Wednesday, June 20, 2012


                                                by Laura Crum

            Riding gentle horses, as my son and I do, can fill you with a sense of complacency. The horses are always steady and reliable, and you get to thinking the horse is never, ever gonna do anything “wrong”, or anything that will surprise you. And this is a big mistake. As we learned the other day.
            I mentioned in my last post that we ride a couple of days a week at my uncle’s practice team roping arena with a bunch of friends. These friends include the four old cowboys I wrote about in the previous post, a couple of women more or less my age, a thirtyish horse trainer, and a guy and his son—the son is just a little older than my kid. The son, I’ll call him L, is eager to learn to rope, and last year the father bought a said-to-be gentle rope horse gelding for the kid to learn on. And L has been riding this horse and chasing cattle on him ever since then.
            I never liked this horse. I tend to respond to horses intuitively at this stage in my life, and I didn’t get a good vibe from this chunky sorrel gelding. He seemed to be a competent rope horse, he was said to be kid gentle, he seemed sound and reasonably well broke, but I didn’t like him. No real reason. Just a feeling. I didn’t care for the way he moved; the horse was a cribber, and I thought he had a sulky, resentful expression. But really, just a feeling. Still the guy bought the horse (spent a lot of money), so his son would have a horse to learn to rope on. And I never saw this horse do anything terrible. He packed the kid and seemed gentle enough, and obviously knew how to be a rope horse. So Ok then.
            Last Thursday we were all up at the arena—business as usual. Here’s the gang driving a recalcitrant steer into the stripping chute. (Does that steer look a little outnumbered to you?)

