by Laura Crum
Or perhaps the title should read “Be Aware”. I guess that is probably the root of “beware”, anyway. I was reading Kate’s blog not too long ago and came upon a post about her cracked tooth, due to having been kicked in the jaw. If I understand the story correctly, she was picking out a hind foot on her mare, and the mare was able to touch noses with another horse. She squealed and kicked, catching Kate in the jaw. (Correct me if I’m wrong about any of this, Kate.). Kate is a very experienced horseperson and recounts that she knew, even before it happened, that picking her mare’s hind foot in this situation was a bad idea, but she “was in a hurry” and did it, anyway.
Reading this post made me grimace in sympathy and understanding. How many times have I done something with a horse thinking that “this isn’t the smartest thing to do, but I’m in a hurry and hopefully it will work OK”…. The answer to that would be “lots”.
And not just me…people who are way more experienced with horses than me. The most competent horse vet I know was kicked very badly when he was doing a rectal on a mare who was able to touch noses with another horse. As this vet told me later, “It was a really stupid thing. Totally my mistake.” And this guy has tons of experience with horses.
My own story along similar lines happened many years ago when I worked for my uncle, who raised Quarter Horses. I was helping him to halter break a colt that was still by the side of its mom. My job was to handle the broodmare while my uncle “led” the colt alongside her. Since my uncle didn’t handle these colts much, this was a pretty wild event. The broodmare was a snorty old gal, but I was used to her and kept my eye on her. Still, my attention wandered from time to time as I looked back at my uncle and the fractious colt and tried to assess how they were doing. Did I need to stop and let them catch up? Did I need to move on so that the colt would quit balking and follow his mama? I had performed this chore many times and knew the parameters. And perhaps it was just this confidence (or shall we say complacency) that got me in trouble.
In the course of walking our pair around the barn, we passed a row of corrals. And in the nearest corral was a bay gelding who was very interested in greeting the mare I was leading. I was careful to keep “Bucky”, the broodmare, out of nose touching range. But I still allowed my attention to drift to my uncle and the colt he was working with. Thus I missed the exact moment when the gelding stretched his nose over the fence as close as he could get to the mare and made an inquistive “greeting nicker”.
The gelding’s nose was at least two feet from the mare. I was positioned in what I considered to be a safe spot, about a foot ahead and to the left of the mare, and I had her firmly under control. I was facing her, looking back at my uncle and the colt. Half my attention was on her. This mare had been known to bite and kick. I was aware of this. But still, what happened caught me completely by surprise.
Bucky responded to that greeting nicker by squealing and striking with her left front foot (the gelding was on her right). That front foot caught me right in the belly.
As Kate explained in her post, these things happen so quickly that you don’t see it coming. One minute we were standing there and the gelding nickered. The next minute it felt like I’d been hit hard in the stomach with a baseball bat. It took me a minute to realize what had actually happened.
I wasn’t expecting the mare to strike, even though I had/have many times seen horses strike at other horses. But the QH’s I’ve handled rarely strike at humans (I’ve heard that mustangs do this this, but I’ve never handled mustangs). Thus I simply hadn’t thought where I was in relation to the mare striking. I also wouldn’t have guessed she’d strike with the foot away from the gelding.
I was immediately aware that the mare hadn’t been aiming at me, rather she was reacting to the gelding’s greeting. But that still didn’t make it acceptable behavior. Gasping for air, I straightened up and whacked her as hard as I could with the end of the leadrope.
Fortunately the mare’s foot had hit me at the very end of its extension; thus there wasn’t a lot of power behind it. It hurt, it knocked the wind out of me, but I was basically OK (pretty sore the next day, though). I gave the mare a good beating with the end of the leadrope—whatever the circumstances, the horse must respect the handler, and she certainly hadn’t done that. But I also gave myself a hard mental lecture on paying attention.
More than paying attention, actually. I reminded myself to be alert and wary—to beware. It pays to look at what is happening around us when we work with horses and envision what might happen and be prepared. I know, I know, that leads to “what if” and what if can take all the fun out of life (see my previous post in May titled “Reality Check” and the comments that follow). But “what if” can also help keep you in one piece.
One of the wisest old horsemen I ever knew told me repeatedly, “You can’t be too careful.” My fairly bold friend who boards his horses with me constantly pooh poohs this advice. Me, I’m not so sure.
I’ll give you a “for instance.” In my barn I have two corrals where the gate is in the corner. In both these corrals, when one leads the occupant out, said occupant is passing next to the fence where the neighboring horse could be/might be standing. My horses like to get out of their corrals (sometimes they’re let out to graze), and there is often some jealousy when I get one and not another. The not-chosen has been known to lurk by the gate and bite at his neighbor as the neighbor horse exits.
Now, my horses are not snorty broodmares, they are gentle, well-broke geldings. Nonetheless, it does not escape me that if bitten hard in the butt by their neighbor just as I am leading them through a narrow gate, they are capable of jumping forward and knocking me down and possibly even reacting with a bite or a strike that would hit me by accident. This has never happened. But in my “what if” mentality, I have envisioned the possibility, and thus I always regard a lurking neighbor horse with a firm glare and a growl, and I give the same to the horse I’m leading through the gate. “Behave,” I am telling them, in a way that a horse understands. All ears go forward and the possible wreck is averted.
I guess I’m building on Jami’s post “Stacking the Odds”, when I say that another thing that can help keep us out of trouble is being aware. Using that “what if” mentality to help ward off potential problems rather than letting it scare us to no good purpose. Making choices that take into account “what if” isn’t silly or a scaredy-cat way to be, in my opinion. It’s intelligent, if we choose to interact with horses and would like to be hurt as little as possible. (Not to mention protecting our horses from getting hurt—a whole nother risk factor I haven’t even delved into here.)
I’ll give one more example. I will sometimes ride my horses bareback in a halter around my little riding ring. I only ride the really gentle ones this way, and once I’m on, I feel fine. But scrambling up on them, I often feel quite unbalanced (I am middled-aged, getting stiff and stout—not limber like I used to be). I was doing this acouple of weeks ago and almost managed to slide right over Henry (who was standing perfectly still, bless his heart). Looking down, it became painfully obvious that had I not corrected my slide by a hasty grab of the mane or had Henry moved right when I was off balance, I would have landed (head end first) on a small rock wall. What if, I told myself. And from then on, I mounted from a safer spot, or got a leg up. No use landing on my head for no good reason, right? Another helpful tip from “what if”.
So, anybody else have anything good to say about “what if” or being aware of possible dangers? (Or having a “little imagination” as Francesca puts it in the comments on Jami’s post, “Stacking the Odds”.) I, for one, think this is a good thing, not a bad thing. I’d be interested to get your insights.