In this article, equine scientist, Dr. Tim Potter discusses a number of horse safety issues that frequently result in injuries to riders, spectators, and the general public. For each scenario he provides an explanation of the hazard with guidance on how exposure to these hazards should be prevented.
Dr. Potter provides investigations into a variety of claims and litigation related to equine science, including personal injury. Please contact Dr. Potter directly to discuss your case and how he can assist.
Safety Hazards with Horses
Many hazards may potentially exist at horse shows, equine events, and at equine facilities which can be causative factors in personal injuries, as well as possibly being harmful to the horses. While it is impossible to illustrate every scenario, the following examples illustrate the most common hazards observed.
Spectator/participant interactions in proximity to horses - as a Professional Animal Scientist, I define participants as anyone who is physically engaged with the horse (e.g., leading, riding, handling), while spectators are people who are not physically engaged with the horse. Many spectators who have little to no knowledge of equine behavior and predictable reactions frequently enter the “horse area” and are unknowingly putting themselves at risk for injury. Facilities should be constructed and managed in such a way to separate spectators from participants.
Blind spots, moving around horses, fight or flight - No level of domestication and training of horses will ever remove the horse’s basic survival instinct, which is “fight or flight”. In approaching horses, it is important to understand that they should always be approached from the side. The horse’s two blind spots are directly in front and directly behind them, and those areas must be avoided. A horse is a perceptive creature that is constantly scanning his environment for perceived threats.
Leading Horses - When leading a horse, it is important to keep the horse relatively close. The most common position is on the left side with the handler’s shoulders even with the horse’s throatlatch. It is suggested that handlers work with leading horses from both sides, as the need for leading from the right side will most likely be important at some point. If a horse becomes frightened, the handler should always pull the horse’s head TOWARD their body until the horse is calmed and restrained. This will be safer for the handler, as pulling the head toward the handler sends the hindquarters of the horse away from them, protecting them from kick injuries.
The most common mistake seen in leading horses is the handler out in front of the horse, holding the end of the lead rope and not paying attention to where the horse is and how they are acting. In that scenario, if the horse becomes frightened, the handler could be run over by the horse or the horse could run by and kick the handler. It is important to be in the proper and safe position whenever leading horses.
Mounting and Dismounting – Many injuries result from horses running off while the rider is attempting to mount or dismount; I have personally seen hundreds of “wrecks” over the years with mounting and dismounting that could have been easily prevented. The rider should be sure to have light contact with the horse’s mouth before attempting to mount or dismount so that the horse can be easily and quickly corrected. While it may be fun to watch a moving mount or dismount in the movies, in real life these acts can lead to disaster. 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.
As the horse is mounted, contact should be maintained in in the horse’s mouth. With horses that are strong, non-cooperative, or difficult to mount, the horse’s head should be pulled toward the rider 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. Owners should always train their horses to stand still when mounting or dismounting. Stables that offer riding lessons or guided tours should be prepared to assist novice riders and properly pair riders and horses based on size and experience.
Once the rider’s foot is in the stirrup, they should 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. Care should be taken to ensure the stirrups fit the rider’s feet; if the rider’s foot goes through the stirrup, it should not be used, as the rider’s foot could get hung up. At dismount, the rider should take their foot out of the stirrup and get off as quickly and gently as practical.
Mismatch of horse with rider’s ability – A client called recently and informed me that they had purchased a horse for their child. It sounded like an exciting time, until the owner informed me that they had purchased a two year old horse for their child, who was ten. The owner’s statement was “I want them to grow up together”. Pairing a young, inexperienced or green horse with an inexperienced rider is an accident waiting to happen. A child or beginner rider does not have the experience to deal with a young or inexperienced horse, and even though the intent was admirable and done in good faith, it should be avoided. A trainer I know has a good rule of thumb, “A child’s age plus the horse’s age should be greater than 20.”
Lack of situational awareness when riding – It is important for riders to be aware of their surroundings as they ride and avoid getting too close to other horses. 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, riders and event coordinators must be sure to keep at least two horse’s lengths between riders, and if there is 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.
Riders 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, riders must be aware of things such as other animals, vehicles, or other structures which might cause the horse to spook.
Tack: When in doubt, replace it – Just as tires wear out on cars, tack used in riding becomes faulty due to age, wear, and lack of maintenance. Tack should be checked for evidence of weakening or breaks every time prior to riding. If there is any question as to the durability of stirrup leather, cinches, headstalls, or other tack used in riding, it should be replaced before riding.
Environmental factors – Horses become accustomed to their environment and surroundings through desensitization to stimuli that they frequently encounter. For example, horses that are pastured next to a railroad initially may be uncomfortable as the train passes. However, they eventually will be desensitized through repetition and will no longer be alarmed by the train.
It is common, particularly with young horses, to react with fear and anxiety when they leave familiar surroundings. These horses are often seen at shows, spooking at the arena fence, other horses, or unfamiliar sounds. With time, repetition and exposure to unfamiliar stimuli, horses will adapt to new surroundings such as a horse show.
Storms can precipitate the flight response in horses as well. Bursts of lightning and thunder will alarm even the most seasoned and best trained horses, and extra precautions should be taken when these events occur.
Group organizers should take care to understand and anticipate those environmental factors that are reasonably likely to occur. In addition to checking local weather forecasts before any ride, they should also understand where trails intersect with vehicular, pedestrian, or any other traffic and prepare participants accordingly.
In summary, the topics discussed are but a few of the many conditions that can compromise safety when working with horses. Be aware, pay attention, and acquire as much knowledge as possible to safely work with horses and be able to identify predictable behaviors and responses.
HORSE SAFETY INVESTIGATIONS
Robson Forensic provides specialized forensic experts to investigate injuries to humans as well as claims of neglect and abuse toward animals. Our experts can approach these investigations from the perspectives of horse trainers, facilities owners, nutritional specialists, and more.
Submit an inquiry or contact animal scientist, Dr. Tim Potter to discuss your case and how Robson Forensic can assist.
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.