Safety First Protecting Yourself around Horses

Most horses are gentle creatures who would never intentionally hurt anyone, let alone someone they like. However, they're big animals, and accidents happen.

Horse-related mishaps have been a fact of life for centuries, no doubt ever since the horse was domesticated. I remember hiking once in Yosemite National Park and coming across an old cemetery from the 1800s. One of the tombstones said that the occupant of the grave had been "killed by a horse." I realized that no matter how much experience you have with horses, bad stuff can happen.

People wise in the ways of horses have come up with general safety rules to follow when in the presence of these large animals. In this chapter, I detail the safety protocols you need to follow to keep yourself out of harm's way, both on the ground and in the saddle. And remember — I give you plenty of safety tips throughout the rest of this book.

Dressing the Part With Safe Clothing

The clothing you wear around horses affects your safety. This fact may not seem obvious at first, but your apparel can protect you from errant hooves, falls to the ground, and nasty chafing. Read the following sections to see why and to find out what to look for. Chapter 10 has additional information about discipline-specific riding attire.

Covering your head

A lot of riders don't wear protective headgear, but helmets are probably the most important part of your wardrobe if you plan to ride. In the event of a fall, a helmet is the only thing between your skull and the hard ground. Stories abound of riders who came off their horses without helmets and suffered serious brain injuries as a result.

If you still aren't convinced, consider this: A fall from a horse's back can take place at high speed. Imagine jumping out of your car, head first, at 30 miles per hour. That's how fast you may be going if you fall off a galloping horse. For the sake of your brain, always wear a helmet when you ride.

The style of riding you do can determine the type of helmet you wear. Or if you aren't showing and are just schooling or going on a trail ride, you can wear a regular trail helmet. Figure 5-1 shows the three different types of helmets available:

Riders wear the English show helmet in hunt seat and lower-level dressage shows (riders at the upper level wear a non-protective top hat).

English show helmets are almost always black, do not have vents, and are often velvet-covered.

Trail riders and people who are just schooling wear the trail helmet. These helmets are lightweight, feature vents throughout, and come in a host of different colors. (See Chapter 21 for info on trail riding.)

The Western trail helmet, shaped like a cowboy hat, isn't often worn — many people find them awkward-looking. Most Western riders who choose to wear a helmet opt for a trail helmet instead.

The danger off head injuries

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of serious injury for horseback riders is greater than that for motorcyclists and auto racers. State medical examiner records from 27 states over an 11-year period identified head injuries as the cause of 60 percent of horseback riding-related deaths.

For this reason, a number of riding organizations, such as the U.S. Pony Club and U.S. Equestrian Federation, require youngsters to wear helmets when riding in competition. Although adults are rarely required to wear helmets, they should do so for their own safety. Helmets have been proven to prevent or lessen the severity of brain injuries in riding accidents.

When you shop for a helmet, make sure you buy one for equestrians — bike helmets don't protect the part of the head most affected in a fall from a horse. In the U.S., the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) sets standards for helmet construction. If a helmet meets these standards, it receives a seal of approval from the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI); buy only an SEI-approved helmet. And don't waste your money by not wearing your helmet properly. It shouldn't rock back and forth on your head but should rather be stable. The chin strap should be snug and not hanging loose.

Find out whether the riding instructor you'll be working with can provide you with a properly fitting helmet. If not, purchase one of your own at a tack store or through an equine catalog or Web site (see the Appendix for some catalog resources). Helmet prices vary by design, and you can pay anywhere from $30 to $200 for a helmet.

If you experience a fall and hit your head while wearing your helmet, buy a new one as soon as you can. An impact can compromise the helmet's effectiveness.

Slipping into the right shirt

When just hanging around the stable, you can wear just about any shirt you want. That said, keep the following points in mind when choosing what to wear above your waist when you ride:

Long, baggy shirts that aren't tucked in can get caught on parts of the saddle, arena gates, and stall latches. You're safer in a well-fitted shirt that's tucked in. You look nicer, too!

Riding is a physical activity, so you want to wear materials that breathe well and are absorbent. Cotton lets you stay cooler and drier.

Long-sleeved shirts can protect your skin from the sun. I know quite a few equestrians who are dealing with skin cancer as a result of spending hours in the sun with exposed skin.

