by Laura Crum
Freak accidents are scary. By freak accident, I guess I mean the truly unexpected happening, not a result of obvious problems or carelessness. In my opinion, there are no freak accidents when you are training/riding/handling young/green horses. Such horses can be expected to do problematic things and if you do not expect this sort of behavior, you’re not thinking straight and will inevitably have a quite predictable accident. This is even more true if you’re re-training problem horses. Even if you do everything right, you will have some accidents when riding young horses or problem horses…it goes with the territory. But when a person with lots of horse experience is riding/handling older, solid, gentle horses and uses safe practices, and still an accident happens…well, I’d call that a freak accident.
Since I very sincerely do NOT want to get hurt at this point in my life, I’ve given a lot of thought to freak accidents and how to avoid them. I am that person with lots of experience who chooses to ride/handle only older solid, gentle horses. So I’ve hugely reduced my risk right there. But those pesky freak accidents are still a potential problem. I’m knocking on wood right now as I type, but I have to admit, my horse life has been remarkably free of freak accidents. And I hope to keep it that way. So the other day I sat down and tried to consciously think about what I do to prevent such accidents.
The first thing that came up for me is that I’ve learned to recognize potential problems BEFORE they happen. This is huge. Its partly a matter of experience (I’ve seen a lot of stuff), partly a matter of intuition (and paying attention to your intuition), and partly a matter of listening carefully when I hear about a wreck and making sure I don’t make that particular mistake. So when Olympic rider Courtney King-Dye suffered a traumatic brain injury when a gentle horse fell with her, I bought a helmet. I’ve ridden all my life without one, but I KNEW, when I read her story on her blog, that wearing a helmet made sense and that I should do it. If it could happen to her, it could happen to me. And the results can be devastating.
The reality is that a horse falling with me (or my son) is my biggest fear. Any horse can fall. Period. Some are more likely to fall than others, but they can all fall. Wearing a helmet reduces your risk of brain injury; it won’t help with the rest of your body. I know of several ways to reduce the risk of a horse falling at all. If a person heeds these guidelines, the risk of a horse falling is much less.
1) Ride a horse who has never fallen under saddle. Mostly, if they haven’t fallen, they won’t. But it’s no guarantee.
2) Don’t ride when the footing is bad. Too deep, too slick…etc. Just don’t ride.
3) Don’t overtire a horse. They make mistakes of all sorts, including falling, when they are tired.
4) Don’t ride a lame horse. It’s the same basic problem as number 3.
5) Learn to “catch” a horse with the reins when he stumbles. Some will argue with this, but I have found it to be effective. Ever since a good horse once fell with me loping on a “thrown away” rein, I never ride on a completely loose rein. I always have very light contact, and I “catch” my horse when he stumbles. So far, it’s worked.
6) If you have any misgivings (about the footing, or the horse) trot or walk rather than lope. Horses don’t fall easily from the trot or walk…they usually fall from the lope.
7) This one is obvious, but many people just don’t seem to get it. Your risk of falling and being hurt is much greater when you are doing something at speed, be it jumping or roping or whatever. If you seriously wish to avoid being hurt, don’t choose eventing, ya know?
8) Experienced older horses with no history of falling are the safest, but a horse that is truly old and arthritic has a higher risk of falling than a strong horse in the prime of life.
So there’s a list for you. How to deal with the problem of a horse falling BEFORE it happens. But, though a horse falling with me is my greatest fear, there are other risks. People get injured all the time handling horses from the ground—they even get killed. I have to admit, in some ways I feel safer ON a horse than leading it. So here’s some things I do to reduce my risk handling horses on the ground.
1) Don’t feed by walking in the corral or stall. Food aggression is a huge problem and some otherwise gentle horses will never be reliable in this area (I had one of these). My pens are set up such that I feed from outside the fence.
2) Always pull a horse’s head to you before you turn him loose. Ever since I heard of an old horseman who was killed by being kicked in the head while turning a horse loose, I’ve been careful about this one. Because I, too, have turned a gentle horse loose, only to have him kick up his heels and run off.
3) Don’t ever assume a horse WON’T kick you or run over you. I do believe that some of my horses would never do this, but I treat them as though they might. I don’t stand behind them when they are loose, I lead them from the correct position at all times, I don’t sit down or lie down when hand grazing them, I don’t play games with them at liberty, or mess around with them in their corrals without catching them. My horses are truly gentle and what I am doing is really overkill, but it is the way to prevent that accident before it happens.
4) My horses are all broke to be tied solid. Even so, I never assume that they won’t pull back and I use caution when I work around them tied up.
5) Don’t ever allow a leadrope or lungeline or rope of any kind to wrap around your arm or leg, or any part of your body—not even for a moment. It does happen, but when it does, unwrap it immediately. So many bad wrecks that I’ve known came from being tangled up and drug.
