Be Nice. Use Common Sense. Keep People & Horses Safe.

“I acknowledge that horseback riding is a dangerous activity and involves inherent risks …”

Every liability release at every barn on the planet probably includes a similar statement. For good reason. Working with and around horses does present an inherent risk and no amount of diligence will remove all the chance that an unintentional action will create an accident that threatens the safety of horses and people.

As horse owners, especially when we board at a public facility, we accept that risk. What we should never accept is the danger presented by the intentional actions of our fellow horse owners, barn staff and anyone else who happens to be living and working in proximity of horses and their riders/handlers.

In other words, it’s not nice to get people or horses hurt by your own lack of common sense, good judgment or ability to consider the consequences of your actions.

I was probably sensitized to this issue when, as a new professional instructor/trainer, I ran my business at a large boarding facility that was mostly set up for self care. To keep myself, my clients and our horses safe on that property required constant vigilance. You just never knew what the “yahoos” were going to do (one guy used to sit down to longe his nutty Arab mare!) It was amazing that more horses and people didn’t get hurt by the idiotic things that went on there.

But I don’t think any of us should have to rely on sheer luck to keep us and our horses safe in our everyday working/playing environment. Instead, we all need to do our part.

As a horse owner sharing barn and riding space with other people, it’s important for me to consider how my activities might affect the people and horses around me. When I am working with my horses in a space where others are riding or handling their horses, I am responsible for their safety as well as my own. If I do something stupid or careless that gets a person or horse hurt or scared, I’m not being a very good horsewoman or a very good person.

If I’m not using my common sense, I can put my fellow boarders in unnecessary danger in dozens of little ways every time I handle a horse, move a pole or mounting block or even walk down the barn aisle. And they can place me and my horses and clients in danger in many thoughtless ways, as well. It’s important for us all to open our eyes, literally, and take a wider view of the consequences of our actions.

Say, for example, I’m longeing my horse in a roundpen, snapping my whip to keep him moving along smartly. And a fellow boarder leads her horse up to a mounting block next to the ring and prepares to get on. If I’m paying attention and conscious of the safety issues, I’m certainly not going to snap my whip and urge my horse to go faster right next to the mounting rider just as she starts to swing up, am I? (It does happen, though.) What I actually do in that situation is to slow my horse to a walk, move him away from the side of the ring where the rider is mounting and either keep him walking or halt him until the rider is up, settled and rides away.

Does that interrupt my work? Sure it does. But it’s a much smaller interruption than having to go catch a loose horse that has bolted out from under a mounting rider or scrape an injured rider off the ground and assess physical and emotional injuries from a completely avoidable fall. It’s my responsibility to ensure that neither of those scenarios comes to pass just because I wasn’t paying attention.

Accidents can happen and horses behave unpredictably even when everyone is conscious of safety considerations. There’s no reason to tempt fate. As an instructor, I take seriously my responsiblity for keeping my clients safe when they’re working with me (and to try to instill safety consciousness in them for when they’re on their own with their horses.) I expect they sometimes think I harp on them about issues that don’t seem that big.

For example, one thing I often correct is the bad habit people develop of draping their reins over their arms or shoulders while they tighten girths/cinches and adjust stirrups prior to mounting. If you’re alone in the arena and the gate is closed so your horse is contained, maybe that’s okay. But if there are riders in that ring, you are putting them at risk by not having your reins securely in your hand. Why? If something spooks your horse – say a passing car backfires – you’re unlikely to be able to grab the reins fast enough to keep him from running away from the noise. What effect will that have on the other horses in the arena? A loose horse running around in a group of mounted horses poses a big risk to everyone. A loose horse careening across the property and running into a barn is likewise a safety problem. The solution? Hold your reins securely in your hand. Simple.

Remember: it’s not nice to get your barn buddies maimed or injured. Ever.

Most barns have posted safety rules and there are time-honored (but fading?) rules of etiquette to govern how we comport ourselves in the company of our fellow horsemen and -women. Most of them seem like no-brainers to me.

  • Never do a “drive by” in the ring or take off ahead of other riders on the trail.
  • If you’re riding in a ring with other riders, try to go the same direction. If you must pass head-on, it’s customary to pass left shoulder to left shoulder or to say “inside” or “outside” to indicate your chosen line of travel.
  • Never ride your horse up the backside of another horse.
  • Never turn a horse loose in a space where someone is riding or otherwise working with a horse.
  • Don’t longe in a space where people are riding unless you can keep your horse under control and the riders say it’s okay.
  • Don’t turn a horse out in an arena adjacent to a space where someone is riding without asking whether the rider feels safe on her mount while next to an unpredictable loose horse. (And, even if you get permission to turn out your horse next to an occupied arena, never, ever proceed to chase your horse around the turnout.

