Safety Around Horses
A basic guide for beginning horse people
Getting involved in horses is a wonderful and rewarding way to learn new skills, develop a relationship with a fascinating animal, and meet new friends in the process. Like many activities, however, equestrian sport also involves some degree of risk. Horses are large, powerful animals, easily capable of injuring a person. But, if you are well armed with a basic understanding of horses, a few hard and fast rules, and your own good sense, the risks are readily minimized.
The biggest risk in being around horses occurs when they are frightened. At this time, their only concerns are escape and survival, and people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time can be hurt. Therefore, the easiest way to prevent such accidents is to understand what frightens horses. Horses are prey animals; in the wild, they are constantly at risk of being eaten. As a result, they have evolved systems of behaviour to help them successfully detect and avoid predators. Specifically, horses are always on the lookout. Their long necks, widely spaced eyes, and mobile ears help them be aware of things all around them. This means that they see things "out of the corner of their eye" much better than humans, whose eyes are on the front of their faces. Equine ears swivel in all directions, allowing them to hear and locate faraway sounds. These abilities are crucial to horses' survival, because despite their speed, they are not as fast as many of their natural predators. Early detection is therefore essential. Having widely-spaced eyes means that the horse's field of peripheral vision is very large (Fig. 1), but it also limits his field of binocular vision (i.e., where he sees with both eyes at once) to a small area directly in front of him. Binocular vision is essential to accurately judge distance and depth. Therefore, most of the things a horse sees are only one-dimensional - and it is difficult for him to know exactly where they are. In terms of the horse's survival, it really doesn't matter - all he has to do is run the other way. But it does mean that horses will often "overreact" to little things behind and beside them.
Equine Body Language
Take some time to observe horses from a distance, and learn a bit of their body language. When startled, a horse (like all animals) has three typical reactions. Some will show all three in succession; others may show only one in a given situation. If you can recognize these signs, you will be better able to predict and avoid danger. First, a horse will usually freeze. This makes him less noticeable to the potential predator, while allowing him to better identify the source. The horse will usually look intently in the direction of the surprising stimulus, with its head up and ears perked. The animal is often very tense, and a second startle may cause it to bolt. Second, horses run. Many will freeze momentarily before running, but many may not. Prior to running, a horse may sidestep, spin, rear, or jump, and it is these actions which are particularly likely to injure onlookers. Finally, if cornered, horses will fight. Despite their size and power, they are really not ideally suited to warding off predators, lacking weapons such as horns. They can, however, do considerable damage with their hooves and teeth. Never corner a panicked horse.
Approaching a Horse
In terms of your safety, then, you should be aware that horses are most easily scared by sudden movements or loud noises, particularly outside of the animal's field of binocular vision. Quick movements or loud noises in these areas will trigger fear reactions such as spinning or bolting, and you may get trampled or kicked in the process. For this reason, avoid approaching horses from the rear or side. Move to the head, giving the animal a chance to see you. Most horses are more used to being approached from the left. Announce your presence and put a hand on the horse's neck or shoulder so he knows where you are. Offer your hand in a closed fist for the horse to smell. Never run up to a horse, throw things toward a horse, or move in a quick or unpredictable manner. Never stand directly behind a horse; he cannot see you well there, and you risk being kicked. By learning about horses, how they perceive and react to the world, and by adopting a few basic rules of conduct, you can look forward to safe and enjoyable interaction with these beautiful creatures. Let's now consider some specific situations where you may come into close contact with horses: the horse show, while driving your car, and in the context of your first ride.
At a Horse Show
For many people, a local fair or horse show is their first close-up exposure to horses. Going to a show is a wonderful way to learn more about the different types and uses of equines, to meet people involved in the sports that interest you, and to make contacts that may lead you to riding lessons, or even your first horse. For the competitors, however, a horse show is a serious thing. Behind the scenes at a show can get pretty hectic, and there are risks to both spectators and horses alike. In addition to the basics we have just covered, here are some specific cautions for the horse show environment:
Sharing the Road
Do you know what to do if, when in your car, you meet a horse being ridden or driven down the road? This can be a particularly dangerous situation for all concerned: if frightened, the horse may bolt into the oncoming vehicle or jump into a ditch or fence line. The horse may be injured, the rider or driver thrown, or your car damaged. Your best strategy is to slow to a crawl, keeping to the opposite side of the road. Dim or turn off your headlights, if possible, and turn down your car stereo. If the horse appears particularly nervous, stop and wait for the rider to either enter a laneway or wave you by. Never brake or accelerate suddenly, both of which cause noise and throw up gravel. Spraying gravel will certainly frighten and may even injure the horse. Never, ever honk the horn. When you are well past the horse, accelerate gradually and be on your way.
Your First Ride
So, you've decided to take the plunge and learn to ride. Whether at a riding school, a trail riding establishment, or a friend's stable, there are a few basic rules you should follow to ensure a safe and enjoyable first ride.
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Updated: October 2005.