Do you ever stare in awe at the sleek shiny horses, the glistening brass, perfect braids, and dazzling white marks at a CCI trot up? Do you ever wonder how they get that way? (LOTS of hard work is the correct answer!) Each Sunday morning we will bring you a little insider info on how the big-time grooms manage an upper level event horse. Feel free to email or comment with specific grooming questions if you have a topic in mind!
Previous entries: Odds & Ends
What About Tack? Part I , Part II
This week’s entry was inspired by my close call on Wednesday, in which a normally-placid, well-behaved yearling colt suddenly spun, reared, and Hi-Ho Silver’ed on top of me. He grazed my skull, protected only by a ball cap; his hoof came down hard on the brim of the ball cap which smashed my nose. Serious swelling, bruising, and two black eyes were the result, but the situation could have been so much worse. I’m not sure how I avoided a concussion, or broken nose. It was one of those things that happened in an instant, no time to react, and no way to prevent. I was leading him in from his paddock, two hands on the lead rope, paying full attention to him, and yet it still happened. Bruises will always remind you that these animals are big, do dumb things without warning, and they can hurt you.
Yeah yeah, we all know the standard safety rules when handling horses. But, especially as we work with them daily, we tend to get a little too relaxed and careless at times. You may get away with it 99 times, but it only takes once to do serious damage to you or your horse. Silly little things, like leading with your hand on the halter instead of using a shank, or leaving your horse standing untied “just for a second” could save you a few extra minutes…or you could waste another 20 minutes chasing your loose horse around the property and praying he doesn’t injure himself. (Speaking of loose horses…always think about this possibility: keep the stable area neat, keep feed room doors shut securely, keep gates latched, and minimize the risk of danger even when the unexpected occurs.)
I’m not trying to be hypocritical here– certainly, I’ve done dumb things. And then I’ve suffered the consequences for it, too. Which has taught me to play by the rules, unless I’m willing to take a very calculated risk in a special situation.
There are countless ways to get hurt around horses; almost all my hospital-worthy injuries were not the result of a riding accident, but rather on the ground. I’ve been stepped on, bitten, plowed into, head-butted, and kicked– even while pulling out a newborn foal, he struck me with a slimy front hoof and sliced open my eyebrow, needing seven stitches. And it’s not that I’m careless or accident-prone; I’ve just worked with a whole lot of horses (many young ones) and they do dumb things. But, as horse people, it’s our responsibility to learn from these instances to improve our own safety.
Being prey animals, we all know horses have a strong flight instinct and are prone to startle. Most of the time, just the sound of your voice can alert them and prevent an overreaction; touching or rubbing them further desensitizes, and is especially helpful before you throw a blanket on or some other physical invasion of space. I’ve learned the hard way to keep a hand on the knee or cannon while applying hoof dressing– getting knocked in the forehead hurts! Similarly, be careful when working on the horse’s legs during fly season…stomps and belly-kicks can occur at any time. Keeping a hand on the horse is a good rule to follow whenever you’re working on him: it gives you early warning when the horse is about to move, and lets him know where you are.
Following the Pony Club Way, I prefer to use leather-crowned halters and tie with twine, in the classic quick-release knot. Seeing a hard-tied horse struggle can be gut-wrenching. Most of the time, it’s better to deal with a loose horse than possibly a dead one. I understand the argument for tying horses fast, so that they don’t learn to break away…but it makes me uncomfortable and is not my method of choice. If you have a difficult horse, Blocker Tie Rings are a godsend. They allow the rope to slide with measured resistance, and go slack when the horse stands still (unlike a bungee, which keeps pulling). Speaking of bungees, if you’ve ever seen a horse break one (and have it slap back in stringy pieces, creating more havoc), you probably won’t use them anymore. There is no one right way to tie a horse; but the better trained he is, the more successful you will be. I hate leaving them unattended, especially when tied to the trailer at shows– that is just begging for trouble. And it seems like many of these unattended horses are left alone with a low-hanging haynet, asking the horse to get its foot caught. If you must use a haynet, hang it HIGH! And if you plan to leave your horse back at the trailer for a while, put him inside and secure him safely.
When leading, insist that the horse stay at your shoulder. Bad leading is a huge pet-peeve of mine (I warned you there were many!). A horse that lags can be startled into jumping on top of you; a horse that drags is out of control. Use whatever tools you need to enforce proper leading behavior: a dressage whip for laggers, possibly a chain for draggers. I will “test” a horse by stopping suddenly while leading; I expect the horse to halt promptly. If he doesn’t, I shank him and make him back up several steps. Relax, walk forward, and stop again. If horse listens, praise. If he dribbles forward, shank and back up again. I may do halt transitions a hundred times on the way to the barn, whatever it takes to make the horse respect me. I expect the horse to walk calmly on light contact, at whatever pace I choose.
Along the lines of respect, biting and kicking is absolutely never ever tolerated. These crimes are classified as “threats against person” and are treated as a capital offense. John Lyons advises to “kill for three seconds” after a horse attempts to bite. What this means, is your reaction must be IMMEDIATE and effective– go wild as a banshee, but only for three seconds (really, how much damage can you do with your bare hands in 3 sec? Avoiding the eyes, of course). Hit, slap, punch, scream, growl, whatever you can muster in those three seconds. More than likely the horse will be extremely surprised and (hopefully) a little scared of you. Then go back to normal and pretend it never happened. I don’t particularly like being “physical” with a horse, but sometimes you have to back up your warnings with action to earn respect. Life isn’t all sugar cubes and horse cookies.
Pay more attention to your horse, don’t cut corners, and many accidents can be avoided. “But Rowdy never does [insert behavior here]…” is not a valid excuse for neglecting safety protocol when you knew better. Your horse is always looking out for himself; not always looking out for you. It’s your job to look out for both of you. Awareness of your surroundings, a little preparation and good communication goes a long way. Still, things will go wrong…they are horses, after all. Which is why, at major three-days, it is quite common to see horses hand-grazing in Woof boots: a horse can knock himself doing a silly “I-feel-good” leap, and possibly cause a competition-threatening injury to a lower limb. As the saying goes, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.