Protecting your Legs

When the weather is hot, you may feel tempted to ride in shorts instead of donning a pair of riding tights or jeans. But keep in mind that if you're wearing shorts, your bare skin will rub against the leather of your saddle and give you some very unpleasant chafing.

Riding pants are designed not to rub on the rider and to protect the rider's legs from the leather of the saddle. They can also come in handy should you fall off, serving as a top layer of protection between your skin and the ground.

English riders can find breeches and riding tights at tack stores, in equine catalogs, or on the Internet (see the Appendix for some resources). Usually made of a cotton and nylon or Lycra blend, these pants are form-fitting and are very comfortable for riding in an English saddle.

Western riders typically wear denim jeans, made from cotton. These jeans have a boot cut to allow riding boots to fit under the lower pant leg.

These boots are made for riding: Donning the right footwear

Boots made of the right material and designed with the proper heel are your only choice if you plan to handle or ride a horse; you can buy them at tack stores, through equine catalogs, or on the Internet. Follow these rules to keep your feet — and the rest of your body — safe:

Wear heavy boots when working on the ground. Heavy boots are mandatory if you plan to be on the ground and working around horses. Few things are as painful as having your foot stepped on by a 1,000-pound klutz wearing metal shoes. If you're wearing tennis shoes or sandals when this happens, you're at risk for a broken foot, broken toes, or at the very least, a lot of bruising and swelling. Wear heavy boots designed for equestrians for maximum safety.

Wear riding boots when you're in the saddle: Never ride in a saddle with tennis shoes. You may see people doing it, but that doesn't mean the practice is safe. Riding boots made especially for equestrians are the best footwear for riding because they're equipped with a heel that keeps your foot from sliding through the stirrup and trapping your leg. This feature can be a lifesaver should you fall from your horse; you don't want to get dragged. The soles are also smoother for the same reason.

Figure 5-2 shows riding boots with a proper heel. The heel is square and about an inch high. Riding boots come in a variety of different styles, but all good riding boots have this safety heel in common.

Removing your jewelry

Most people don't imagine getting dressed up to go down to the barn, but some people actually do. Ditching your silver and gold may sound like a silly warning, but here it is anyway: Refrain from wearing jewelry when you're around horses.

Jewelry — especially big rings, hanging earrings, necklaces, and bangle bracelets — can catch on just about any part of the saddle or bridle. This stuff can also catch on the various items at riding stables, such as gate latches, cross-tie rings (apparatuses that tether the horse; see Chapter 11 for details on cross-ties), and saddle racks. Save the sparkle for a more appropriate and safer venue.

Keeping a Close Eye on Horses When You're on the Ground

Some people believe you're safer riding a horse than you are working with one on the ground. It's true that you're more vulnerable when you're standing next to the horse, because the horse can easily step on you, knock you down, or kick. When you're on the horse's back, all you have to worry about is not falling off or running into low-hanging branches.

If you're working around a kind, well-mannered horse, you have little to worry about in terms of intentional injuries. Horses who kick and bite humans are not the norm, and they certainly have no place in a beginning rider's lesson program. However, staying on the safe side and being prepared for anything when you're handling horses is always a good idea. Even the calmest horses react when startled.

Knowing what to expect from a horse when you're working around him and taking certain precautions can help ensure your safety at the stable. In the following sections, I explain how to stay safe in close quarters with a horse and around a tied horse. I also show you how to recognize some dangerous horse moves so you know to get out of the way.

Being in close confines - With a Horse

Horses are big animals who can easily step on you or crash into you without meaning to. Combine this reality with their tendency to spook (see Chapter 2 for details), and you can see why being alert and knowledgeable when in close confines with a horse is essential.

Horses who have learned they shouldn't encroach on a human's space are less likely to crowd you or step on you in close quarters, but accidents happen. And some horses just don't know they're supposed to keep some distance from you. If you discover that a horse doesn't know to move away when you ask him to, avoid getting in close quarters with that animal.

When in a barn with a horse, follow these rules to keep yourself safe:

Don't stand between a horse and an unmovable object. Find a way to move the horse if you don't have enough room to gain access to that side of the horse. If a horse gets too close to you, push on the horse's body and cluck your tongue to get the horse to move over and give you some room. (Try this technique, but don't assume it'll work with all horses; unfortunately, some horses haven't learned this lesson.)

