Horses are large, powerful creatures, and riding is a vigorous activity. Safety measures and common sense are the keys to protecting your child and enhancing her enjoyment. Riding a suitable mount under the guidance of a qualified instructor is the most important safeguard for your child. Common (Horse) Sense
The more your child--and you--understand about equine nature, the easier it will be to stay out of trouble with horses. It's tempting for your child, especially, to project human thoughts and motivations on horses and ponies, but this must be discouraged. Instead, consider everything a horse does in light of the fact that he's a prey animal. Specifically, given their prey-species mentality, equines are naturally:
- Timid and watchful. They're fearful or at least suspicious of anything new. They're keen-sighted and can spot?and react to--many things we humans don't notice. They also have highly developed senses of hearing and smell.
- Easily startled. A "quick-alarm" system is nature's way of giving horses a jump on predators that might otherwise have them for dinner. Horses are even more alert?and possibly spooky--on windy days, when it's harder for them to tell where sounds and smells are coming from.
- Claustrophobic. Horses' preferred defense mechanism is running away, and being confined limits their ability to flee danger. If cornered, frightened, and unable to escape, they may defend themselves with both teeth and hooves.
- Herd-oriented. In the wild, large bands of horses provide protection from predators, so horses much prefer not to leave the company of their own kind. Horses also "catch" moods from each other; if other horses in a group start to get jittery, your child's mount likely will, too.
All these characteristics must be kept in mind whenever you and your child are around a horse. In general, making sure your child's mount doesn't build up excess energy (from overfeeding, lack of exercise, or both) will help to keep his natural reactiveness at manageable levels.
Although a horse's inborn nature cannot be changed, it can be tempered through intelligent, patient training and proper ongoing handling. As your child becomes more familiar with both horse nature and horsemanship, she'll learn how to inspire a horse's trust and command his respect.
The latter is particularly important in terms of her safety. A disrespectful dog or cat is a nuisance, but a horse that lacks respect can hurt you.
"The biggest problem I see with children, as well as with new horse owners, is a reluctance to insist on respectfulness," says Clinton Anderson, who sees hundreds of horse owners each year at his Downunder Horsemanship clinics across the country(www.clintonanderson.net). "It's hard for them to be firm with an animal they regard as a pet. But, for safety's sake, they must be."
Your child's instructor will be her primary guide in these matters; belonging to a club that teaches horse sense, such as 4-H or Pony Club, is also helpful[LINK]. Beyond that, there's a wealth of resources available to further your child's knowledge and skills, as well as your own.
Safety On The Ground
Proper handling of horses from the ground will be one of the many things a good instructor will teach your child. Here, as ongoing reminders, are some of the most important safeguards you and your child should remember when:
- Approaching, catching. Always speak to a horse to alert him of your presence before walking near; this avoids provoking his startle reflex. Approach from the side, to avoid his "blind" spots (directly in front of and behind him). Touch him first on the neck or shoulder, with a firm but gentle stroking motion. Be especially careful when entering a pasture or paddock containing several horses?(they can inadvertently jostle or step on you, or even kick). Also, don't take grain or other food into a group of horses?this just entices them to crowd around you and could incite a "food fight," with you caught in the middle.
- Leading. Always use a lead rope attached to the horse's halter, rather than grasping the halter itself, which provides no options if the horse were to startle. Don't coil the end of the lead rope around your hand, where the loops could tighten; instead, fold it back and forth and grasp the middle of the folds. To avoid being pulled over and dragged, never wrap a lead rope or any other line attached to a horse around any part of your body. Don't allow the horse you're leading to touch noses with an unfamiliar horse, as this can lead the "strangers" to suddenly bite or strike at one another. (This applies when you're mounted, as well.)
- Tying. Tie a horse "eye high and no longer than your arm," meaning the tie knot should be at least as high as the horse's eye, and the distance from the knot to the halter should be no more than the length of your arm. Tie only to a safe, solid object, using a quick-release knot or breakaway string (your child's instructor will explain how). Keep your fingers out of the loops as you tie the knot. Tie only with a halter and lead, never with bridle reins.
- Grooming/handling. Stand near the shoulder or next to the hindquarters rather than directly in front of or directly behind a horse when grooming his head or brushing or braiding his tail. To walk behind a horse, go either (1) close enough to brush against him (where a kick would have no real force), keeping one hand on his rump as you pass around; or (2) far enough away to be well out of kicking range. Avoid ducking under the tie rope; you might cause the horse to pull back, and you'd be extremely vulnerable to injury if he did. Be mindful of a horse's feet while you're working around him, as horses are often careless about where they step. When releasing a horse's foot after cleaning it, make sure your own foot isn't in the hoof's spot as it returns to the ground. When tending to a horse's lower leg or hoof (as in applying a bandage), never kneel or sit on the ground. Remain squatting, so you can jump away in the event he startles. When blanketing a horse, fasten the chest straps first, then the girth strap, then the hind-leg straps. When you remove the blanket, unfasten straps in the reverse order. This makes it impossible for the blanket to slip and become entangled with a horse's hind legs.
