No matter how docile a horse seems, it is imperative to remember that equines are flight animals by nature. That means that when something startles them or they sense danger, their instinct is to run first and ask questions later. Add that to the fact that the average riding horse weighs about 1000 pounds, and you have a potentially dangerous situation any time you are working with horses. By taking some basic safety precautions and being aware of your surroundings, you can have a safe, positive experience with horses.
When bringing a horse in from pasture or out of his stall, approach him with a calm, confident demeanor. Pay attention to his body language and make sure he is aware of your presence. If he is not wearing a halter, wrap the lead rope over his neck so that you can hold on to him while putting on the halter. Buckle the halter completely before leading the horse anywhere.
Even if you are only going a short distance, use a lead rope. Grabbing the halter may seem convenient, but if something scares your horse, you won’t be able to keep hold of him very well without a lead rope. Most horses are used to being handled from the left side, so always lead on the left. Hold the rope in your right hand a few inches below the halter, and hold the slack of the rope in your left hand. Do not wrap the rope around your hand or any part of your body. If your horse suddenly bolts, you do not want to be caught in the rope.
Walk next to your horse’s shoulder while leading. If your horse gets excitable or starts to invade your space, your right arm and elbow will be positioned to hold him away from you.
Catching a Horse
If your horse is turned out with other horses, you will need to use extra caution when catching him in the pasture.
Do not feed treats in the pasture. Chances are, your horse’s turnout buddies will recognize the sound of a crunching carrot or crinkling peppermint wrapper from a mile away, and before you know it, you’ll have a herd of horses surrounding you. If you choose to feed treats, save them for when you and your horse are safely in the barn.
Your horse’s buddies may try to follow him out the gate. Keep the other horses out of your space by waving your arms or the end of the lead rope at them. If your horse’s herd mates are especially attached to him, carry a crop or whip to help keep them out of your space and your horse’s.
Take the same precautions when returning your horse to the pasture. Walk with your horse through the gate and turn him around to face the gate. Don’t allow his companions to enter your personal space. Close the gate, then remove your horse’s halter. Walking him in and immediately letting him go right at the gate without turning him around will teach him to anticipate, which can result in dangerous behaviors such as bucking or bolting when he reaches the pasture. Don’t forget to double check the latch to make sure the gate is closed and fastened properly.
The safest way to tie a horse is in crossties in the barn aisle or in his stall. Crossties should be installed with panic snaps, or tied with a quick release knot (see video.) If your horse panics or something happens that causes him to pull back on the ties, the tension will be too strong to allow you to untie a regular knot. Using a quick release knot will give you a way to release your horse in case of emergency, while panic snaps are designed to release under the extra weight of a frightened horse.
Some barn setups do not allow for cross tying, and some horses are not taught to stand in cross ties. In those cases, you can tie your horse with a regular lead rope. Be sure to tie the rope short enough that your horse cannot get his leg over the rope if he puts his head down, but not so short that he can’t move his head and neck around comfortably. Only tie your horse to a sturdy, immovable object, ideally a hitching post or tie ring. You may opt to use a safety string, which is a simple loop of twine that will break under heavy pressure in case your horse panics.
If you are tying your horse to a fence, do not tie him to a board, which may break, or a post that may come loose. Though the fence may seem safe, a panicked horse is deceptively strong and could easily take out a fence if the post is not adequately sunk. Again, when single tying, always use a quick release knot.
Whether straight tied or cross tied, check to make sure there is nothing on the ground near your horse that he could step on, such as buckets or loose halters. The easiest way to do this is to make sure that your tack and supplies are always put in the proper place. Also, tie your horse somewhere where other horses cannot reach him.
Keeping a neat and organized barn is not just for the sake of appearances. Keeping everything in its place is a safety consideration as well. A horse can easily get a leg or hoof caught in buckets or on anything with straps left on the floor. Make sure every halter and lead rope has a place to hang, buckets are put away and tack stays out of the aisle when it is not in use.
If your stall doors are built to allow horses to hang their heads out of the stalls, be sure to keep anything that you don’t want your horse to chew on well out of his reach. Many mouthy horses eventually figure out how to open their stall doors, so be sure to use secure latches.
Even experienced horse owners can become complacent over time and forget these basic safety precautions. Have respect for your horse and give him your undivided attention when working in the barn to ensure a safe and happy experience for both of you.