Useful Hints for the Horse Novice
As I write this article, there are some whose idea of managing the risk of COVID-19 seems to involve hiding under a bed with four pallets of toilet paper. The rest of us are getting on with life while being more aware of daily interactions. Risk management is a part of every day life from the moment we roll out of bed. Travelling to work is probably the most dangerous part of our day. However, some of our leisure choices involve a fair element of risk that must be managed.
My introduction to horses involved a steep learning curve. I’ve handled aircraft, race cars and motor bikes well enough to still be around after too many decades to think about. With horses I entered new territory. Aircraft, fast cars, motor bikes and horses all bite when mishandled. Horses are a bit more complicated. Unlike a machine, they are a noble, independent and free thinking animal whose trust must be earned through hard work.
Horses evolved successfully over millions of years. Natural instincts make them great survivors. Is that noise or movement a threat? React, lash out and run are the usual first responses. Stopping to think happens after a safe distance has been covered. If the response was caused by a novice unfamiliar with horses they may be flat on their back in the paddock wondering what the hell just happened! I was lucky – my mentor was a horse whisper and respected teacher.
For the novice helping out with a horse, unintended scares can result in injury or death. To control this risk, get the horse's attention before approaching or touching. When coming around a corner of a shed when the horse is feeding inside, an early “G’day’ can save both of you from surprise. Just like with an aircraft or helicopter with the engine running, always approach from the front or to the side where you are easily visible. Don’t approach from the rear. A chopper has a spinning tail rotor at head height and a horse has two powerful hooves that can suddenly lash out. Both situations have potential to rearrange the careless person’s view of the world.
I’m going to share some tips for novices about to be involved with horses or for owners whose partners want to play a greater role. There’s a lot of advice out there about horse safety. I’ve learned through flying that what seems like comprehensive advice to someone well involved in an activity may miss small but significant things that will confound the novice. Too much information can also flood the newcomer. Only a few points are retained - the rest is forgotten. This article is written by a novice for novices and concentrates on the essentials.
Whether you’re learning to handle your first horse or just enjoy helping out, understanding basic safety precautions will minimise accidents and injuries. Even the calmest horse or smallest pony has the potential to deliver a lot of hurt if startled. Being around horses demands an appreciation of the risks. The novice may lack experience with horses but is quite capable of understanding and managing risk.
Risk management isn’t difficult. It involves staying aware and taking a moment to observe and think before doing anything around a horse. Observing allows time to identify any potential hazards. This includes judging the mood of the horse, noting anything nearby that could cause an issue and assessing the likelihood of a problem. While delivering the breakfast bucket one morning, horse and I were both startled by a wallaby sneaking tit bits from the floor of his barn. Now I check every time before leading him in.
My first lesson in horse management was simple and meaningful. Watching the master at work with her horse, I was standing with weight on one leg, hands on hips and feeling comfortable. “Don’t stand like that. You’re asking for it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Stand straight. Look like you’re the boss. Expect respect!”
Good point. I had been a school principal for thirty years and had forgotten the obvious. Horses are no different to dealing with people. Show confidence and expect respect and you have a better chance of getting it. That lesson was learned and not forgotten. What else did I learn? I’ll put things in an order that may make sense to the novice.
I spent time leaning on fences watching horse behaviour. It was more than just a matter of looking. It was about seeing. How does the horse respond to a low flying helicopter, the arrival of a delivery truck, the thunder of a Harley Davidson passing down the road or a loose bag blowing in the wind? Every horse is different. The same horse may react differently to various stimuli. Are they jumpy, nervous or l'aise faire - comfortable with their world? With no pressure, the horse would eventually come over to check me out. My response was to offer the back of my hand.
He could choose to ignore me, take a sniff or lick the salt off my arm after a days work. The choice was his. Scent is important to horses to identify and assess members of the herd. We became familiar with each other. Sometimes I took a chair into the paddock with a magazine, pretending to read but really watching (seeing, not just looking) and learning. He would always come to investigate.