- Trailering. Never fight with a reluctant horse to get him into a trailer; seek professional help and retraining, if necessary. Once a horse is in the trailer, close the back before you hitch him to the trailer tie. When unloading, untie the horse before opening the back of the trailer, so he doesn't begin to back out on his own and hit the end of the rope, causing him to panic and pull back.
- Turning loose. When turning out a horse or pony for exercise or returning him to his paddock or pasture, always turn his head back toward the gate and step through it yourself before slipping the halter off to avoid his heels in case he kicks them up in delight at freedom.
- Feeding treats. Give carrot or apple chunks from the palm of a flattened hand to avoid being accidentally nipped. Better yet (especially in the case of greedy horses or ponies), put treats in a bucket before offering them.
Safety In The Saddle
Again, your child's instructor will teach her how to be safe while mounted, but here are some key concepts to keep in mind regarding:
- Supervision. Until skills are well established (her instructor will say when), your child should ride only under supervision. This is especially crucial for younger children. Jumping should be supervised at all times.
- Safety gear. Essentials include proper footwear (boots or shoes with hard toes and a heel) and, whenever mounted, a properly fitted helmet that meets current safety standards. (The Safety Equipment Institute [SEI] certifies helmets that meet or exceed the American Society for Testing & Materials [ASTM] standard for equestrian headgear. Use only helmets with the ASTM/SEI mark.) Safety or breakaway stirrups (designed to release the foot easily in the event of a fall) are advisable, as is a safety vest for cross-country jumping.
- Tacking up. A bit that pinches, ruffled hair under the saddle pad, a too-tight back cinch?any of these can cause a horse or pony to act up "unaccountably." Make sure your child always follows her instructor's rules for proper bridling and saddling. With your or her instructor's help, she should also regularly inspect her equipment for signs of wear that could cause a rein, stirrup leather, or other essential part to break.
- Preparing a fresh mount. A child's horse or pony must always be evaluated for excess energy before the child mounts. Longeing by an experienced person will "take the edge" off a fresh horse and make it less likely he'll act up when ridden. (Remember, excess energy results from overfeeding, lack of exercise, or both.)
- Mounting. Your child should never mount where there are low overhead clearances or projections. She should follow proper technique (her instructor will show her how) and maintain contact with the reins as she swings aboard. Her horse or pony should stand still for mounting, or else be held by an adult until your child is securely in the saddle.
- Paying attention. Staying calm, focused, and alert in the saddle at all times is a key safeguard. Your child can have fun, but she mustn't ever become careless or unmindful.
- Trail riding. Don't allow your child to ride out on the trail until her instructor deems she is ready, teaches her how, and assures that her mount is trail-safe. Your child shouldn't ride out alone at any time.
HORSE SAFETY IN A NUTSHELL
- When in doubt about the proper way of doing anything, or the advisability of a planned activity, ask for expert help and/or advice before proceeding.
- Use common sense. Plan ahead and troubleshoot to avoid mishaps. Be thinking always of how to minimize risk.
- Make a habit of every safety rule and correct method of doing things. Don't hurry, and avoid shortcuts. Do things the right way every time.
THE LAST WORD ON HELMETS
"Every Time, Every Ride" is a 22-minute educational video on head injury prevention through the use of ASTM/SEI-certified equestrian helmets. Produced and distributed by the Washington State 4-H Foundation and narrated by William Shatner, this short film is a must-see for anyone who questions the necessity of helmets?especially for children. It's available for $15 (postage paid) from:
Washington State 4-H Foundation
7612 Pioneer Way
Puyallup, WA 98371-4570
(253) 445-4570; fax (253) 445-4587
...or you can order it online through the Certified Horsemanship Association at www.cha-ahse.org.
BARN SAFETY CHECK
Here's a quick double-check of safety features and precautions around the barn:
- Aisles should be at least eight feet wide to allow a horse and handler to turn around easily, or two horses to pass without crowding.
- Ceilings should be high enough to avoid contact with a rearing horse's head; nine feet or more is generally sufficient.
- Floors must provide non-slip footing. Texturized concrete is a safe, inexpensive option for a barn aisle.
- Light fixtures must be mounted where curious muzzles cannot reach them, or else encased in sturdy wire cages.
- Stall doors should never swing inward?a hazard for someone trying to exit when a horse is also eager to get out. Side-sliding doors mounted on rollers are safest.
- Repairs to barns and fencing are best made immediately, before a loose board, protruding nail, or damaged gate can cause injury to horse or human.
- Clutter in and around the barn is always a safety hazard; make sure aisles and commonly traveled pathways are clear of feed cans, push brooms, saddle racks, wheelbarrows, and the like.
For more information?related to this topic, go to:
American Association for Horsemanship Safety, Inc.
American Medical Equestrian Association