Keep things tidy. Watch for objects that could pose a hazard to you and your horse. If you spot a rake, pitchfork, bucket, hose, halter, lead rope, or other object lying on the ground or leaning against a wall, put it where it belongs — even if you didn't leave it out. A horse can knock over or get tangled in these objects and may injure you or himself if he panics.

 Don't enter a box stall with a strange horse without first determining the horse's attitude. Nothing's more terrifying than finding yourself in a small space with a horse who doesn't want you there. Judge the horse's attitude by paying attention to his facial expressions, which I detail in Chapter 2. If you're unsure, ask the horse's owner or someone familiar with the horse.

 Make a horse aware of your presence before you approach from behind. Horses are easily startled, and kicking is one of their defenses. Before you walk behind a horse, make sure the horse is aware of your presence. If you need to pass closely behind a horse you don't know, talk to him and then wait for his reaction (he'll look at you and/or turn his ears to you in response). Pass very close to the horse's body, nearly touching him. That way, if the horse tries to kick, you'll make contact only with the point of the hock (the "elbow" of the back leg) and not receive the full force of his hoof.

Moving around a tied horse

Many horses feel vulnerable when they're tied to a post or cross-ties (see Chapter 11 for details on tying horses). To avoid accidents, follow these basic rules around tied horses:

When deciding where to tie your horse, choose an object unlikely to come out of the ground or break loose. A horse running down the barn aisle with a stall door attached to his lead rope is not safe for anyone!

Tie short and high. Tying a horse with too much slack in the lead rope and too low on the post is a recipe for disaster. The horse will inevitably get a foot hung up in the rope or end up with the rope over his neck. Always tie a horse with a short rope (12 inches of slack is a good length) at the horse's eye level so he can't get in trouble.

Use safety restraints. When tying a horse to a hitching post or horse trailer, always use a safety knot (see Chapter 11 for instructions). A safety knot allows you to quickly release the lead rope of a panicking horse. If you're cross-tying your horse, use quick release snaps on cross-ties and light ropes that break easily if the horse pulls back.

Don't duck under. Never duck underneath a horse's neck to get to the other side. Take the long way and walk around the horse's front or back. If you walk under the horse's neck and the horse panics and rears up, you could end up seriously injured.

Deal with pull-backs: Horses can sometimes panic when tied

Something spooks them, and they throw all their weight on their hindquarters, exerting enough force to rip a hitching post out of the ground or at the very least, break the halter. Some horses do this act routinely just to get out of being tied, while others have to be very frightened before pulling this stunt.

To avoid prompting a horse to pull back, be slow and quiet when approaching from the front. If you need to move toward the horse with an object in your hand, watch the horse's body language carefully to determine whether the horse is scared. A horse who's ready to pull back has a frightened expression (see Chapter 2) and has moved his weight to the back of his body. To help ensure that the horse is okay with whatever you have in your hand, allow him to take a good look at it first and even sniff it before you raise your hand up near his head or neck.

Identifying dangerous horse moves

The way horses move can be dangerous for the humans in close proximity. Recognizing these moves can tell you where the horse is going so you can get out of the way:

Body swing: 

When a horse's front end moves to the left, the back end concurrently moves to the right (and vice versa).

Head jerk: 

If a horse wants to get his head away from something, he jerks his head upwards and sometimes to the side at the same time.

Sideways move: 

When a horse is afraid of something on his right-hand side, he leaps to the left (and vice versa).

Forward move: 

If something spooks a horse from behind, the horse moves forward rapidly.

Backward move: 

If you approach a horse from the front holding something he wants to avoid (medication, a dewormer, or a frightening object, for example), he throws up his head, places all his weight on his haunches, and backs up at significant speed. If this happens, don't pull back on the lead rope, because doing so only excites the horse more and causes further backing up. Just relax, hold the object behind your back, talk softly to the horse, and give him a chance to settle down.

Staying Secure on a Horse

When you ride a horse, you challenge gravity by being up in the air. That said, you need to take certain steps to give yourself an advantage over the pull of the ground. Keeping your equipment in good working order, along with knowing how to behave on horseback, is a good start. I explain what you need to know about staying safe in the saddle in the following sections.

