When working around a 1,000+ pound animal with big teeth and rock-hard feet, it is simply essential to pay strict attention to safety. Everyone who works with horses long enough will eventually get hurt (I myself have collected a few broken fingers and toes, numerous bruises, and plenty of sprains in my time), but you can greatly minimize your risk of serious injury by following a few simple rules and by using your head. The first rule of horse training is this: you should not get hurt, and neither should your horse. A big part of this is simply thinking ahead and watching your environment. I never assume that my horse won’t spook, and I have long since given up trying to guess what will scare him next. Prepare for the worst and look for the best. Be ready and you won’t be surprised. Here are the rules:
Be aware of your horse’s mood when working around him. He will let you know if he is uncomfortable, nervous, or crabby. Watch his ears, eyes, lips, and tail. Pinned ears and a switching tail mean a grumpy horse, and you should watch for teeth and heels to come into play. Tight lips and wide eyes are signs of tension and fear; be careful he doesn’t jump on top of you or knock you over. Never take your horse for granted. I can’t tell you how many people have been seriously injured by supposedly ‘bomb-proof’ horses.
Use appropriate safety equipment
- Always wear protective footwear (boots are better than sneakers or other footwear). Never go barefoot or in sandals around your horses, not once, not ever. A good boot will protect you when you get stepped on (and you will get stepped on, some day); steel-toed boots are best of all. When riding, a boot with a heel will keep your foot from sliding forward through the stirrup.
- Always wear a helmet when you ride. One seldom sees clinicians wearing helmets, but this is one 'lesson' you shouldn't learn from them. I know helmets aren't cool and they give you helmet-hair, but you wouldn't let your child ride without a helmet (would you?), so why on earth would you let her parent do so? A helmet can mean the difference between life and death if you are thrown from a horse. Spend the money to get a good one that fits you well and is comfortable, then wear it.
- Use grab straps on your saddles. A good grab strap is easier to hold on to than the horn, and can keep you deep in the saddle if things get squirrelly. If I think my horse might just jump that stream (instead of crossing quietly, as we have practiced), I get my hand into the grab strap. If he does jump, the strap will keep me with him and I won’t find myself grabbing his mouth.
- Carry a good sharp knife with you at all times. A small one (about a three-inch blade) is all you need, but it must be kept really sharp, because dull knives are both useless and dangerous — a really bad combination. A sheath knife on your belt is better than a folding pocket knife (because you may not have time to go digging for a pocket knife and fumbling to get it open), but if the ‘armed and dangerous’ look isn't your style a pocket knife is better than no knife at all. There are any number of circumstances in which your safety, and that of your horse, can depend on your ability to quickly cut through a rope, a halter, or a strap. Additionally, a knife comes in awfully handy when opening hay bales, performing field repairs on your tack, or just slicing a tasty fresh-picked apple to share with your friend.
Let him know you're there
It is surprisingly easy to startle a horse, and a scared horse is reacting, not thinking. When you are moving around in his space, let him know you are there. Speak to him as you approach, and keep a hand on him as you move around from one side to another or as you pass by.
Either get close in, or keep away
The safest way to move around behind a horse is either to stay far enough away that he can’t kick you, or move in so close that if he tries, he can’t get any power behind it. As always, talk to him and, if staying in close, keep a hand on him as you move.
Stay free of lead lines
NEVER coil the free end of the lead line around your hand. If your horse should bolt, the coil can constrict around your hand in an instant, and you will be dragged. Instead, make it a habit to lay the line back and forth through your hand. This way, the rope can’t grab you. Similarly, when working your horse on the ground with a long lead line watch that your feet don’t get tangled in the line. Here too, a panicked horse could drag you.
As a prey animal, a horse is dependent upon its ability to run from danger. When you hard–tie your horse you take away his ability to run, and if spooked he might then easily panic, pulling back until something breaks. Usually it's the halter or the rope that gives, but sometimes, unfortunately, it is the horse’s neck. When I tie, I use The Clip or the Blocker Tie Ring (Google this phrase to locate distributors). Both of these are designed to allow the rope to slip as the horse pulls back, and the lack of hard tension in the line quickly encourages the horse to stop pulling. This is a very safe way to tie your horse. Often I don’t tie my horses at all while tacking up. They have been taught to stand quietly for this, and I drop their lead ropes on the ground or loop them over their necks.
Whether you hard–tie or use something like ‘The Clip’, be sure to tie to something strong enough to hold your horse. Use a post, a sturdy tie rail, or a ring set solidly into a post. Never tie to the rail of a fence, a gate, a portable round pen or anything else that can break away or move. The only thing more frightening than watching your horse break his halter and run away in a panic is watching him run away in a panic dragging whatever it is you tied him to.
When tying your horse, leave enough line to allow him to hold his head at a comfortable height and to move his head from side to side with ease. Tie him off to something above withers height, and give him no more than 2 to 2.5 feet of line from his end of the rope to the tie point. I often see horse people tie their horses long enough to allow them to graze or eat hay off the ground. This is very dangerous. You should never leave so much slack that your horse can get his foot over the rope, or into a loose-fitting halter; this is a train wreck waiting to happen.
If you want to allow your horse to eat while you tack up, tie a hay bag near him, high enough that he can’t get his feet into it. Use a solid nylon bag with a hole in the front to pull hay out through, rather than a hay net. I have seen dozens of horses caught in hay nets. They are cheap to buy, but can be very costly in the end.
Untie before bridling
When bridling my horse I first take off the halter, then buckle it around his neck. This gives me a handle on him if he should decide to wander off at this point. However, I never leave the lead rope tied while bridling. If your horse should start to back up to avoid the bridle, or gets spooked at this most inopportune moment, you do not want him to come up against the hard restriction of a tied rope, which could cause him to panic and hand you a train wreck to deal with. It is much safer to retain the ability to move with him when he backs off, so lay the lead rope over your arm at the elbow (again, don't coil it around you). That way you have the lead close at hand if needed, and you and your horse are free to move together.
Avoid trailer hazards
There are two things my mother taught me never to do when trailering a horse:
- Never walk into a trailer with your horse. Being inside such a confined space with your horse is just asking for trouble. If he panics, you have very few options.
- Never have the escape door open when loading your horse. Mom called it "the suicide door". A panicked horse inside a trailer will often try to climb out any available opening. If that opening happens to be the small escape door, or even the tie window, he will be seriously injured in the process. Mom's horses were taught to load themselves. We would just stop at the door and tell them to step up. Once loaded, we set the butt chain and then walked around to the window to reach in and tie them. This is by far the safest way to load a horse. Unfortunately, stock trailers and some slant trailers have no easy way to tie a horse from the outside. Alas, when dealing with these I usually find myself breaking Rule Number One. However, my horses are still taught to load themselves, and I work with them two to three times a year to be sure they stay quiet when loading and unloading to minimize the risk.
In straight-load trailers equipped with a butt chain or bar, always hook up the butt bar before you tie your horse into the trailer. If you tie him first and he panics before you get the butt bar up, you could have a train wreck on your hands. If the butt bar is in place, when he pulls back he will come up against that barrier and will most likely stop pulling. Likewise, when you unload, always untie him first and only then lower the butt bar.