If you talk to emergency room doctors, they will remind you that horse accidents are among the top reason for injuries they attend. The National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) monitors all emergency room visits to representative US hospitals. While falling or being thrown off a horse is the reason for nearly 80% of mounted human horse-related injuries, accidents also happen when working with a horse on the ground–kicks (56%) are the most commonly reported injury. We all know these are big animals with a volatile nature, and they have a tendency to frighten and react quickly. Even the most well-behaved horse can experience a fright that causes him to flee (or fight), thus putting a handler, rider or bystander in harm’s way.
Anyone who has been injured by a horse knows that an unexpected event can happen in a heartbeat, causing injury before the person even knows what happened. From more than 30 years in equine veterinary practice, I have seen the gamut of accidents, many of which could have been prevented. I also have experienced plenty of my own injuries primarily due to horse owner inattention.
So, what can you do to improve safety at the barn for yourself, other horse owners, parents, children and pets? As we review safety tips for the stable, I will pepper these with real life experiences so you can appreciate some of the consequences.
If you don’t have written safety rules, you may take some or all of these to include in your “boarder’s manual” of your barn rules.
· Use a lead rope to handle a horse rather than holding the halter with your hands. My experiences: I have seen sprained wrists and fingers from owners trying to lead their horse by the halter without a lead rope, then unable to get their hands un-entrapped when the horse pulls back or turns suddenly.
· When using a lead rope, don’t wrap it around your hand. Also, be cautious with rope handling when wearing jewelry.
· Lead using two hands on the rope, one hand near the horse’s head (not too tightly and not too loosely) with the other hand holding the long end of the rope off the ground.
· For handling a volatile horse, it might be smart to wear gloves.
· Never stand directly in front of the horse; handle him from the side. When in front of a bolting or spooking horse, there is no way for you to get out of the way in time. Standing to the side within a safety zone (within 1½ feet or less) enables you the best control of his head and body.
· Don’t let a horse run past you as you (or your vet or farrier) will be right in line of a swift, targeted kick.
· Use a rope halter or nose chain when necessary to control a fractious horse.
· Let a horse know when you approach in the stall, paddock or pasture, using your voice to alert him to your presence. It is best to approach from an angle. Follow his body language to ensure that he recognizes your presence–watch his ears, tail and posture as these are telling of his attention and demeanor.
· If walking behind a horse, let him know your presence through your voice. Horses cannot see directly behind themselves. Keep a wide berth–at least a horse length or six feet, i.e., farther than his legs can kick–or stay within the safety zone while gradually moving your hand from his front end towards his haunches so he knows where you are. Staying within a safety zone is often safer than trying to stay six feet away since horses are known to back up and kick–that comes from experience!
· Teach your horse to be cooperative for temperature taking, picking up each limb, mouth examination, accepting needles, medications and other necessary ministrations.
· It is best to discourage hand feeding of treats as horses can become pushy and aggressive about taking them from your person. My experience: A client wearing running shorts had horse cookies in his pocket. His horse reached out, albeit playfully, grabbed his shorts and pulled! Although the rip opened up to the man’s private parts, at least the horse didn’t grab that deeply with his teeth. Rather than just an embarrassing moment, it could have been disastrous!
· If using crossties, make sure the end snaps are attached to breakable cord, such as baling twine. If a horse tries to rear up in the crossties, you want the twine to break to release him rather than him flipping over backward, ultimately causing a life-threatening injury.
· When tying to an “object,” make sure it is a solid structure that cannot be moved by a pulling horse. Think carefully before tying your horse to stall doors, fence rails, wall feeders or horse trailers that aren’t attached to a vehicle. People who have tied to movable parts have regretted this mistake–when the horse pulls back violently, he is likely to pull the object (like a fence rail) away from the ground, posts, wall, etc. Now attached to a frightening object that is “chasing” him, the horse is terrified into chaotic behavior. My bad experience: A horse tied to a wall feeder pulled back and flung the large steel feeder at me.
· When tying a horse in the horse trailer, first be sure to close the back doors. That way if the horse pulls back, he has nowhere to go. My experience: The surprise phone call that sent me to retrieve a trainer’s thumb from the knotted lead rope to take it to the hospital so they could sew it back on.
· The bottom line is: If your horse doesn’t tie well, then only loop his lead rope around something so if he pulls back, the rope will loosen and he won’t feel trapped by any pressure.
· Don’t coil the lunge rope while lunging the horse; rather, fold it upon itself.
· Don’t let the lunge line dangle on the ground–a horse can entrap its legs or your legs. I have known of people getting their legs trapped in a dangling loop, then the horse bolts, they are thrown off their feet with lower leg or ankle fractures as a result.
· Keep aisles and arenas clear of obstacles such as rakes, manure forks, wheelbarrows, saddles, tack, equipment and chairs should be stored in appropriate places and not just left lying around where a horse or human could encounter it.