 My son is the one with the helmet—as you might guess, in this crowd, no one else wears one. Anyway, everybody was having fun and L made a couple of dry runs on his horse. L isn’t actually roping yet, just chasing cattle on his horse, and roping the dummy from the ground.
            I was working the chutes and talking to friends and keeping half an eye on my son and his horse, and I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to L and his horse. L’s dad and some of the other ropers were coaching L, so he was getting plenty of supervision. Anyway, L tied his horse up for some reason. I went down to the far end of the arena to put some cattle through the chutes, so I wasn’t anywhere near him when it happened. I didn’t see it, so am relying on what my friend told me.
            Apparently L walked back up to his horse and untied him, preparing to get back on him, and at the same time one of the many dogs running around bit down on a plastic water bottle it was carrying and made a scratchy noise right behind the horse. The horse jumped away and fired with both hind feet and caught L in the chest—in the rib cage, right near the sternum—hard enough to throw him to the ground and knock the wind out of him. After some careful examination (and L catching his breath), he was pronounced bruised but OK. Though sore and kind of shocked. And we were all vastly relieved. Because a kick like that can seriously damage you, if it catches you wrong.
 The thing is, none of us imagined the horse would ever do something like that. As a group, we were just too complacent.
I had never noticed that this horse had a tendency to kick, but my friend told me she had seen him kick hard at the ropes, when they dragged by his back feet. Most team roping horses ignore the dragging ropes, it’s a pretty normal thing in the course of a roping run. But there are a few rope horses that don’t like them. These aren’t horses I would choose for a kid to learn to rope on.
In any case, excuses were made for the horse, that he had been kicking at the dog, and caught the kid by accident (which is almost certainly true), and that it was known that he didn’t like things (like ropes and dogs with noisy plastic bottles) by his back feet. L said he should have been more aware. This may be so, but my thoughts are a bit different.
I would not care to have my own kid ride or handle a horse with this issue. I would not care to have this horse in my barn, period. For my money, an older solid horse that is willing to fire with his back feet (hard) in the direction of a human (even if he isn’t aiming at that human) is going to be sold. Its not like he’s a young horse that doesn’t know better. And its not likely that you’ll train an older horse out of this behavior. A broke horse either knows better than to do this, or he’s forever dangerous.
I have had to make this decision before. Several years ago, before he bought Twister, my friend/boarder, Wally, bought a bay gelding we called Sammy. Sammy was twelve or so, and a competent rope horse. He seemed well broke. For a while Wally and I were perfectly happy with him. It was obvious Sammy wasn’t a very outwardly friendly horse, but we’ve had several horses like this that turned out to be great horses—notably Flanigan (a real grouch) and Pistol (very stand-offish). We did not count it against Sammy that he wasn’t friendly.
As time passed Wally grew less happy with Sammy as a performer—he didn’t think the horse’s heart was really into trying hard. And over the course of the year he was here, Sammy made two extremely aggressive gestures toward Wally. Both times there was an excuse. Wally walked into the horse’s stall at a roping while Sammy was dozing, and the horse lunged at him hard, mouth bared. If Sammy had connected, as he clearly intended, Wally would have been missing a chunk of flesh. Wally dodged, and we all made excuses. Even gentle horses will act aggressive when startled from sleep (this is true). But a few months later Sammy had a cut on his hock. When Wally tried to examine it, the horse fired at him—hard. Again, if it had connected, Wally might have been missing a knee cap. Again, there was an excuse—that cut clearly hurt and the horse didn’t want it messed with. But…
No horse in my barn has ever behaved like that. I can say with reasonable certainty that all of our horses, including grouchy Flanigan, aloof Pistol, and flighty Twister and Gunner, knew/know better than to ever make a seriously aggressive gesture in the direction of a human—no matter what. Neither Wally nor I wanted to have a horse around that was willing to kick hard at a person. Especially since my then three year old son was often down in the barnyard. Yes, I always watched my kid carefully, but still, it just wasn’t worth it. And Sammy was sold.
(On the other hand, I tolerate Sunny’s willingness to make a bluffing “fake” kick in the direction of a person he thinks he can maybe boss around. Sunny has never hurt any one. His kicking gestures wouldn’t hurt if they did connect, and they aren’t even meant to connect. Sunny is bluffing. And I was easily able to intimidate him out of this behavior—we haven’t seen it in a long time.)
I would probably sell L’s horse, if I were L’s dad. I’d try to find one that was a little more trustworthy for a kid, even if he wasn’t as good a rope horse. And yes, I would make L wear a helmet.
But here’s the rub. A helmet wouldn’t have helped L when the horse kicked at him. Most of us take our helmets off when we dismount—my son certainly does. And even if L had been wearing a helmet in the moment he was kicked, the blow landed on his chest, not his head.
The truth is a helmet does NOT keep you safe, as so many people imply/say. It protects you from a certain type of head injury (hopefully). We all know Christopher Reeves was wearing a helmet when he broke his neck. The only horse fatality that occurred near me in years was at a nearby boarding stable during a lesson. Several children were in the ring at one time and one horse kicked at another horse and caught the child on that horse just wrong and broke her neck. All the kids were wearing helmets. I could go on and on. Most of the serious/fatal horse wrecks I have known over the years would not have been helped by a helmet.
This isn’t meant as a defense of helmetless riding. My son wears a helmet, as you can see. Despite the fact that none of my team roping/cowhorse oriented friends wear helmets, I bought one and wear it on the trail (thanks to my blogging horse friends). Helmets are a good idea. But they do not “keep you safe”. What keeps you the safest is riding a broke, trustworthy horse. And NOT riding with people who ride ill-broke, untrustworthy horses. If I had to choose between my son never wearing a helmet again but only riding Henry, or wearing a helmet but riding an assortment of riding school horses I didn’t know in the ring with other children riding other horses I didn’t know—I would choose Henry sans helmet every time.
And here I get down to the point of my post. I am a little upset that L’s horse, now known to be willing to kick in a dangerous way, is going to be present at our practice ropings. Previous to this incident, we all made the assumption that the horses there (all broke geldings and one very gentle mare) were safe horses to be around. Various friends/relatives bring their very small children to the arena. We let our dogs run and play during break. And now those of us who are reasonably responsible will have to be very careful that no child or dog gets near L’s horse. I will have to caution my son not to ride too close to L, and be sure that he complies with this. Which will not be easy as he and L are the only two kids who ride up there regularly. But it is not lost on me that if L’s horse fires hard at a rope near his back legs and catches my kid just wrong it could do very serious damage—and my kid’s helmet is not likely to help him a bit.
Has anybody else out there had experience with a horse who had this issue? How did you handle it?


Greenie in WI said...

