Many of us read the recent story on Horse and Hound and shared here on Hereford Equestrian following a 77-year old handler being airlifted to hospital after being kicked in the head. Aside from always wearing a helmet when handling horses, here are some simple, safety first tips to keep you, others and your horse safe on the ground!
Welcome to your safety briefing. It’s a well-known fact that almost half the accidents that happen around horses occur not when riding, but when handling them. When we’re riding we’re more alert to everything around us and attuned to our horse’s mood and emotional state. Back at the yard we’re in our comfort zone. We’re home after all. It’s easy to become complacent or just fail to anticipate possible pitfalls. This has nothing to do with our level of experience. But it is about becoming more mindful and also taking steps to minimise the risk of accident or injury to ourselves or others should something occur. Because with horses as with life in general, s*** happens and some things are simply beyond our control. Your mantra here is the old Scout motto: Be prepared.
The basic rules always bear repeating. Because often they are the ones easiest to forget. Especially if we are in a hurry. Also, they are usually the most simple yet effective. When turning out your horse in the paddock, always close the gate and then turn your horse to face either it or the fence before attempting to let it go. Ensure your horse is standing still. Why? Because your horse has nowhere to go. If your horse is facing the open field instead of a gate or a fence, this increases the chances of it just taking off whether or not you have removed the headcollar or not. It can pull the rope out of your hands, drag you with it if the rope gets caught around your hand, or even if you have the halter off, be so excited at the prospect of being let go, that it bucks and kicks you in the process. You would be amazed at how many highly experienced riders ignore this simple safety precaution. Or have never had it pointed out to them. Always, always face the gate or fence on the turn out. And ensure anyone else who turns out your horse for you does the same.
If you can’t get your horse to respect you on the ground, you have zero chance of achieving this in the saddle. When being led does your horse drag, barge, stop when you don’t want it to or fail to respect your space? If so, you are setting yourself up for trouble. Your relationship with your horse begins on the ground. And can be reinforced again on the ground if need be. Sometimes we simply get sloppy and fail to remind our horse of its manners. If so, staying safe may mean simply going back to basics and a few groundwork sessions. If you are having real problems handling your horse then please, find a trainer who can work with both you and your horse together and who can show you how to gently but firmly get your horse to lead quietly and respectfully. There is no need to resort to chifneys or headcollars that put additional pressure on the poll.
When you lead your horse, he or she should not only respect your space but should match their pace to yours. If you stop, they should stop too. If you step backwards, they should do the same. Both on the lead and at complete liberty in the arena. If you drop the rope on the ground, your horse should freeze. Again, don’t be afraid to seek someone qualified who can help you achieve this.
If you are working with a horse that is young, nervous or simply difficult to handle, one of the most effective ways to stay safe is to ditch that standard 6ft lead rope. Think about this for one moment. If you horse rears, bucks, spooks or kicks you are right where you don’t want to be when it does if all that separates you is a 6ft lead rope with you desperately trying to maintain a death grip on it. Many people consider these one of the most dangerous pieces of kit you can buy. Invest in a natural horsemanship lead rope that is at least 10 foot long – longer if you can. The goal here is that if something happens, you can retreat to a safe distance at the end of the rope without letting go of your horse. You can then regain control while minimising your risk of injury from your safety zone.
Fly the Flag on Safety First
I’m going to introduce you to my secret superpower for staying safe on the ground. And for producing a chilled out, safe and respectful horse which is a pleasure for anyone to handle. Also, it allows you to set boundaries in a totally non-invasive way, gently desensitize your horse and can help prevent other common accidents that can occur when horses crowd the gate for instance. I’d like you to meet your new best friend when it comes to on the ground protection: the horsemanship flag.
You may have seen people of the likes of Monty Roberts or Buck Brannaman using these flags in their clinics. These are not just for Western or ‘natural’ horsemanship practitioners. They are for anyone who wants to forge a bond of safety with their own horse. And also to stay safe around other people’s. No matter what kind of horse they have or discipline they follow.
