Wednesday, June 16, 2010


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.


Anonymous said...

Hey Laura: Your post hit home with me in a big way. For the first time I have my horses at home and we have a pony for the kids to ride. I never realized how much this would up the ante of being aware. Now it's not just me and the horse, it's me, two or three kids (who are still just learning) and two horses and a pony!!
My lesson came when I was working with my oldest son on my gelding. I had him on the lunge line, getting used to stop, go, speed up, slow down, etc. When my other son who was riding the mare, called for me. The 3 seconds, literally, that I looked away was all the time it took for my gelding to swing his backside into me, to look at something outside the paddock, once he felt the lunge rope on his backside he started to turn in circles and of course just ended up wrapping the rope all around himself. Even as I type this my heart is pounding!! Fortunately he is a good boy and after I dropped my end and he had somehow scurried himself into a corner he stopped and gave me those big bug eyes, begging for me to save him from whatever was trying to kill him. My poor son was terrified, obviously, but he hung on and didn't do anything stupid. Some horses would have went psycho but thanks be to God that my boy had the good sense to find his safe corner and wait for me to help him out. It could have been a major wreck. Sigh, but it was a very good lesson for me. I need to be hyper-aware now that so much more is going on around me and the horses. The kids know now that if mommy is working with one of them the other one can't not ask for my attention or ride alone. Slowly we are learning what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. It's just cemented what I really knew all along, with horses the only thing you can expect is the unexpected!
Thanks for your timely post!!

Anonymous said...

You got the story right - I'm still embarrassed about it but it was a good lesson for me to learn. I think the biggest risks are when we're in a hurry, when we're doing something the way we've always done it where it's worked out OK (even if it wasn't safe), or when we're just plain distracted. If our attention's not on the horse, all the time, things can happen, even with the best trained or calmest horses. Horse-on-horse stuff can be really high risk as the horse can forget that you're there (even if they shouldn't). Good post.

Shanster said...

It's a fine line isn't it? The what ifs... yes, it can help you think about potential danger but it can also immobilize you and really get in the way!

I struggle with that quite a bit actually. When am I being smartly aware and when am I limiting myself?

A good example of what if in a good way - last night I was helping feed at my trainer's barn.

One filly there for training has laid her ears back and snaked her neck out at me opening her mouth as I left the stall after cleaning... now I had a bucket o' her grain. I was very clear and grumbly that she should stay the heck away from me. She didn't offer to bite and respected my space but I wasn't taking any chances.

Another stall has a big 17+ hand horse and he was laying his ears back anxious for his grain... I also maintained a gruff exterior with him.

My trainer heard me and said he makes lots of faces but is good with your personal space. Shrug. S'ok - I still wasn't gonna take any chances with him.

I rode Rosso in her arena earlier that same night and the what ifs can be immobilizing to me with my fear issues.

I tell myself to shut it and be IN the moment. Not wrapped up in the what right here and right now.

Nothing is happening, Rosso is fine, he knows his job. I got on, sat still. I patted him, wiggled around in the saddle and finally asked him to move off. We had a nice short ride.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--You're right about the line between "what if" immobilizing you and "what if" keeping you alert. When "what if" becomes too dominant with me, I find myself going out on the trail less often. I try to walk an appropriate line by convincing an experienced friend to ride with me and my son for a few rides--that helps me to find my balance again. I'm betting if you keep riding Rosso in fairly safe supervised situations your confidence will come back up.

Kate--I totally could have made the same mistake--I know how easy it is to get distracted.

mommyrides--I am hyper cautious with my son. If he is in the arena with others who are horseback, my attention is on him at all times. And I never, ever let him ride any horse but my own Henry and Sunny, who are very reliable. I can relate perfectly to what you are saying. Keeping kids safe with horses is a matter of constant vigilance, and paying attention to those "what ifs".

Gayle Carline said...

I've heard it said that experienced horse people are most often injured by their calmest, dead-broke horses because they are the most careless with them. I've been the poster child for Don't Do It Like That. At first, it was my inexperience that led me to be stepped on, jumped on, bucked off, spun off, bitten, and kicked. When I got smarter, my injuries were from listening to other people. My best example is a horse I was grooming and saddling for a show. I knew he was a goofball, but my trainer said not to tie him, but to let him eat while I got him ready. When I reached across to brush his back, he suddenly snaked out and bit my leg, hard enough to leave teethmarks and bruises. I'm happy to say I've learned (most of) my lesson and take care with every horse I handle.

Francesca Prescott said...

They're bigger than us. They are unpredictable. I love them, but I'm careful. Yet not always careful enough, especially with my own, usually because I think, "oh it's Kwint, he's a sweetie, he'd never do anything to hurt me." And that's crazy, because he's a horse. For example: I was taking care of a teeny tiny cut on his left foreleg the other day, bending down, head behind his leg, leaning in close. He kicked out at a fly on his belly. Really hard. I felt the flow of air. I was very LUCKY. And very stupid. I know better than that.

"Be Aware" says it all, Laura. Another excellent post.

Janice Grinyer said...

Actually, you are basically talking about communicating in a horse's language, and recognizing that they are a prey animal - with horses being prey rather then predator, they are always on alert (gosh, horses dont even sleep for hours on end, that would really make me a cranky mare lol)

IMO We speak their language by being on alert. If we are distracted while working with them, then they feel even more so to be on high alert...and thats where they go into self preservation mode. "every horse for themself" so to speak.