I think I agree with you- there are plenty of horses out there, you don't need one like that around small children and dogs. Yes, every horse CAN bite or kick, but the good ones don't around humans. Even with provocation.

I once was told "hey, that horse is for sale; you should look at it" and replied that I would be a little worried about a horse that had twice fallen ON it's rider. Different riders, different circumstances, good "excuses" both times, but also some fairly severe injuries to the people. It seemed to me that a horse should make more of an effort to stay upright and off the human. At least, it seems that most of them do a better job of it than that one did.

Attitude is a tricky thing to fix and I am certinly not qualified to address it. Possibly there are training methods or trainers who could turn that rope horse around. Maybe he has a pinchy saddle or pain somewhere else that affects his mood. Maybe he's just sick of his job. I hope that some effort is made to investigate the issue, but since he's not your horse there isn't much you can do, sadly.

On a side note- eventers and bucking stock riders have been riding in protective vests for a while now, which is a good thing, I think. The new eventing vests actually inflate like an airbag if the rider falls. Perhaps some day they will be as common as helmets are starting to be. Something like that would have helped protect that young rider, but the odds are that if they won't wear a helmet, a vest isn't likely, either. I have a vest, but I tend to only wear it while jump schooling cross country. A trustworthy horse really is a gem, but any horse can slip in the mud, or be stung by a bee, or have something else happen. Who among us has never had toes trodden upon? Yet people do still show up in barns wearing flip flops. Protective gear can't protect if it's not used, and nothing can protect against everything.

Laura Crum said...

Greenie--Thanks for a very insightful comment. I pretty much agree with all you said there. And I do wear sandals around my barn--but they are Keen sandals, with a protective toe cap. Somehow my bare toes next to those hard hooves--even with my very trustworthy horses--makes me nervous. And it is so true that any horse can slip in mud or be stung by a bee. Those are my two biggest concerns on the trail, to be honest. I won't go out if I think it will be slippery, and I am very vigilant and alert for bees, particularly the ground wasps we have around here, which have been the cause of many wrecks.

horsegenes said...

First - thank goodness no one seriously hurt.

I have seen this kind of stuff - never with a child.

All riders have to realize that every horse has the potential to be an ass at some point. I agree that this horse exhibited "counterfeit" behavior and he should not be trusted. You will never know what made him fire. It could have been something that no one saw or a combination of several things. It really doesn't even matter whether it was a rope, dog or just a wild hair up his ass. He did it and there isn't any justifiable excuse or taking it back.

I know you and I have talked about these type of horses before. If it were a valuable rope horse, ridden/owned by an experienced horseman, used in a professional setting, this may be an acceptable animal for them to keep. Horses like this are not suitable for children no matter how great of teachers they are. Shoot - there are so many great horses out there...why settle?

Your son saw how the other boy was hurt - I am pretty sure that made an impression. It probably won't take too much coaching to get him to pay more attention to L's horse.

You learned to how to get a feel or read on horses by spending time around them. Your son is going to have to spend the time with the good, the bad, and the ugly to learn how to stay safe.

Just you wait... pretty soon he is going to be coaching you.

Laura Crum said...

Thanks, kel. I actually look forward to a day when my son coaches me. That would be a refreshing change, ya know?

I think there is a big difference between an older, solid horse doing something like this and a young horse, like your Bob. Young horses make mistakes and need to learn what right behavior is. An older horse should know. If he doesn't know, at that stage of life, it will be very hard to teach him.

And yeah, we were all SO relieved L wasn't seriously hurt.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

I'm like you...not happy with horses like that.

One of the mares at the barn is owned by two older ladies (sisters) and I Don't. Like. Her. Neither does the stall cleaner. She's sour, grumpy and pushy. She's come at the stall cleaner with an open mouth and gotten whacked for her pains. If she were my horse, she'd have spent some serious round pen time learning more about respecting human space, but these owners don't have the skill level to deal with a mare like this in the round pen (because she's just as likely to charge and you need to know how to deal with that kind of attitude).

I also don't like the way this mare tries to intimidate other horses when she's under saddle, but at least under saddle she's much better behaved than on the ground.

We've had other big spoiled mares like this in the barn. I have minimal tolerance for them and growl right back if they pull faces at me and Mocha. If they won't respect my horse, they'll respect ME. But a kid can't do that.