When approaching a strange horse, I don’t walk directly toward them. A curving approach from the front avoids direct eye contact and puts me side on. This is less threatening. On approach, speak to a horse to alert them of your presence. They don’t understand the Queen’s English or Aussie slang so it doesn’t matter what you say. However, actually talking to a horse creates the right frame of mind. A calm soothing tone is important. Early warning of an approach avoids provoking the startle reflex, especially while feeding. Talking in a soothing tone while taking rugs on and off keeps things calm.
Approaching a horse from the side avoids their blind spots directly in front and behind. Blind spots result from having eyes located on either side of their head to maximise field of view. Touch the horse first on the neck or shoulder, with a firm but gentle stroking motion. Stroking is relaxing. Patting may be seen as a threat, too close to the biting motion of an attacking animal. Avoiding direct eye contact removes any hint of challenge. I offer my arm toward the horse’s nose to let them make their own decision. “I’m here. Deal or no deal?” If they turn their head toward me, it’s an acknowledgement of my presence. It they look away they’re not ready.
If there’s no sign of a willingness to deal, don’t push it. I move away to offer time to consider. Get on with the task at hand such as removing poop or replacing a hay bag. The horse will be watching and assessing. The deal will come, encouraged by no threat, calm behaviour.
I’ve learned to stay alert for the small, simple things that signal the approach of a major event. Reading signals is important in flying, on the track or riding a motor bike. These aren’t runway or road signs but the signals a machine sends when approaching the limits of performance. Horses are no different. As a living, breathing animal they send non-verbal signals all the time. The novice must have these pointed out if they are going to stay safe - the raised hoof resting on the ground to show relaxation, the yawn or chewing motion that signals a thought process underway and the position of the ears. Be alert and keep those ears in sight. Up shows alertness or interest, hard back and down, look out! Try to identify the threat provoking that response or step back to defuse an unknown situation. A novice is not usually the owner – better to play safe. The novice must learn to always manage risk.
A single horse in a paddock is easy to manage for the novice. Observation is simple as it’s just you and the horse. Two or more horses in the same paddock is a different matter. There’s more to observe and analyse for the novice who is entering an unfamiliar network of herd behaviour. While just doing their normal stuff, horses can inadvertently jostle, step on you or even kick. Avoid taking food or tit bits into a group of horses. This just entices them to crowd around and could incite a food fight with the novice caught in the middle with insufficient experience to manage the situation. Be aware of your own head position in case the horse decides to move his own unexpectedly. When connecting skulls, the novice will always lose!
A horse owner should discuss these situations and share basic handling techniques. For example, don’t step back when approached by a horse. Stepping back surrenders dominance. Personal space is important. How has the horse been trained to respect personal space? Is it a wave of a hand, use of the command ‘back’ or finger pressure to the chest? What is the order of these commands? Consistency of communication between people and horses is crucial. Just like a child, without consistency a horse will only become confused and stressed. An owner should share communication strategies and let the novice practice under supervision to build confidence and consistent application.
Every horse owner appreciates assistance with feeding, grooming, changing rugs, and general care. There are simple techniques the novice must know to stay safe. Stand near the shoulder or next to the hindquarters rather than directly in front or behind a horse when grooming or brushing his tail or rear end. Wear strong shoes or boots in case a hoof is inadvertently placed on your foot. Sandals or thongs will leave an impression that lasts a long time! When walking behind a horse, run a hand down his back or go close enough to brush against him as you pass around. This gives the horse situational awareness and any sudden kick will have no great force. Alternatively pass around far enough away to be out of kicking range.
If a horse is tethered, avoid ducking under the tie rope. This may cause the horse to become startled and pull back. Injury to either party is possible, even if unintentional. An owner can get away with it, the novice may not. Be aware of a horse's hooves while you're working around him as they can be careless where they step. If the novice has been shown how to clean a hoof, make sure your own foot isn't on the spot where the hoof returns to the ground. The novice’s foot will feel like an irritating pebble to the horse! When tending to a lower leg or hoof, such as applying a sock or hoof oil, don’t kneel or sit on the ground. A squat allows you to jump clear if the horse is startled.
