Monday, January 7, 2013


By Catherine Sampson

Horse accidents are not confined to the saddle or cart.  The majority of mishaps occur handling horses.  Some of these cases can be of a serious nature, others minor.  Each are painful and in some instances, preventable.  Lost wages and loss of enjoyment with your horse are also consequences during convalescence.  Trod on toes, broken limbs and appendages, rope burns, head and back injuries, along with an assortment of cuts, bumps and bruises are an all too common occurrence. 

Horses are blessed with lightning fast reflexes for self-preservation.  Our response time to these sometimes unpredictable and rapid movements is relatively slow, especially as we age.  Our strength and balance is compromised when dealing with the horse.  Unfortunately, handlers are often in the wrong place at the wrong time when the horse takes flight.  That fresh horse being lead out to the pasture may get carried away in their exuberance.  The new mom may show over-protectiveness towards her foal.  That unpredictable baby might be blind-sided with temporary fear.  That young stallion may be testing his boundaries and you may become the target of his adolescent ways.  Simply grooming a horse or leading it out for a hack carries a degree of risk.  However, there are certain precautions and common-sense lessons that can be learned and applied.

 Safety Proofing your Stable

Creating a save working environment is essential. 

Repair uneven floors that may pose a tripping hazard.  Keep stable flooring dry and replace weak or substandard boards in your hayloft.  Fix loose boards and remove any exposed nails from stalls.  Store tools in a designated area.  The simple act of setting a rake down with the teeth of the rake facing against a wall will prevent accidentally stepping on the teeth, potentially resulting in a blackened eye, or worse, a fall. 

If you don’t have a phone in your stable, carry a cell phone or cordless phone.  In the event of any emergency, you will need to get assistance and may not be able to travel any distance to reach a phone. 

Have a complete first aid kit for humans in an easily accessible location and check your inventory on a regular basis.

Adjust crossties to a safe comfortable length and height for the horse.  Too tight or too loose are concerns.  The unyielding restraint from a crosstie adjusted too snugly can invoke the fight or flight response in the horse. A loose tie allows the horse too much freedom, resulting in possible entanglement.  Use quick-release snaps in the event of an accident.  If you are using straight ties, attach them high – not level with the horse’s head where the horse can pull with greater force.  (Trailer ties make handy straight ties.) 

Affix a quick release snap to the end of the tie that bolts into the wall and not to the halter of the horse.  It is much easier to get to a snap that is securely positioned, than attempting to release it from the halter of a frantic horse.  It also gives you a short shank if it is required, after the horse is released.


The wearing of jewellery is a definite hazard when working in a stable.  Finger rings can get caught in a variety of ways, resulting in dislocations.  Earrings and other body piercing jewellery, including chains, necklaces and bangles also pose a risk.  The wearing of jewellery should be discouraged.

Safety boots or shoes maybe recommended when working with horses.  Some stables insist on them.  Grade 1 is the highest impact resistant certified boot for use in heavy industrial work environments.  Guidelines to meet this certification allow for metatarsal protection (upper foot bones and toe area), as well as guarding against electrical shock and sole puncture.  Sneakers, dress shoes, and sandals are an open invitation for injury.  Visitors to the barn should be advised of this potential danger.  Most non-horse people are unaware of this risk. 

Gloves should be worn when lunging, leading or loading a horse in a trailer.  They will protect against those nasty stinging rope burns while providing added grip.

As a precaution, always wear disposable latex or rubber gloves when handling medications in the stable.  Certain common drugs and ointments found in many tack boxes may unknowingly pose a health hazard to humans.  These powerful drugs with their concentrated healing properties are harmful if absorbed through the skin in minuscule traces.  This is especially important when handling sedatives, liquid based hormone therapy, such as Regumate, anti-inflammatory powders and gels, including certain antibacterial salves.  Remove the gloves by taking them off inside out and discard them in a sealed container. 

