In this article, Horse Expert Dr. Tim Potter discusses crucial safety techniques that should be employed to promote safety when riding and working with horses. Techniques discussed involve saddling, bridling, mounting, and situational awareness.
Saddling and Unsaddling - Have you ever gotten into trouble when saddling or unsaddling your horse? Numerous problems can occur, and it is important that you keep safety in mind when saddling and unsaddling. We see a lot of issues in these areas, the first of which usually happens when the horse owner throws the saddle on the horse’s back suddenly, frightening the horse. Also, be sure to place the saddle pad high on the withers and slide toward the rear of the horse. This helps to keep the hair lying in the correct direction. Some owners throw the pad on the horse’s back and slide it forward, bringing the hair coat up and causing discomfort for the horse.
If you are using a Western saddle, pull the cinches (girth) and stirrups over the top of the saddle to prevent them from hitting the horse’s legs as you place the saddle on the back. Always fasten the front cinch first, then the rear. This may sound trivial; however, we see a lot of horse owners fasten the rear cinch first, causing the horse to buck with no security provided from the front cinch. With Western or English saddles, it is very important to get the girth snug enough to prevent saddle slippage. It is not necessary to “cut the horse in half” when cinching. We also suggest that you get the cinch snug and walk the horse around to let their chest relax before tightening the cinch more. Some horses will blow their chest out when the girth is tightened, and once they relax, the saddle is very loose. Take some extra time to ensure the saddling process is done safely and correctly.
Simply reverse the procedure when unsaddling. With Western saddles, unfasten the rear cinch first, then the front. With Western saddles, we suggest placing the cinches and stirrups over the top of the saddle as you did with saddling. Most importantly, once the cinches are released, get the saddle off the horse as quickly and smoothly as possible. When an English rider dismounts, ALWAYS run up your stirrups. Horses can (and will) reach around to bite at a fly and catch their bridle in the stirrup leathers. It’s hard to untangle the horse without cutting the stirrup leathers.
Bridling and Unbridling – Have you ever had a horse that was difficult to bridle? Or tried to run away from you when you unbridle? Bridling a horse can be easy or difficult, depending on how prepared you are. We commonly see people trying to bridle horses with no way to restrain them. We suggest keeping the halter and/or lead rope around their neck while bridling. Then hold the crown piece of the bridle in your right hand with the hand through the horse’s ears, while spreading the bit apart with your left. The right hand can also be used to keep the horse from raising their head out of your reach. Place the bit gently against the horse’s mouth and use your fingers to encourage the horse to open their mouth. As they do, quickly but gently ease the bit into the mouth, while lifting with your right hand to take the top of the headstall up and over the ears. Practice as much as you can until this can be accomplished with one fluid motion. Problems arise when handlers hit the horse’s teeth, try to bridle very quickly and when the horse raises its head far out of your reach.
When unbridling, it is very important to place the reins or a lead rope around the horse’s neck. Simply reverse the bridling process; unfasten the throatlatch strap and noseband if you have one, lift the top of the headstall over the ears and lower it so the horse can remove the bit as the mouth opens. Problems we see in this area include pulling the bit out of the mouth roughly, and having little or no restraint on the horse once the bridle is removed. You must ALWAYS! teach the horse to stand with you until YOU are ready to halter him. Otherwise, the bad habit of running away as soon as the bridle starts to be removed will occur.
Mounting and Dismounting – Has your horse ever taken off with you when attempting to mount or dismount? We have seen hundreds of “wrecks” over the years with mounting and dismounting that could have been easily prevented. First, be sure you have light contact with the horse’s mouth before you attempt to mount or dismount so that you can correct the horse quickly and easily. While it may be fun to watch a moving mount or dismount in the movies, you certainly do not want to experience this in real life. Many riders have been hurt when horses take off, and in worst case, the rider gets a foot hung in the stirrup, falls, and is possibly dragged. Maintain contact in the horse’s mouth, and if the horse is strong, pull their head toward you to keep control when mounting or dismounting. Another technique for a horse that wants to move away when the rider is mounting is to add pressure on the outside rein. When a horse is moving during mounting, the horse is usually shifting his body either forward or away from the rider. Pressure from the outside rein is a correction for both of those evasions during riding and on the ground as well. Either way that works for your horse, always train the horse to stand still when mounting or dismounting. It may be necessary to practice mounting and dismounting several times until your horse will stand for you. If you have a hard time getting your foot in the stirrup because of the height of the horse, use a mounting block. Most English barns live by the mounting block. It may be because most English horses are very tall, but it’s also because mounting from the ground stresses the horse’s back. There is less training problems from the horse associated with mounting when a rider uses a mounting block.
Once your foot is in the stirrup, get on or off the horse as quickly and quietly as possible. Many riders are bucked off because they landed hard in the saddle. Get on the horse without delay and sit down gently. Only when both feet are securely in the stirrups should you attempt to ride off. Be sure your stirrups fit your feet; if your foot goes through the stirrup, do not use it, as you could get hung up. Once you begin to dismount, take your right foot out of the stirrup and get off as quickly and gently as you can.
Lack of situational awareness when riding – Have you ever unknowingly ridden up behind a horse and gotten close enough to almost be kicked? Has anyone ever done that to you? We must be aware of our surroundings at all times when riding. While most cases like this happen in trail riding situations, it also occurs commonly in shows, particularly in the warm-up ring, the most dangerous place to be at most shows. Just as we have to be careful in approaching horses on the ground, we must be just as aware, if not more so, in a riding environment. Remember the horse’s basic instinct of “fight or flight”; in this instance, the horse is most likely to fight (strike or kick), as hopefully its rider has sufficient control that would prevent flight. When riding in groups, be sure to keep at least two horse’s lengths between you, and if you have a horse in the group that is a known kicker, that horse should be identified. The most common way to identify kickers is tying a red ribbon on their tail. One of my pet peeves is the “yahoo” who likes to gallop while the other riders are walking quietly so the “yahoo” can watch the “melee of crazy” when the walking horses panic. Setting up this situation so that someone can get hurt is never funny. It’s quite dangerous.
We must be particularly aware when riding alone as well. Horses can and will spook at almost anything, especially if they are a younger, inexperienced horse. When riding in the arena or on the trail, be aware of things such as other animals, vehicles, or other structures which might cause the horse to spook.
Dr. Potter is an Equine Scientist with experience in both the academic and corporate sectors. He provides technical investigations, analysis, reports, and testimony toward the resolution of commercial and personal injury litigation involving areas of equine science, including nutrition, reproduction, behavior and training, safety issues, facility design and construction. Nutrition work includes feed formulation and production issues, on-farm feeding management, and analyses of interactions between formulated feeds and use of supplementation in the total diet. Reproduction work includes evaluation of nutritional status and reproductive efficiency, manipulation of the estrous cycle and effects of stress and/or environmental factors associated with reproductive status. Behavior and training work includes behavioral factors associated with training, and evaluation of potential abuse issues associated in the training process. Safety work includes evaluation of factors and scenarios that are related to safety, including lesson barns, safety issues at horse shows and at private facilities, and determining on-site person(s) of knowledge.