You should also avoid participating in equine activities that involve speed and precise rider skill, such as jumping or gymkhana (timed speed events), until your instructor says you're ready. See Chapter 16 for info on jumping.

Checking your tack before you saddle up

Having good riding equipment in decent condition helps you stay safe in the saddle. Just like working parts in your car's engine, tack can break when you least expect it if you don't keep it in good order.

Before you climb into the saddle, do a quick check of your tack to ensure everything makes the cut. Take a look at the following details:

The bridle: Your instructor should give you a bridle that fits properly. Make sure all the buckles are tightly fastened and all pieces are securely attached. (See Chapter 9 for details about bridles.)

The girth: On Western saddles, check the left latigo strap to be sure it's snugly tied to the saddle ring and that the offside billet is securely buckled to the cinch. On English saddles, inspect buckles on both sides to make sure they're securely fastened. (See Chapter 8 for diagrams showing the parts of the saddle.)

The stirrups: For Western saddles, inspect the stirrup buckle to make sure it's not loose. On English saddles, make sure that the stirrup leathers are securely buckled and positioned on the stirrup bar. Later, after you dismount from your horse, push your stirrup irons up to the top of the leathers so the irons are flush with the saddle skirt. This step keeps your irons from catching on anything and banging around on your horse.

Riding with others

When you start getting into riding, you may find yourself riding on the trail with friends or sharing an arena with other riders. In situations where horses are kept at boarding stables and boarders share riding facilities, riding in groups isn't usually a choice — it's mandatory simply because everyone is forced to use the same arenas.

Follow these safety precautions when riding around others:

Go slowly: 

Don't jump on your horse and take off like they do in the movies. When you first mount up, walk the horse slowly to the point of destination, whether it's a riding arena or a trailhead. Don't trot or canter through the aisles of the stable, and don't stress your horse by tearing off into a gallop from a standstill. These actions aren't good for the horse or your reputation with other riders.

Shut the gate: 

Alert other riders when you're about to enter the arena and shut the gate behind you after you come in. A runaway horse — which can result from a bad spook or a falling rider — is often unable to exit the arena if the gate is closed.

Stay back: 

When you're riding around the perimeter of an arena (or on a trail), keep your horse several feet away from the horse in front of you. (You should be able to see the hind feet of the horse in front of you between your horse's ears.) Most horses tolerate having another horse behind them, but some don't. If your horse starts crowding the one in front of him, both you and your horse may get kicked.

If you're riding a horse who kicks when other horses get too close, tie a red ribbon at the base of your horse's tail to warn other riders at horse shows, organized trail rides, or other events. Likewise, when you see a horse with a red ribbon in his tail, stay back.

Approaching from the rear: 

If you're approaching a horse from behind while in the arena, pass using a wide berth (one horse's length from the side and the front of the horse you're passing) to the inside of the ring. Otherwise, if you're going faster than the other rider, the other rider's horse may spook, causing a serious accident.

Be quiet: 

Yelling, hollering, and yee-hawing while on horseback is fine for actors in Westerns, but in real life, this kind of behavior can frighten your horse and those around you. The only exception to this rule is when you're riding in gymkhana or some other competitive speed event where such vocalizations are considered acceptable (see Chapter 22 for info on competitive events).

Dealing with two-way traffic: 

When riding in an arena, you end up riding in one direction while one or more riders are traveling the opposite way. When passing one another face to face in a riding arena, riders use the left-shoulder-to-left-shoulder rule; their left shoulders pass when they ride by each other. To stick to the rule, you may need to stay close to the rail so the approaching rider passes you on your left. Or you may need to stay to the inside, away from the rail, so the approaching rider can pass you to the left.

Hitting the trail by yourself:


Probably the only time you can really choose to ride by yourself is on the trail. Of course, you shouldn't go solo unless you're quite proficient in the saddle. Otherwise, look for some company.

If you decide to go out by yourself, follow these guidelines for safety (see Chapter 21 for more information about safety and etiquette specific to trail riding, whether you're alone or in a group):

Let someone know where you're going and when you plan to return.

Map out your route beforehand.

Stay on the trail.

Keep a cellphone and ID on your person, and have some kind of identification on your horse.

Bring food, water, and sunscreen for yourself, as well as insect repellent for you and your horse.