Helmets, especially the lightweight design, are an excellent measure of safety when working around young horses, stallions or new horses.   Head injuries are serious business and every precaution should be taken to guard against such injuries. Getting into the habit of wearing a helmet during grooming and turnout of fractious young horses is also a good practise to follow.  A playful rearing horse can inflict critical head trauma. 

General Handling Tips  

Pony Clubs and 4-H programs teach safety zones to young children.  For the newcomer to horses, ignorance of these many common sense simple rules can pose hazards.  Below are a few reminders. 

·       Never wrap a lead shank around your hand.

·       Lean over when working on lower limbs and hooves of the horse – never kneel.

·       Because of the horse’s field of vision, approach the horse from the side not directly in front.  You can startle a horse if it is unaware of your location. 

·       Remain close to the horse when walking behind it.  Standing three feet from the horse puts you in direct line for full impact at the end of the stroke from a kick. 

·       Never lead a horse without a lead shank.

·       Use a lead shank of sufficient length (nine feet is preferred) when leading horses to and from pastures.  Should a horse rear, you will need room to escape entrapment while still maintaining some control with a lead.

·       If a horse begins to bolt and your efforts to control it on the line become futile, let go.  Don’t become a victim of dragging.  If this habit of bolting becomes a common occurrence, use a shank with a chain placed over the nose to instill manners and correct the problem.

·       If a horse becomes nervous when approaching an object while being led, switch sides, putting yourself between your horse and its perceived danger.  By doing so, you not only encourage the horse to move forward, but also eliminate the possibility of the horse inadvertently knocking into you as it shies away from the object. 

·       Halters with a fixed bottom ring as opposed to loose sliding rings on adjustable chinstraps, are easier to attach a lead shank to.  This is especially apparent in fussy group situations when horses are crowding at the gate vying for position.

·       As a measure of safety, put the turnout gate between you and the horse before you release the horse into the pasture.  Teach the horse patience and make it stand before releasing.  A frisky horse can turn and buck in playfulness.

·       Enter a stall quietly, never in a hurry.  Let the horse know that you are there and watch the horse.  At feed times, give the hay ration first in order to distract the horse, taking its attention off of you and the grain bucket.  Some horses become very excitable when the grain bucket appears or is shaken.

·       Always be aware of where the horse is when departing a stall.  Back out if you can do so safely, placing yourself strategically in line with the stall door.  In the case of stallions or young colts, never turn your back to them.  Never become complacent.


The sooner you start with a young horse, the better.  Even the mature horse can benefit from these simple desensitizing techniques.

For the problem horse when it comes time for deworming by syringe, make it a practise during your grooming sessions to insert a small syringe into the corner of the horse’s mouth.  A 3 cc syringe can be obtained from your local veterinarian.  Be sure to disinfect the syringe after use or between horses.  Once accustomed to the syringe, deworming will become a non-issue.

Another practice you can add to your grooming routine is to work with your horse under its tail and around the anus.  Most horses object to having their temperature taken, so desensitizing this area will prove beneficial should the need arise to use a thermometer.  Every domesticated horse will have its temperature taken at sometime in its life.   

For the young stud colt and future broodmare or gelding candidate, having the horse accustomed to being handled in sensitive areas will go a long way to eliminate protest, making the horse more agreeable. 

Other Scenarios

During the peak fly season when fly masks are in use, remove the fly mask before entering the stable.  The change in light may temporarily impair the horse’s vision.  For ease of removal, place the fly mask over the halter instead of underneath.

In winter months, stock up on safety salt for paddock paths and doorways.  As an alternative, standard cat litter or moist manure from the stalls spread out on ice patches will help. 

For the shy horse that avoids contact and is difficult to halter in a stall, attach a leather cow collar to its neck.  It will make your task easier for safely catching the horse in preparation for haltering.    Whenever possible, let the horse come to you when haltering.

