Everyday Handling

When watching steeplechasers scale high fences and run at breakneck speed down steep slopes, no one doubts that equestrian sports are dangerous. Somehow, it seems a miracle when anyone finishes those perilous courses without taking a tumble. But the truth is, you are just as likely to get hurt during routine handling of horses if you let your guard down or get sloppy about safety. While accidents will happen from time to time, the best way to lessen the chances of one is to learn safe handling procedures from the get-go and adopt them as part of your routine.

Feeding Time

Feeding time places you in a vulnerable situation — big, hungry horse, little person holding flake of hay or pail of grain. A common problem is the horse that mauls you when you enter her stall with her meal. Teach the horse to stand aside until you fill her feed bucket. Halter her and ask her to stand back. If you have to hold her at bay by pointing the end of a whip toward her — don't actually hit her with it, just point it at her — do it until she understands she has to wait. Small transgressions in behavior build into big safety concerns if you let them slide.

Keep in mind that model behavior at feeding time can be a lot to ask of a horse in the domestic environment. They are confined to a space not much bigger than their bodies sometimes for extraordinary periods of time. Their eating is regulated, a process totally opposite of their wild instincts of roaming and grazing twenty-four hours a day. No wonder horses are a little anxious when their caretaker arrives with a meal! Be patient and understanding, but also be consistent about the way you want your horse to act when you enter his stall. Do only what it takes to insist on the behavior you want — just don't do too much and risk frightening the horse.

Feeding a horse treats by hand is perhaps fun for the human, but few people are capable of feeding a horse by hand without setting up obnoxious and pushy behavior in an animal with a very powerful jaw and head. If you want to feed your horse treats, put them in his food bucket!

Entering the Stall

Always speak softly to the horse as you enter her stall. When you step in, slide the door almost shut behind you so that the horse can't escape before you get her halter on. Leave yourself enough of a gap to get out if you need to. The horse should not be allowed to crowd you at the door. If she does, put your hand on her chest and quietly say, “Back up.” Make her back up into the corner, but don't be loud and threatening about it. If your mannerisms are too forceful, she may feel trapped and become defensive.

Catching Your Horse in the Stall

If your horse turns his head into a corner and his rear end to you when you want to catch him in his stall, you have allowed a potentially dangerous situation. You need enough experience to know the fine line between what is enough to create change and what is too much for the horse. Your intention is to change the horse's mind about which direction he wants to face. To do so, you definitely do not want to frighten the horse. If you lack the experience to deal with this situation, enlist the help of a more experienced horse person.

A horse that is fearful of you entering her stall can put you in a dangerous situation, and you can easily make it worse if you overreact. For example, the horse turns her rump to you when you enter her stall, so you feel you need to do something about it. But if you do too much too forcefully, the horse may react defensively and kick out.

Remember, horses regard their stall as a place of comfort, but they can also feel trapped there. Their natural instinct to flee is not an option. The next instinct is to defend themselves. If they feel sufficiently threatened, they will position themselves to kick you or lunge at you with teeth bared.

Your horse should be ready and willing to be haltered when you enter the stall, and this is what you are trying to teach him. Do not expect the horse to turn and face you all at once. Look for small signs that he is making an attempt at figuring out what you want and that he feels okay about doing it. Look for an ear to turn in your direction or even for him to simply turn his head toward you but not his body. Step away from the horse the minute you get any sign he is becoming willing. By taking the pressure off him, you will give your horse the signal that his reaction is right and that you are giving him the physical and mental space he needs to make the turn. When he allows you to halter him, drop a treat in his bucket and allow him to eat it before you lead him out.

Catching the Horse Outside

The horse that turns her rump to you in the stall has the same problem as the horse that can't be caught in the corral or pasture, only the size of the space is different. The corral or pasture is probably less dangerous for you because the horse has room to get away from you and doesn't have to react defensively. But these games of catch-me-if-you-can are intensely frustrating. They steal your pleasure in horses and serve only to work up your anger — which is never a good thing with horses.

Don't get too cocky about your relationship with your horse — all horses will have spirited days when kicking up their heels with their friends will seem a better idea than anything you have in mind. But if you have built a solid, mutually respectful relationship, you will actually find these slight diversions more entertaining than frustrating because they don't happen all the time.

The horse that respects you and considers you supremely important will give you his attention when you step into his space — corral, pasture, or stall. He has learned that being with you is a good place to be, maybe even as good as being with his pasture buddies. When you have built this kind of positive relationship with your horse, he will position himself to be caught when you step into the corral rather than turn away from you. He may even go one step further and walk toward you because he wants to be with you. This is a relationship built on mutual respect.

Do Your Homework

Before you ever get to the point where the horse is in a larger space and you want to catch her, spend some time working on this in a smaller space, such as a corral or round pen. If the horse eludes you, then let her work for her avoidance. Keep her moving around the pen and, every once in a while, take a backward step and see what you get. If the horse stops, great. If she stops and turns her head toward you, even better.

Your ultimate goal is for him to stop and turn his whole body toward you. This is the sign that he is ready to be caught, and you had better be ready to take this opening and catch him. If you don't, your horse will think maybe this isn't what you want, and you will lose your opportunity, making the next try even harder.

To protect your personal space, a flag makes a good extender for your arm and can add to your presence. Use a length of stiff wire with a piece of bandana-sized cloth attached to the end. Bend the end of the wire over so it can't poke your horse. Make the handle comfortable and easy to grip, and make sure the flag is light enough for you to carry without getting tired.

Think Safety, Always

Always bear in mind that a horse can kick out a lot farther than you think. It is a good idea to let the horse know you are coming up behind her. Talk to her or, if you are going from the front of the horse to the back, keep your hand on the horse all the way around so she knows where you are. Do not put yourself in the line of fire.

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