6) Insist on good manners from the horse at all times. Its very easy to let a gentle horse get spoiled such that he crowds you or pulls on you—you know he doesn’t mean to hurt you, you trust him, you don’t want to get after him. But…this is the path by which that gentle horse one day ends up knocking you down. Make sure all the horses you handle respect your space and follow your direction. Be clear and firm at all times. Remain the boss. This is actually a hard one for many people to follow, and I am guilty of being lax here, too. But when one of my horses virtually drags me toward a patch of grass, I realize my mistake, and we have a brief reminder of manners.
The other category of freak accident that I’ve both seen and heard of, comes from the truly gentle horse doing something unexpected. Either because he was stung, or startled by something that really frightened him, or feeling way too good, or, well, who knows. But this does happen. My son’s horse, Henry, is an equine saint, and yet he had a little meltdown over feeling good one morning, and he was dramatically afraid of my son in plastic knight armor, complete with sword and shield. And the number of people I’ve known who were badly hurt due to a gentle horse unexpectedly spooking—whether they came off his back or were mowed down on the ground, is well, legion. I’ve already addressed the ground handling issues, so here are a few tips for when you’re aboard.
1) Ride with your hand on the horn. This sounds dumb, I know, and is counter to how we were all taught to ride. But it can save your life. I learned this when I was showing cutting horses. They duck and dive in amazing ways, and all cutters ride with a hand gripping the horn. I got in the habit of doing this and after that, whenever I rode my very spooky, reactive Gunner “outside,” I rode with one hand on the saddle horn. Saved me coming off numerous times. (I realize this is no help to English riders.)
2) Listen to your gut. Make a LOT of space for this. If you have a plan to do a particular ride and it just doesn’t feel right, if you feel a lot of resistance to it, don’t go. Maybe you’re responding to subtle signals that your horse is feeling very “up”, maybe you can feel an odd energy in the wind that is tossing the trees, maybe you can faintly hear dirt bikes out in the hills where you meant to ride…whatever it is, your gut just doesn’t want to go. Don’t go. Wait until you feel that you do want to go. This has helped me a great deal.
3) Expect the unexpected. Take the obvious precautions. Wear a helmet, tell someone where you’re going, carry a cell phone, ride with friends when exploring a new place. If you can see trouble coming, prepare as best you can. One time while riding on the beach, I saw two very low flying helicopters approaching, and realized the horses might not like them. We bunched the three horses shoulder to shoulder, with my son’s horse in the middle, and I clipped the leadrope that I carry with me to the halter that Henry wears under his bridle and got a hold of him. Of the three horses, Henry was the one who got scared, but I was able to keep him from spooking or running. Sometimes being prepared amounts to feeling that your horse might spook, and getting a good grip on the horn while you keep your body relaxed. There are those who like to get off and lead when their horse feels too “up.” I’m not in this camp, I feel safer and more in control ON the horse.
4) Sometimes truly gentle horses freak out unpredictably due to being stung or who knows? This has happened to good horses that I have known. Fortunately I was never on one or in the path of one at the time. I do the best I can to be wary—we don’t trail ride much during the season when wasps are most active here (August/September), and I remain alert and watchful. I once disturbed a wasp nest while riding a 4 year old in the mountains. He was stung and started to bolt. I saw what was happening and turned the bolt into a controlled but speedy long trot and we got the hell out of there, escaping any more stings. No harm done. Being alert and paying attention goes a long way toward staying safe.
5) Never assume. This is similar to the above—remain watchful and alert. Sad to say, it really helps if you are on the lookout for problems. This doesn’t mean you have to stay tense and worried, but it’s my belief that you have to stay alert. I liken it to a gazelle walking down to the water hole. The gazelle can enjoy the evening; but it better not forget there are predators out there. Your trail ride may be idyllic in the moment, but trouble can be just around the corner. Very often you can ensure that trouble remains minor, rather than life threatening, if you are alert and catch the problem before it escalates.
Never assume. So often I hear things like, “The horse freaked when someone opened a soda can from his back and bolted.” I have known people to be bucked off when taking off a jacket, or when a ball rolled under their horse. Don’t assume that a horse will tolerate something—even if it seems no big deal to you. As I mentioned before, the otherwise very reliable Henry freaked out at the sight of my son in plastic knight’s armor—fortunately my kid was only running around the barnyard. He did have plans to ride Henry and be, you know, the knight on horseback, but those plans were quickly abandoned. And again, the first time my son wanted to eat lunch on Henry’s back, I made sure I had Henry on the leadrope and was prepared, in case the sounds of packages being unwrapped bothered the horse. It didn’t bother him at all, as it turned out, but I didn’t assume this would be the case.
OK—there are a few things that I do to prevent accidents before they happen. Some of this stuff will be of no use to those of you who are younger and braver and want to compete in strenuous events, and I understand this. I trained young horses and competed at cutting and team roping when I was young. I was taking risks and I knew it. I felt OK with that level of risk at that time. Now I don’t.
So how about you guys? I would love it if you would let me know what you do to reduce your risk of being hurt in a freak accident with your horse. And I hope you all are having much fun with your own horses—spring is here.