Learning from Horse Wrecks

Sometimes a wreck or near-wreck can offer insight for better (and safer) horsemanship.
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Sometimes a wreck or near-wreck can offer insight for better (and safer) horsemanship.
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In the October '08 issue of Horse & Rider magazine pros shared the wrecks they've experienced, and the lessons they learned as a result. Here, Suzy Jeane, John Lyons and Tim McQuay share their stories, and H&R editors add their own crash course anecdotes.

Suzy Jeane

Who: Suzy Jeane, American Quarter Horse Association's (AQHA) 2004 Professional Horsewoman of the Year, was the first woman elected president of the National Snaffle Bit Association (NSBA), and is an NSBA and AQHA judge. A teacher known for her breadth of knowledge and unfailing optimism, Suzy and her husband, Joe, own and operate Down the Rail Performance Prospects in Valley View, Texas, with the help of their son, T Joe.

What & Where: I had a phenomenal hunt seat horse. He was big, strong and kind, but as a baby, he'd learned that he could pretty much break any lead rope or halter in existence. There wasn't anything that could hold him, and I could see it in his eyes, when he was fixing to leave.

The Wreck: We won the hunt seat class at one show, and afterwards I brought him back to the barn. He was tied in the aisle, being groomed, when that old look came into his eyes, and he took off. He ran out of the barn, down the side of the arena, and brought the show to a halt! He clearly had a ball, while it took a whole herd of us to gather him up.

The Lesson: The eyes are a window to a horse's soul, and I'll take one with big, soft eyes any day! That said, bad stable habits might seem benign, but they become ingrained and are hard to change. They can be dangerous. Get all the information possible when you buy a horse. Ask if the horse has any quirky habits. If you can negotiate a trial period before your purchase is formalized, that's good, too.

John Lyons

Who: Horseman, trainer, clinician, teacher and advocate for the horses in our lives: John Lyons wears many hats. His appearances, books and DVDs have inspired and challenged two generations of horse owners. Our horses, John says, are on loan to us from God, who entrusts them to us to care for and to love.

What & Where: Working with a variety of client horses in unfamiliar round pens and arenas across the country.

The Wreck: I've seen innocent-looking metal panels with sharp, hidden edges, slice a horse's leg wide open. I've seen an ordinary latch on a sliding door cut open a horse's shoulder. I've seen a horse step on a rock that's half the size of a baseball, and shatter his leg in 26 pieces.

The Lesson: Whether in the barn, trailer, round pen or arena, make certain that your horse's environment is safe. I've had people think I was nuts to scrutinize pens, fences and footings that appeared innocent and had been used without incident. Accidents are never intentional--safety is. Run your hands over all surfaces; throw rocks out of the round pen. Anticipate, think, and examine before you put your horse into a new environment. You can never be too safe.

Tim McQuay

Who: National Reining Horse Association (NRHA) Hall of Famer, Tim McQuay, has won every top NRHA event at least once, including the Derby, Futurity and Superstakes. NRHA's first $2 million rider, he has multiple AQHA and U.S. Equestrian Team wins. The good-natured horseman's career is inextricably connected with his remarkable stallion, the late Hollywood Dun It, whose offspring will influence the performance horse world for years to come.

What & Where: With a variety of horses and performance disciplines; at home and in the showpen.

The Wreck: I've had more accidents and injuries than I care to recall, and there's one thing that could've prevented almost every one of them.

The Lesson: Patience. Treat horses as individuals, and recognize that they mature and learn at different speeds. Keep that in mind to understand what they're ready for, both mentally and physically. It's a little like raising your kids: Pushing and pressuring them doesn't always produce the result you desire. Sometimes it's best to stand back and let them show you the way. I've learned something from every horse I've ever had.

Sue M. Copeland

Who: H&R Contributing Editor

What & Where: Several years ago, Drummer and I were at a show, and we'd won a large class the day before. We were in the middle of another good round when he landed from a jump and kicked out hard. I was caught completely off guard and thrown off balance. Land loomed closer than leather, and I hit the ground stunned and embarrassed.

The Lesson: I need to be more intuitive with my overly stoic horse. According to witnesses, he appeared to "sting" his hind end as he landed, hence the reactive (and uncharacteristic) kick. It turns out he was out of alignment in his sacrum after back-to-back shows, but hid his soreness until then.

Jenny Meyer

Who: H&R Editorial Director

What & Where: As a teenager in the late 1960s, I was riding my Thoroughbred mare Tigress back from our local show arena after a club event. As we galloped up a brushy, wooded hill, a trailing vine caught onto my stirrup. Tigress, ordinarily well-mannered, swerved hard and bolted. I was on the ground before I knew what had happened. My mare worked off her fright by galloping circles around me, head and tail high, whinnying her alarm. Because neither of us was hurt, it wound up being rather funny.

The Lesson: Never stop troubleshooting what might cause a spook! You can bet after that I was much more mindful of the terrain I was riding through and how my horse might respond to it.

Debbie Moors

Who: H&R Executive Editor

What & Where: When I was 14 years old, working with my 7/8 Arab yearling filly. It was a summer afternoon, and no one else was at the barn.