· Similarly, it is best not to run through the barn as this can startle horses; also, there are a sufficient number of obstacles such as rakes, wheelbarrows, floor mats and slippery floors, that could trip you up and cause a fall.
· Do not smoke in the barn or anywhere there is combustible material such as hay and shavings.
· Store all medications, fly spray, cleaning supplies and other hazardous materials in a locked cabinet that is out of reach of children and pets. If discarding any of these materials, it is best not to just throw them in the garbage. Needles and syringes should be returned to a veterinarian for proper disposal.
· The barn should be equipped with a comprehensive first aid kit, a list of directions on how to use its contents as well as emergency contact numbers for the barn manager, veterinarians, the human hospital, fire station and police.
· Information on each horse should be visible on their stall or paddock, including contact information for horse owner, veterinarian and the horse’s insurance policy.
· Clean up after yourself, putting refuse in appropriate trash cans and recycling materials in designated containers. Remember the adage: “Your mother doesn’t live here.”
· If you see that something is broken–stall door, electrical outlet, horse waterer, equipment, etc.–report it to the barn manager so it can be addressed immediately.
Pasture and Gate Safety
· Lock all gates properly with latches when going in or out. Never leave one partly latched or think you’ll get right back to it–horses are opportunists and good escape artists.
· Lock the door to the feed room. Use safety latches and chains or appropriate clips. A horse that gets out of his enclosure can eat a lot of feed or supplement in a short time, with laminitis as a potential consequence. If you have legume hay on your farm, also keep this area shut away from horses as it is very rich feed and can cause similar problems as a grain overload. Grass hay is usually not a serious problem if a horse gets into the stack and pigs out.
· Be cautious in taking horse treats out into a pasture to catch your horse in a herd–you will be mobbed, and sometimes there is contentious behavior amongst the horses with kicking and shoving. You certainly don’t want to be caught in the middle of that.
· When turning your horse out into pasture, maintain control at all times. The critical time is when you let the horse loose–if he kicks up his heels as he runs off, he is likely to kick you in the face. Teach him polite manners to leave quietly and position yourself so you can’t be kicked.
Protective Gear and Clothing Safety
· At all times when working around a horse, wear protective, sturdy footgear with closed toes–no sandals! Uncovered toes break when stepped on, especially if the horse is shod.
· Helmets (ASTM/SEI approved) are a must when riding! In one study, head injuries accounted for 60% of horse-related fatalities. Helmets can save lives and are only effective when fastened onto one’s head. Be sure to have a helmet fitted properly to your head and strap it on properly. Use a helmet specifically designed for equestrian activities and don’t wear someone else’s helmet.
· Smooth-soled riding boots with a heel should be worn when in the saddle so your foot doesn’t slide through the stirrup, especially if you are unseated.
· When in the saddle, wear long pants rather than shorts so you don’t get saddle sores.
· Just like you shouldn’t text and drive, don’t play with your cell phone (text or emails) while in the saddle. And, probably it’s smart not to talk on the phone then, either. You should always pay close attention to your horse at all times so you can be prepared for the unexpected.
· Don’t mount up in a barn aisle or try to ride through a doorway where it is possible for the beam to be at eye level and hit you in the head or sweep you out of the saddle, especially if your horse bolts or shys.
· When entering an indoor arena, with or without a horse, call “gate” out loud so the riders in the arena are aware of your entry and can take efforts to anticipate his or her own horse’s startle reaction.
· When several people are mounted and using a small area, be sure to keep ample distance between horses so that if a horse kicks out, it won’t contact a rider’s leg. I have known of multiple instances where one horse kicking at another has fractured the leg of a person in the saddle.
Children and Pets
· Children should never be left unsupervised around horses or in the barn.
· Have your children safely ensconced in the lounge or well out of the way when the vet, farrier or other horse support personnel are working on the horse, no matter how benign the situation appears. It is impossible to have eyes and attention on the matter at hand with the horse while also monitoring a child’s safety. Kids are known for their tendency to migrate away from where you left them, so it is possible they will inadvertently find themselves in harm’s way.
· Dogs should be kept under control at all times–leashed or confined to a car, stall or lounge, or left at home. Running (or chasing) dogs can spook horses and/or run into people, knocking them down or causing serious knee injuries. My experiences are many, but one is particularly notable–while radiographing a difficult horse, even though sedated, when the owner’s dog suddenly ran through the barn, my X ray machine first turned into a soccer ball, then a Frisbie, with the horse nearly running over the owner. The owner, horse and dog were fine, but the X ray machine was destroyed. Other stories abound about riders being thrown because a dog scared a horse.
The Bottom Line
A lot of common sense can go a long ways to preventing injuries. You know to keep your attention focused on your horse at all times and your senses tuned to all goings on around you. To get the best outcome for your facility and your boarders, read through these safety suggestions and use them to help your facility become a safer place to board and ride.