Putting a rug on a horse is a useful task for the novice. Fold the rug in thirds and keep the straps under control before easing it over the horses back. Loose straps may flick the horses belly to cause a startled response. Just as with an aircraft, small things cause major problems. The fold of the rug should allow the front to come forward first. Owners have their own ways of doing things but I fasten the chest straps first. How tight should they be? Any used rug will have a wear mark on the buckle strap to show where it has been fastened. Pull the rug into line evenly along the horses back then do the hind-leg straps, threading one through the other to keep them under control and avoid snagging. The belly straps are last. Not too tight but enough to keep the rug snug. Removal starts from the back and moves forward. If the horse does a runner, this makes it impossible for the blanket to slip and become entangled with a hind leg or obstacle.
A novice should know how to lead a horse. They should have been shown how to put on a halter. It’s a simple job but important. The lead rope should be attached to the halter rather than grasping the halter itself. This provides options if the horse becomes startled. Never wrap the lead rope around a hand as the loops could tighten. Fold it back and forth and grasp the middle of the folds. When holding a lead rope, the top of your closed hand should be facing you. This allows for an easy release. The last thing a novice needs is to be dragged away by a startled horse. It’s not good for the horse or the novice’s pride.
If the horse tries to get ahead when leading it, stop. They usually get the message. If they don’t, try changing direction. That takes them by surprise and signals that they need to follow, not lead. When leading a horse while carrying feed in buckets or a hay bag, the novice has the power. If the horse wants to do its own thing and get ahead, walk away with the food. Try again later. It won’t take long for any horse to work out who has the power if it wants to eat. The novice must remember that they’re the boss. Don’t be bluffed.
When leading a horse through a doorway, make sure it’s wide open so the horse doesn't bump itself. This may startle him and result in you copping an injury. If the door is narrow make the horse wait and go through first, then have him follow after you stand to the side. Learn how the horse has been trained to stop. A small point but important. The novice must always manage risk. They may not be an expert on horses but can become a master of risk management.
A novice may need to tie a lead rope to restrain a horse while doing a job. Tie the rope eye high and no longer than your arm. Tie only to a safe, solid object, using a quick-release knot or light 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. Tying communicates the message to stay put. If the horse decides otherwise he can depart with no injury.
When the time comes to let this noble animal loose, stay in front or turn his head toward the gate and step through before slipping the halter off to avoid his rear end in case he kicks his heels up in delight at freedom and the thought that ‘I’m outa here!”. Owners will be more comfortable with releasing their precious treasure. The novice must always be aware of doing things in a way that keeps the horse and themselves safe. There would be nothing worse for the novice than to admit they stuffed up and the horse is injured.
If treats are going to be offered, carrots work well. Cut the pieces small and offer from the palm of a flattened hand to avoid being accidentally nipped. With greedy horses or ponies, put treats in a bucket before offering them. For the novice, treats are useful to offer after a horse has done what they have been trained to do. Reinforcement of training will keep both you and horse safe.
When the boss is away never attempt to help a panicky horse. If it’s in trouble, wait and speak calmly until it settles down before trying to help. Even a gentle horse can cause deadly injuries through their sheer weight and power. Wait until it is safe to untangle a horse that’s in trouble. Stay calm and keep up a patter of small talk while sorting the problem. I had a situation where His Majesty had a leg caught in old wire. He was stressed and nervous. A slow approach talking in a calm tone, a gentle touch and rub with a hand sliding down his leg was followed by the command ‘Up’. He had been well trained. He lifted his leg out of the wire and wandered off with no drama. I could report later that the day went well. Horse and master were content.
Something similar occurred with a wild horse caught in an old fence line inWestern Queensland. The same strategy worked but with more time to calm down. Animals know when someone cares. A taste from my water bottle showed I cared and some sticks helped separate the wire. The command ‘Up’ was irrelevant. He understood the squeeze on the knuckle on his inside leg. Release delivered an excited kick of hind legs but I was out of the way. The novice can do more than horse owners think as long as they focus on managing risk. Everything else will follow.
With good guidance, the novice can offer valuable support to the horse owner. They must be taught the basics to ensure consistent communication. This keeps themselves and the horse safe. What I have described should be enough to help this happen.
In the meantime, remember that there are no stupid questions, so don’t be reluctant to ask the boss.