The Wreck: I decided to work with her on trailer loading, carefully putting small piles of grain along the floor to coax her in. I'd slipped her nylon lead between the rails on the partition so that I could walk in on the other side. All went well until she started to back up and her lead rope caught under a weld seam in the partition metal. She pulled back--her hind feet on the ground behind the trailer, her front feet braced inside. She actually pulled the trailer a few inches before deciding (sensible girl that she was) to step back in the trailer. I unsnapped the lead rope and let her back out.

The Lesson: How many lessons can I get out of this one wreck? Without a doubt, I learned to carry a pocketknife at the barn, and realized that working alone has hazards. But I also discovered the hard way that things can get sideways in the blink of an eye. I learned to think three steps ahead and work out potential scenarios in my head before trying something new with a horse. Now that I'm a mom, I'm thinking about what can happen when my kids are alone with horses--and how I need to stress safety.

Alana Harrison

Who: H&R Managing Editor

Alana Harrison and Memphis |

Alana Harrison and Memphis |

What & Where: College spring break '01. No beaches, booze or boys on the agenda. March in Loughrea, Ireland, a teeny town about 100 miles east of Ireland's west coast. I was on a horseback-riding spring break trip with my fellow Texas A&M equestrian team gal-pals. After bearing through pouring rain, hail and an endless deluge of mud, we were riding cross-country. I was on a massive bay Thoroughbred named Sligo Bay, and blissfully galloped behind my friends and their mounts, bounding over fences, banks, brick walls--all while dodging errant sheep.

The Wreck: Following our fearless leader, I braced myself for a bank-'n-moat jumping obstacle--you jump down a bank into a moat, take one to two strides through the water, jump onto the "island" bank, then back into the other side of the moat for two strides, and finally out the other side. Fortunately, Sligo had done this a few times before, so I could very contentedly bite my lip and hang out.

He valiantly forged on until the final jump-out. As he pulled up his knees, he caught a hoof on the concrete embankment. Although he managed to make the leap onto dry land, he crashed facedown. He snapped back up, and by the grace of God, I'd managed to stay aboard. Just as my teammates uttered sighs of relief and applauded, Sligo lost his balance and tripped, but didn't fall. I, however, managed to launch myself off--and splat--my hipbone jarred against a massive stone-of-yore; my head in a pile of sheep dung. While I didn't incur any substantial injuries, I was in enough pain to have to sit out the remainder of the trip.

The Lesson: Don't get smug and try to outride my abilities. Most of the girls I was riding with competed in open A-shows--not exactly the caliber of showing I was doing. Be cognizant of the horse you're riding. On an unfamiliar horse, it's easy to overlook subtle warning signs, or push harder than you should. ALWAYS wear a helmet! My head's been saved numerous times by never neglecting this rule. And perhaps I should invest in an eventing vest.

Erin Sullivan Haynes

Who: H&R Editorial Coordinator

What & Where: Someone had given me an Appendix gelding. I was alone in the rented pasture where I boarded and rode "Pepper."

The Wreck: When I received the 4-year-old, he was only green-broke. I had been working with Pepper consistently for a few months when I left town for a vacation. I returned after several days and headed out to the pasture. Pepper was calm and quiet as I caught and saddled him, and because of my eagerness to ride, I forwent longeing him. The instant I swung my right leg over the saddle, I found myself flying through the air. I landed on hard dirt, breaking my pelvis.

The Lesson: I learned to never, NEVER forsake safety for haste. After belly crawling 20 yards to my cell phone to call for help, I also learned to always consider the worst-case scenario. If I'm going to be riding alone, I tell someone that I'll check in every 30 minutes. I keep my cell phone clipped to my belt and if that person doesn't hear from me or can't get a hold of me, then I need to be checked on.

Juli Thorson

Who: H&R Lifestyle Editor

What & Where: In pre-cell-phone days while I still lived in western Oregon, I was out trail riding alone on the timbered rain-forest holdings of a logging company. I was on my retired show horse, Opies Ace High, and following what appeared to be an elk or deer trail through a gulley.

Juli Thorson and Ace |

Juli Thorson and Ace |

The Wreck: I heard a sudden sucking sound and felt Ace sink beneath me. I'd ridden him right into a bog-hole disguised by green growth on top. Things only got worse from there. Ace plunged out and uphill from the bog, only to end up ensnared, belly-deep, in an old logging slash pile buried beneath tall ferns. (A slash pile is made up of branches left behind after logging, and can easily be 10 or more feet deep.) Now my panicked horse couldn't move in any direction without risking a broken leg--and I had no way to summon help.

Two things saved us--Ace's absolute obedience to the word "whoa," and the folding limb saw I'd tucked into my saddle bag as a last-minute addition before leaving home. (I thought I might have reason to clear some trail. Little did I know...) Ace stood still, on command, as I sawed my way through enough of the dead limbs to free his legs. Then I grabbed his tail, urged him forward, and allowed him to pull both of us up and out of the hidden hazard.

The Lesson: Riding solo is an extra-risky venture because there's no one to assist you or go for help if you get in a jam. Never ride across footing you can't see, especially in a low area (I should have known that low + green = water source). And, there's no such thing as being too prepared!

Share your wreck stories--and what they taught you--in the H&R Forum.