Horse Safety

There are two aspects of horse safety. One is the safety of the horse (see horse health tips and horse care), the other is the safety of people around horses. This article considers the latter.

Approaching a horse

Horses are prey animals and easily startled. When startled by something behind them, their natural instinct is to kick out, in case it is a predator. This is an automatic defensive response, so a horse may kick out first and then look second to see what it was. In such cases, if the horse kicks someone behind them, it is not because the horse is bad-tempered or even that it meant to hurt someone; it was merely a fear-related reaction which is more the fault of the person than of the horse (although unsettled or nervous horses are more likely to do this than calm, confident and trusting ones). Likewise, when startled there is a natural instinct to run and if you happen to be in front of the horse it could easily run over you. To avoid these risks:

  • Approach the horse from the front, so that it can see you well in advance and is not startled when you suddenly appear close to him.
  • As you approach the horse, start talking from some distance away. Predators are silent so by making noise you show that you are not a predator. Furthermore, the horse will eventually get to know your voice and once he recognizes you he can relax. Most importantly, this makes the horse aware of you when you are some distance away, thereby avoiding startling it.

Around the horse

Be calm,with gradual movements. Sudden movements can startle a horse, causing it to jump or kick out.

The safest place to stand around a horse is beside it. Behind a horse you could be kicked whereas in front of the horse you could be stepped on or run over (as discussed in 'approaching a horse' above, such actions are usually the result of a horse being startled). If grooming the horse's tail, stand to one side and gently pull the tail over for grooming rather than standing behind.

Stand up, avoiding kneeling or squatting. When cleaning the horse's hooves, lift the hoof up to yourself rather than lowering yourself down. Firstly, a horse will be more aware of you if you are standing up and less likely to step on you accidentally (e.g. if it is startled). Secondly, when standing up you can move away from a horse quicker than if you are kneeling or squatting. 

One of the most common accidental injuries is a horse stepping on somebody's foot. Wear sturdy boots or shoes around a horse, never sandals or thin shoes.

Leading or moving a horse 

The safest way to move a horse a short distance is to lead it with a halter and rope.

  • Hold onto the rope; do not hold onto the halter or hook your fingers in the halter (if the horse pulls away, your hand could be caught and injured, or you could be dragged).
  • Likewise, never loop lead ropes or longe lines or reins around your hand (or any other body part) as this risks you being jerked or dragged.

The horse should walk beside you with his shoulder level with you, not behind or ahead. This is not only the physically safest position, but also the one which gives you maximum control through the lead rope.

  • Often a horse will try to walk behind you but this should not be allowed as the horse could easily step on the back of your foot as it steps forward. Furthermore, if a horse is behind you and is startled, it's natural instinct to run can result in it jumping on top of you or running over you.
  • If you allow a horse to walk ahead of you it tells the horse that you are submissive to it (in horse psychology, the lead horse is dominant and the ones behind are submissive) which is a long-term risk. It also exposes you to the risk of being kicked, should the horse decide to do so. Finally, you have less control of a horse through the lead if it is in front of you.

Tying up

Tying up ropes should have quick release snaps (panic snaps) so if a horse panics or gets tangled up it can be immediately released. If your rope does not have a quick release snap, use a quick release knot. A horse which is panicing can injure itself and yourself, so you want to be able to release it immediately rather than fiddling with knots. 

A horse which is tied up should never be left unattended. Left alone and tied up, it feels very exposed and can panic, possibly injuring itself and maybe injuring you when you try to approach while it is in a panic.

Feeding  

It is wise not to feed by hand, especially with a hungry or greedy horse which could accidentally bite your fingers or hand. If you insist on feeding a treat by hand, it should be from an open palm with all your fingers held together and stretched out to minimize accidental nips.

When giving a horse its regular feed, the safest option is to put the food in place before letting the horse into the feeding area (e.g. stall or paddock). If this is not practical, train the horse that it has to wait until you put the food down. Otherwise, you risk a greedy horse simply stepping into you or over you to get at the food as quickly as possible.

General

Always let the horse know what you are about to do and be gradual in your actions. For example, don't throw a saddle on an unexpecting horse; let the horse see the saddle and then lower it onto the horse gradually. Likewise, if you want to clean a hoof, don't grab the hoof and yank on it; instead put your hand on the top of its leg and slowly move your hand down the leg and then gently lift the hoof.

If you need to punish a horse, do so immediately or not at all. Waiting even an instant can result in the horse not knowing what it is being punished for, with the result that the horse loses trust in you and never knows when you might hit it, which can result in it becoming nervous and unpredictable around you. Even if you are in pain because of something the horse did, you need to either punish the horse immediately no matter how much pain you are in or do not punish it all all. If it isn't the horse's fault (e.g. it stepped on your foot because you were not leading it in a safe way), then no matter how much it hurts remember that it is not the horse's fault and the horse does not deserve any punishment. Any punishment should be without anger, never excessive and never involve hitting the horse's head.

Do not wear jewelry, chains or ornaments around horses. Rings can get caught in ropes, earrings can snag and tear.

When riding, wear boots with proper heels to prevent your feet from slipping through the stirrups. Always wear protective headgear, properly fitted and fastened.