If you come upon a horse cast in its stall, always approach the downed horse from the back side whenever possible.  A panicked horse’s flailing hooves can be dangerous.  To help right the horse, using the tail to pull the horse away from a wall may be useful.  If the horse is trapped in such a way that a tail pull is not enough, use a soft cotton rope or lead shank and loop it around a leg.  You then have some leverage to roll the horse over. 

Treating a horse without assistance is difficult.  However, many of us find ourselves in this predicament at one time or another. 

To help stabilize and calm a horse, a twitch may need to be employed.  The one-man twitch design works best in these situations, especially those that do not have attachments.  Fasteners that can swing perilously from a connecting string, when applying to an uncooperative patient, can cause possible injury to the handler and/or horse. 

Correct use of a stud chain can also be an effective form of restraint.  (Running the chain under the chin will provoke a horse to rear to escape the pain.)   

Picking up a front leg may also help in controlling the fidgeting horse.  Although sometimes awkward, you can often complete the cleansing and medicating task with one hand. 

A less effective measure of restraint is the shoulder roll.  Grabbing the loose skin mid way at the edge of the shoulder blade of the horse, roll your hand inward against the shoulder.  This is a mild form of restraint.

Chemical restraint should only be administered with the explicit advice and recommendation from your veterinarian. 

Working with your Veterinarian and Farrier

Often times an owner is uncertain as to their role as a handler assisting the veterinarian and farrier.  Below are a few guidelines that when followed, will benefit these professionals.

·       Create a quiet, noise-free environment while your veterinarian is examining your horse and taking vitals.  Turn the radio off and remain silent.

·       If the horse is sedated, loud sounds will disturb the horse.  Certain tranquilizers such as Rompin heighten the sensitivity of the horse’s hearing.

·       Use moderate, yet sufficient restraint when holding the horse and stay close at the side of the horse’s head. 

·       Minimal pressure on a lead shank is desirable when a veterinarian is floating teeth.  Too much pressure can only add more stress to the horse.  Too little pressure is ineffective.

·       A horse that is sedated will require careful handling.  When turning the horse, use large circles and allow sufficient time for the horse to complete the unsteady move.  A second handler should grasp the tail to help balance the horse when walking.  (As a side note, remove feed from a tranqualized horse’s stall.  Sedation slows digestion and an overload of feed introduced to a sluggish digestive tract may cause an impaction colic.) 

·       Crossties may not be appropriate when treating a horse.  If a horse should rear, bolt forward or pull back, the handler should be at a safe distance.  Never stand in front of a horse in crossties.  Attaching a lead shank may help, but most veterinarians do not recommend crossties when restraining horses for treatment.

·       While the farrier is working on your horse, a rule of thumb is to stand on the opposite side for front hooves and the same side for hind hooves. 

·       Although tempting, do not begin to discipline an uncooperative horse while the farrier is bent over working on a hoof. 

Your veterinarian and farrier may also instruct you further as to handling procedures that he or she prefers.

Regardless of how vigilant you are in your daily handling and working routines, knowledge gained and advice given from experienced stable grooms and trainers are lessons to heed.  You can’t wear a suit of armour while working around horses, but you can minimize the element of harm by being conscientiously aware of your surroundings and safety minded in your practices.

Here is a section on handling mares and foals that could be added if necessary.

Medicating foals and working with new moms can be a challenge. 

Be aware of your mare when addressing the foal.  A newborn foal can create an aggressive protective nature on the part of the sometimes-timid mare.  Approach with caution.  If you have been working on a regular basis with your mare prior to foaling, this will ease the tension. 

Administering medications and doing general foal care will require special attention.  By using a corner of the stall and the wall itself as a form of resistance, you can position your hip against the shoulder of the foal to hold it fast against the wall.  Lifting the foal’s tail also acts as a restraint in the event that the foal may attempt to rear and flip over backwards, possibly injuring it or the handler.  Even though a foal is small, their tiny hooves can impart a painful blow.  Restraint is a necessary evil for both you and the foal. 

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