrigation ditches seem innocuous enough, but over the years, I have helped free entrapped horses that are unable to free themselves. One extremely valuable imported stallion was found belly up, stuck in an irrigation ditch. Had he not been found and treated in a timely manner, he could have died due to extreme pressure on his lungs that would suffocate him.
Another trap that may seem less obvious is panel fencing. Some panels designed for cattle have “feet” on the corners; these feet pose a hazard for hoof or foot entrapment of a horse.
Turnout in a pasture is a wonderful thing for horses, but be sure to remove halters before turning horses loose, or use a breakaway halter that breaks easily if snagged on a protrusion. Similarly, use a breakaway “halter” when attaching a grazing muzzle.
Some horses are turned out in an arena, which should be safe. However, if there are jumps in the arena, exposed jump cups are capable of causing injury. These should be put away or stacked appropriately to avoid problems. Also, make sure that footing is even without dips and holes that could cause a sprain or musculoskeletal injury to a horse running in play.
Water sources provide a habitat for mosquito development, which carry dangerous viruses like encephalitis and West Nile virus. Any vessel that holds water poses a risk; this includes persistent puddles around the water tank or in tire tracks. Water troughs, wheelbarrows, clogged gutters, ditches, non-chlorinated swimming and wading pools, decorative ponds, bird baths, flower pots, buckets, tires, tarps, manure piles that collect water, culverts, discarded jars, soda cans, and water bottles are all potential breeding sites for mosquitoes.
Drain water-holding receptacles regularly, poke holes to allow water out, or completely discard the item. In addition, functional gutters prevent mud accumulation and slippery areas around paddocks and barns.
Ponds and irrigation and drainage ditches are other mosquito habitats that can be managed with mosquito dunks that kill larvae. It is best to fence horses away from these wet areas, especially in winter when they are frozen over but could break under a horse’s weight.
In situations where there are dogs that like to chase or are aggressive to livestock, it is important to either tie up or lock the dog away from horses. Fencing should include mesh that keeps dogs out.
Trees and plants
Many pastures border or include trees for shade. Don’t forget to prune and trim overhead branches to avoid facial or eye injury. Another hazard involves the presence of poisonous plants, shrubs and trees. Many problem plants occur naturally while some are planted as ornamentals yet are exceedingly toxic to horses. Have your veterinarian or county extension agent walk your pasture with you to determine if there are noxious plants accessible to horses. A few examples of plants toxic to horses include black walnut, red maple, oak, chokecherry, Russian olive, yew, oleander, privet, hydrangea, laurel, azalea, Virginia creeper, fox glove, larkspur, monkshood, and vetch.
The Bottom Line
Hazards are abundant in horse facilities. It is easy to overlook things that seem part of the background because you see them every day. One way to surveille your property for potential problems is to examine everything about the place as if you are going to buy it. With this in mind and using a list of what has been discussed in this Extra, you are armed with the knowledge to recognize and correct any hidden dangers.