At the very least, L's horse needs to be sporting a red ribbon in his tail.

I don't wear flip-flops or sandals around the barn. Too much time with bruised toes from getting feet stepped on when I was a kid. My feet break a lot more easily these days.

Francesca Prescott said...

What a scary story. I heard a similar one not so long ago, but with a tragic outcome: from what I recall it happened at a show in Germany. A horse kicked out, hit a teenage boy in the chest, the teenage boy died fifteen minutes later from internal bleeding. Your son's friend was very lucky.

Another similar story with a lucky outcome happened a few months ago at my stables, when a young mare startled for one reason or another (nobody figured out why) and kicked the owner of the stables in the ribcage. He was winded, and rathr bruised, but suffered no serious injuries.The mare had never kicked before and has never kicked since, she's a real sweetie, so go figure.

Sadly, bad things happen randomly with large animals, no matter how sweet and lovely they are. We just have to be as careful as we can.

Mrs. Mom said...

Well... I have seen a child- wearing a helmet- get kicked in the face by a draft horse she (and her family, generations of draft horse people) raise. She died.

I've seen adults kicked in the chest and be sore and bruised but OK- and I've seen a man kicked in the chest and die.

Glad L was OK. Sure hope he learned something from that about how to read his horse- cause whether or not his family decides to replace the horse, the kid riding him needs to read him. So does his father.

Would a horse like that be in my barn? Nope.

But I always try my hardest to keep in mind what my great-grandfather told me about horses:
"The Only Thing Predictable About A Horse Is Unpredictability." Now that they know this horse has this trait, hopefully the ability to predict things will be a bit clearer for them.

Your son too will learn to read horses, whether he realizes it or not. Exposing him to so many horses is an EXCELLENT thing Laura. He'll watch this horse more now, and pay closer attention to what is going on when L rides with him I bet. Even if he does not really realize it- I bet he is more aware.

Which provides priceless education!

Rub Sunny and Henry from us!

Laura Crum said...

Good thoughts, as always, Joyce. You are smarter than me with the no-sandals. I'm just lazy and walk down to the barn in whatever I have on.

Cesca--That is exactly what scared me so much when L was kicked in the chest. There are so many organs in there, and if you are struck just wrong it can be fatal, as you point out. And its true a horse can make a mistake--but there are many, many horses that go their whole lifetimes without once aiming a kick at a human--and those are the ones I want to own.

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Mrs Mom. I agree with you 100%. I do think my son is learning to read horses, but the downside of a mistake with one that kicks can be HUGE, as you point out in your comment. It just makes me worry to have a horse like that around kids.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I think that there is a time to follow intuition - perhaps a hard call in a "fact-based" world. The unconscious part of the mind goes on making calculations out of sight, assessments based upon subtle observations and memories. Sometimes those thoughts bubble up into consciousness, complementing reason if only one is prepared to listen. If you feel that it's a bad idea to be around a particular horse (or person, dog, etc) then follow that intuition. Likewise if it doesn't seem quite right to ride a particular horse, or even to ride at all.

And, no, we're not all necessarily "rescuers". Just like one can warn a poor employee but, in the end - and usually sooner rather than later - they need firing. But some people feel as if they must "rescue", fulfilling their inner need. With a bad employee that can be expensive, and with a bad horse perhaps fatal.

Years ago I got kicked in the chest with some ribs broken. The horse had been on box rest and the owner hadn't reduced his feed. Nor did she share some pertinent details about her horse's history and character. There were various levels of learning to be gained from that experience. And I was lucky. Perhaps very lucky. (Not long afterwards that horse became a paddock ornament at a young age.)

From my viewpoint it looks as if riders do progressively more dangerous things in competition, at the same time wearing more and more protective gear - for themselves. (It feels as if too many horses are being hurt or killed in competition and racing.) For me nowadays discretion most often is the better part of valour. That, of course, isn't taught by riding instructors.

Laura Crum said...

whp--I am on your page. Discretion as the better part of valor is how I solve most horse "problems" nowadays. It wasn't always that way. But youth has a tendency to be more courageous, whether wisely or foolishly I can't say.

