Stay safe around horses with these basic guidelines for riding and handling. Second nature for experienced horsemen, these rules are especially important for novices and young riders.
Safety on the Ground
- 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. 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 door or ramp 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.
The safest way to feed a horse a treat is to put the goodie into a bucket first. | Photo by Alana Harrison
- 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
- Supervision. Until skills are well established, beginners and especially children should ride under supervision. Jumping should be supervised at all times.
- Safety gear. Essentials include proper footwear (boots or shoes with hard toes and a heel) and, especially for children, 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 an added measure, as is a safety vest for anyone involved in 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 to act up "unaccountably." Make sure you and your child always follow basic guidelines for proper bridling and saddling. Regularly inspect equipment for signs of wear that could cause a rein, stirrup leather, or other essential part to break.
- Preparing a fresh mount. 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 can result from overfeeding, lack of exercise, or both.)
- Mounting. Never mount where there are low overhead clearances or projections. Follow proper technique (a trainer or instructor can show how) and maintain contact with the reins as you swing aboard. A child's horse or pony should stand still for mounting, or else be held by an adult until the child is securely in the saddle.
- Paying attention. Staying calm, focused, and alert in the saddle at all times is a key safeguard. Children, in particular, can have fun but mustn't become careless or unmindful.
- Trail riding. Novices and children shouldn't ride out on the trail until a trainer or instructor deems they are ready, teaches them how, and assures that mounts are trail-safe.