Please understand, you need to be shown how to use one. This isn’t about waving flags under a horse’s nose and expecting miracles to occur. However, miracles can be produced once you know how they work. Let me share with you my tale of Tia.
Back in my Jollity Farm days, I did a buddy up with another livery whose mare shared the same paddock as Duchess. The agreement was that I would turn Tia, her thoroughbred out in the mornings and she would bring Duchess in for me at night. Tia was a racehorse taking a break from training. Like many racehorses, she stood like a rock without being tied up in the stable while I changed her rug and put on her headcollar. She remained unmoving while I opened the stable door. All was well until she stepped out of it. Then all hell broke loose. Tia the Tank. Tia the Terror. Tia the Tornado. Tia the Runaway Train. First, she attempted to drag me. She bucked. She kicked. She reared. If we met a horse on the way down to the paddock she would lunge and attack it. She would lash out at anything standing remotely close to the fence as we passed, squealing with rage as she did so. ‘Oh, so she got you to turn her horse out, did she?’ remarked one of the liveries knowingly as I staggered back to the yard, arms hanging from their sockets. ‘None of us will touch it. We’re all too scared.’
Once in the field, Tia reverted to her stable persona once more. If I were going to keep us both in one piece between stable and paddock, something had to be done. I could of course just have called a halt to the entire arrangement. Instead, as well as wearing a helmet and a body protector while leading her, I bought a 12-foot lead rope and a horsemanship flag off eBay. And paid for expedited shipping.
Fast forward two days later. I enter the stable, rug Tia up and she stands there like a three-legged donkey. I show her the flag and let her sniff it. I then rub her all over with it. See, nothing to worry about. I open the door flag in hand. I’m ready. Tia’s usual attempt to try to drag me out of the yard is instantly thwarted when I wave the flag under her nose. She doesn’t spook but steps back out of my space and stands there. I can see the wheels turning. This is new. She licks and chews and then I ask her to walk on. The distance between the yard and the walkway to the paddocks is about 20 yards. For the first time we accomplish this at a sedate pace. When she tries to drag me down it, I flag her again. She runs back two steps on the longer rope and stands there looking at both me and the flag. We repeat this start, flag, stop, walk on process every time she attempts to tank, pull or misbehave in any way. When we get to the paddock she gets loved on. There is still work to be done but turning her out is no longer a near-death experience.
So, how long did it take to turn Tia from a dangerous, disrespectful rage-monster to a horse that would walk calmly next to me as I held the rope loosely? Six 10-minute walks over six mornings from go to whoa. Literally.
As well as showing your own horse where the boundaries are, a horsemanship flag comes in handy for waving horses back from the gate if you are trying to bring yours in or out. Once horses see you carrying the flag, even tucked under your arm, this becomes a familiar sight. They will not be scared of it, despite what people may think. They will respect it however. This is certainly not about scaring horses and making them afraid. A gentle flap is all it takes to make a horse move back to a safe distance. When taking a flag into a field to get your horse, your goal should be to be able to approach every horse in there with the flag and for them to allow you to gently rub their face with the end of it without running away. You do this simply by letting them see you carry it. Loving on them as usual and then loving them with the end of the flag. No drama.
With your own horse, you can use your flag as I did with Tia, either in the arena for groundwork or just on the lead, to show them you need them to go slower or respect your space. You can use it to desensitize and also as a communication tool to guide them. Both my horses will ‘follow the flag’ at liberty – following who holds it. Once your horse trusts and understands the role of the flag, you can also use it instead of a stick or spurs to encourage a horse forward. Duchess came to me having been abused and scared of her own shadow. The flag helped us bond, increased her confidence while gently desensitizing her. It turned her into the bomb-proof horse she became. One where I could sit on her back and whirl the flag around her head without her moving a muscle.
We cannot anticipate everything that might scare, spook or cause a horse to behave out of character. But we can anticipate this will happen at some point. And hopefully then be in a position where we minimise the chance of accidents to ourselves, others and our horse. Whether in the saddle or on the ground. Stay in the safety zone.
Written by Helen Watts