This is not a comprehensive list. There are more rules. If you don’t know them, you should find out.

Once you know anything at all about horses, how and to what they will react, it’s not that hard to think ahead, to see a few frames beyond the moment you’re in and anticipate how the horses and people around you will be affected by what you’re doing right now. It’s a lot like defensive driving – look out for the potential consequences of your actions on those around you (and vice versa) and make your choices accordingly. That’s part of being a good citizen of the horse world and a good horseman or -woman.

If every horse owner did this every day, we’d all be safer. But there’s still another group of people to consider, a whole raft of potential risks just waiting to sneak up on you and your horse – sometimes literally.

The need to be safety conscious really applies to anyone on the stable property, including delivery drivers, handymen, landscapers, etc. When you’re working around horses, even if you’re not the one actually handling or riding them, you really can’t afford to be clueless about the potential outcome of your actions. Failing to pay attention to what’s going on around you just isn’t safe for you, for the horses or for their handlers and riders. And ignorance is no defense if you get a horse or a rider hurt by your unthinking actions. “I didn’t think,” “I didn’t look” or “I didn’t know” just doesn’t cut it.

It’s not nice to get complete strangers bucked off, knocked down or trampled by a horse. Even if you’re bonded and insured.

I expect most of us who have had horses for a while could tell about incidents when some clueless person did something that could have caused a big accident – or did cause one, to the detriment of a horse or a person.

Once I was riding in an arena at a barn where I boarded and a relative of the owner was up in the tractor bucket just outside the fence trimming trees. He’d been there a while, industriously wielding his hand loppers. At first my horse shied a bit at the human/tractor combo. And he also reacted each time a sizable branch thudded to the ground. But we’d been there working about 20 minutes and the horse was pretty used to the strange behavior. No problem, right? Just a good desensitization session.

Yes, right up to the moment the guy whipped out a chainsaw and started it up. No warning, no asking whether it would bother the horse, no indication he even knew there was a flight animal in the vicinity. Inevitable spook, attempted bolt, then stop and stare at the horrible noise. And the guy just goes on, completely oblivious to the dangerous situation he just created.

This relative wasn’t a horseman, but he did handyman work on the property quite often. It seems that, if only to avoid the liability risk he presented, the owners would have clued him in to the kinds of things that can spook horses. You know what I mean: the reverb of someone hammering on wood or metal, the hiss of sprinklers or drip systems when they’re turned on, the sharp putt-putt-putt of a lawn mower or motorcycle being started or the shower of sparks produced by a welder. Those sudden, loud sounds and scary sights that provoke a flight animal to flee.

The “innocent bystanders” who work in either the sightline or earshot of horses can’t pretend they’re working in a bubble. To avoid causing potentially dangerous situations, they must take responsibility for their actions. At the very least they can learn to look around before doing something loud or visually startling. If a horse and handler/rider are nearby, wait until they pass or tell the person you’re about to make a noise or create a distraction. If you make a noise or do something that is obviously spooking a horse, stop doing it until the horse is under control and the people are in a safe position.

Trying to work safely with horses in the presence of someone who fails to notice when his actions have triggered a reaction that puts a horse and/or person at risk is one of the scariest situations for me.

Barn owners/managers take note. It’s seriously not nice for your workers to cause your clients to need the ER or an emergency vet call. Very, very bad for business.

It really is the management’s responsibility to ensure that anyone employed on their property knows some basic rules about how to work safely around horses. Just think of it as sparing the workers, and yourself, the guilt you’d all feel if their unthinking action caused a serious injury to a horse or person. It can happen in the blink of an eye.

The same very nice but dangerously clueless man I referenced above tried to get me killed another time, by another horse. He had built a nifty motorized lift to raise hay bales to the barn loft and decided to test it one day while my very spooky young horse was tied to a hitch rail about 15 feet away. Grandpa wasn’t even outdoors when I tied the horse, but I walked into the barn to get something from the tackroom and the next thing I knew there was a terrible clattering, clanking sound and my horse was pulling back frantically.

I yelled “turn it off!” over and over and over, then finally had to chuck a handful of gravel at him to get his attention to shut the machine down. Meanwhile, the horse nearly flipped over while I was trying to get him untied without getting smashed against the hitch rail. The guy had not even looked up to see whether his actions were having an effect on the horse. Kinda makes you wonder whether he’d have noticed if he’d actually gotten me hurt.

So, what horse-related incident has made you wonder “What was she thinking?” or “Who is he trying to get killed?” Won’t you share your stories of the most egregious behavior you’ve experienced or been witness to at a barn, horse show or other equine venue?