There’s a common misconception around non-horse folks that horses are just like big dogs. I remember the first time Husband tried giving treats to our mare. He threw them “to her to catch,” bounced them off her nose and wondered why she didn’t snatch the treat from the air like our dogs. Horses do share some personality traits with dogs like loyalty and companionship, but they differ in a lot more ways than they are similar. To horse-people, the below bullet points are common sense, but if you’re new to horses, this list is a good, general guideline to safely be around horses.
- Be calm and quiet– No sudden movements or loud outburst. These can cause a horse to spook or try to kick out at you.
- Always speak to a horse to alert him of your presence before walking near– This avoids provoking his startle reflex. Approach from the side. (When haltering, approach from the left side as this is where the clasp or buckle is for the halter.) Touch him first on the neck or shoulder. Be especially careful when entering a pasture or paddock containing several horses (they can inadvertently step on you or even kick out near you if you’re not paying attention). Also, don’t take grain or other food into a group of horses–this invites them to crowd around you and could create a tussle over the food with you caught in the middle.
- Mind your fingers when feeding treats– Always keep your hand flat when giving a horse a treat. Hold the treat on the flat of your hand, keeping your fingers together and your thumb in close to your hand. Remember, the horse can’t see where it’s mouth is, and it relies on its sense of feel to determine what to eat. Your fingers may just become part of his “treat.” Horses can bite surprisingly hard.
- Never stand directly behind a horse.– Horses’ eyes are on the side of their head. They cannot see directly in front of them or directly behind them. They will often kick out at whatever they feel but cannot see behind them. If you are grooming its tail, stand to one side and lightly pull the tail over. If you need to move to the other side of the horse, try to go around their front end, not their rear. If you cannot do that, you should move as close as possible to their butt while touching the horse gently to let it know where you are. The reason for staying close to their butt is because the horse’s rear legs are designed such that if it kicks with its rear legs the most force is created about 2 to 6 feet beyond the horse’s butt. If you’re right on their butt, they can’t do nearly as much damage as they can if you’re about 4 feet behind them. Unfortunately, most folks think about 4 feet behind a horse is the safest spot to walk – it’s not.
- Never ever go under a horse’s belly or neck to move from one side to another– Like a lot of safety rules, you’ll see lots of horse people doing this, but as a beginner, it’s best to not do it as you won’t be able to judge whether the horse will put up with it or not.
- Never loop lead ropes or reins around your hands.– If a horse spooks and takes off or jumps away, your finger, hand or arm just might go with them. Or you could be dragged until the horse sees fit to finally stop.
- Never leave a horse in cross ties or a tie unattended– Get your groom box and supplies out of the tack room BEFORE you grab your horse from its paddock.
- Never tie a horse up by its reins, especially with a bit attached– Reins are not designed to hold up to any stress and will break. If there is a bit attached to the reins and the horse pulls back, it can severely injure its mouth.
- 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 as he walks or runs off.
- Never leave a nylon halter on a horse that is loose– They can get caught on something in the pasture and strangle the horse. Nylon doesn’t break under stress. If you cannot easily catch your horse and you need to leave a halter on it, use a leather halter or a specially designed “breakaway” halter that has some leather designed to give way under pressure.
- Be aware of your feet at all times. It’s your job to keep your feet out from under a horse’s hoof. Don’t let them get too close to the horse’s feet.
- If you open a gate, shut it– Never, ever leave a gate open that was shut when you went through it. Also, don’t shut gates that were open unless you know it should be shut. If you shut a gate, you may be cutting horses off from their food or water supplies.
This is by no means an extensive list to keep in mind around horses, but it’s a start. It’s not all about riding. There are so many other facets. If you’re new to horses, familiarize yourself with these, and you’ll be well on your way to being comfortable around equines!