I would not let my kid ride or handle a horse that was willing to kick him hard like that. But I have no influence on what these other folks do. So we will remember that the horse can kick and keep our distance--and warn visiting friends with kids. That's about the limit of what I can do to help the situation as it stands.

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

No one is saying that wearing a helmet will prevent all injuries around a horse.

What they will do is mitigate some injuries - the kind that very often leave the rider unable to care for themselves for the rest of their life, if they live.

Seat belts don't prevent all auto fatalities or injuries either...

Laura Crum said...

Calm Forward Straight--I agree with you. I wear a seat belt--though it has never once done me a smidgen of good. But I wear it. I bought a helmet--despite the fact that no rider I ride with ever wears one (except my son--who always wears one). Same principle applies and it makes sense. What I think is a huge mistake is assuming that the helmet somehow makes you "safe" and you know, I HAVE heard people asserting exactly that. And that actually makes you a great deal less safe, because you aren't paying attention to the very real risks that exist riding and handling horses, with or without a helmet, as my post shows. If all horseman would recognize that helmets are good insurance, and the most important thing you can do to stay safe is ride horses that are, shall we say, within your capacity as a rider, I think it would be a very good thing. Having seen so many people badly hurt in ways that a helmet would not have ameliorated, due to poor choices on both which horse they chose to ride and what they chose to do with said horse, I will forever stand by solid horses and good choices as THE most important factor for safety. But I did buy and wear a helmet--after a lifetime of safe helmetless riding--it just makes sense to wear one.

Laura Crum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Laura--what confirmed helmet usage for me in the Western saddle was spending time around kids who'd had a traumatic brain injury when I was training to be a special ed teacher. I always wore a helmet in English, but once I became a teacher...I wear it all the time.

But you're right, helmets don't protect from everything. Natasha Richardson died because of a ski injury to her head on a beginner slope, despite wearing a helmet. However, she disregarded Ski Patrol advice about getting medical help.

That said, I've had a couple of minor dings in both ski and riding helmets. One time my skis got caught while I was getting onto a double chair (hate those things!) and I went down, with the chair going over me and hitting my head. That would have been a nasty scratch at the very least. And just today, I was riding Mocha through a gate with an overhead bar and didn't duck far enough. Another possible nasty scratch, without the helmet.

I really, really remember having ponies stomping on my toes. Didn't hurt to have Shetland ponies around who aimed for my dang toes. And after one fall I had where the horse stood up on my hand (granted, she picked it up quickly), that pretty much confirmed that boots orientation for me. These days, good ol' Justin work boots (the Ariat paddock lacers are just too lightweight).

But yeah, a lot of my safety habits came from being a green kid with a green Shetland. Green on green = black and blue, but by golly, I LEARNED.

Laura Crum said...

Joyce--I bought and wear the helmet partly because of Courtney King-Dye's accident. If it could happen to a world class rider, it could sure happen to me. It just makes sense. (My team roper buddies tease me a little, though--fortunately that doesn't bother me.)

Grey Horse Matters said...

I'm happy to hear that L is okay, given the circumstances he could have been in a lot of trouble. Horses are huge animals and can do a lot of damage. It sounds as if the horse L has isn't safe for him. I hope they get him a safer horse. A horse that kicks isn't acceptable to me either. Whether there are kids around or not.

I agree that a helmet wouldn't have protected him in this instance. I never ride without one and it has saved my bacon more than once during a fall. Horses, even safe horses, are unpredictable. I hadn't fallen off a horse for 11 years until this past November. Blue my QH and the "safest, laziest" horse in the barn actually spooked and caught me unawares. When I hit the ground I was knocked out for the first time in my life after all these years and got my first ride in an ambulance. If I wasn't wearing my helmet I'd probably be drooling on myself now. So I'm a big believer in always wearing one.

Anyway, I hope L stays safe and stays away from his horses back legs. In my opinion he really has to be vigilant now if they don't find him another safer horse to ride. Seems your gut instinct was right about this horse.

Laura Crum said...

GHM--I wish L's father would get him a different horse. One of the old cowboys said this same thing yesterday. L's horse is just not a cooperative critter, and the kicking is the last straw. The old cowboy thought the horse would eventually buck L off, as well. But I don't have any influence on L's dad, so nothing I can say would help.