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.
So true Laura. Smoky fell with one of the experienced teenagers because she was loping in the arena without rein contact. Luckily he just went to his knees and she tumbled off his inside shoulder. He wouldn't have fallen if she had been in contact with him and supporting him a little. She wouldn't have come off if she had been thinking about staying on if he fell. She came off because it never occurred to her that he COULD fall.
A wonderful list - I'd strongly second the ground manners requirement - I try to train my horses that, even when they're scared or upset, they never, ever, run into or over me. I'd also add training horses to stand still for mounting, and as long thereafter as you wish until you ask them to move off - I've seen people injured when horses take off while they're half on. And, being very careful when among loose horses is important, whether mounted or on foot - I always carry a long lead rope to swing to fend off unwanted approaches. And when you're handling a horse on the ground - well when in the saddle too - don't let your horse sniff noses with or otherwise interact with another horse - all sorts of bad things can come from that, including kicking and striking.
And finally, never, ever be in a hurry when you're working around horses - it leads to cutting corners which leads to accidents.
I've had horses fall with me at speed while jumping and it's not an experience I recommend.
You covered a lot of ground with your thoughts and advice. I was on a young horse who fell when I was about 14. The horse was a four-year-old thoroughbred. An instructor chose the horse for me and I feel this was a mistake. I now subscribe to the rule that the sum of the ages of the horse and rider should be equal to at least twenty. Since that horse fell in a turn in a groomed arena under good riding conditions, I feel that the fault was mostly the instructor's who was supposed to making the right decisions for horse and rider. Thankfully, neither of us was hurt, but I found a new barn to ride at, because my trust in the instructor's judgment was gone.
Once a horse falls with you, you are very aware that this can happen. I use many of the precautions which you mentioned including helping to catch the horse's balance if they stumble.
Kerrin--That is EXACTLY how I got dumped from a good horse named Billy. Loping in a well-groomed arena on a thrown away rein--never occurred to me that he might fall. Billy went all the way down and somersaulted--luckily I got out of his way. I have never loped on a thrown away rein since.
Great tips, Kate. I second the standing still for mounting and until you ask them to move. I'm short and I mount from the ground, and I can't do it if the horse won't stand still. So I always insist on this. And so true about the not letting them sniff noses. I was holding a broodmare once and didn't notice that another (loose) horse had approached her and was trying to sniff noses with her. She struck at the horse and caught me in the belly. Luckily it was at the very end of her reach, and I wasn't seriously hurt. But I could have been. I never forgot to be alert for that problem afterwards.
Val--Yes, green horse with green rider is almost never a good idea. Glad you weren't hurt.
Listen to your gut as you said, keep your head in the game and make sure the horse respects you are my main three. They've kept me out of trouble many times.
I do believe in being prepared, but it is a double-edged sword because it can cause you to tighten up. One time I was riding bareback down a road and my horse freaked out at some sheep moving around in a pen. I was looking the other way, so couldn't prepare and suddenly the horse and I were facing the opposite direction. He did a one eighty and I just went with him. So I guess being comfortable and relaxed is number four. Being super vigilant can make the horse and rider think there is something to fear.
Susan--Yes, that is what I meant by being alert and yet keeping your body loose. It can be kind of hard to do. But its a skill worth perfecting. Because very many riders in your place on that bareback horse would come off--nowadays, I definitely would--maybe not in my youth. For most of us, being ready helps a little. Its my technique to be sure my body is loose and that I am neither gripping with my legs or pulling on my horse's mouth. But I have a firm but relaxed grip on the horn and light contact, and I'm ready to hang on, go with the horse when he moves, pull him up after one jump, so things don't escalate. Works for me.
I just got done riding, and was reminded of another "tip." Always walk your horse a few steps after tightening the cinch/girth, before you climb on. Even a horse who is not usually cinchy can sometimes be caught wrong if you just tighten the cinch and climb aboard--I've seen this many times. I do this automatically, and, as I was stepping Sunny forward after cinching him, I realized that this is one more of my accident-preventing precautions. Along with doing plenty of warm up before asking a horse to exert himself.
Totally agree with everything except #5, catching your horse with the reins. I've had a couple horses trip and almost go down, and I simply sat straight in the saddle and let the reins slip. Maybe this is because it's how you ride a bank/drop down, but that was my instinct. In both cases the horse used his head and neck for balance and was able to regain his feet. I feel like if I'd kept hold of the reins, I would have snatched them in the face and made it even harder for them to regain their balance.
One tip I'd add to the list... don't listen to your iPod while around horses. I see kids all the time mucking stalls or going out to catch horses with their headphones on. They're distracted by the music and not really paying attention to the horses. SUPER dangerous, IMHO. Horses require 100% of your attention 100% of the time, you know?
I agree with your second point 100%, jenj, if not with your first one. Though I did say that not everyone would agree with me there. I've heard the other school of thought--just as you are saying. But my experience doesn't bear this out. I've seen more than one horse go down when the reins are loose, and since I started "catching" them, no horse has gone down with me. Its hard for them to fall with their head up, mostly the head goes down and then the body follows when a horse falls. So if you can keep the head up, the horse can usually keep his feet under him. But I appreciate your input. And I don't think people should be listening to Ipods..etc when they walk down the street, let alone interact with horses. You need to use all your senses all the time in order to stay alert.
Laura, oops, I didn't mean to come across as completely disagreeing with you on #5! Your perspective is well-reasoned and makes perfect sense from your experience, as does my from my experience. I don't think one is necessarily right or wrong, and clearly both ways work for us. We'll both do what we do and keep our fingers crossed that our horses stay firmly planted underneath us, lol!
I learned a lesson when I was in high school. Never, Never ride in tennis shoes or anything that will slip through the stirrup. I got tossed, hung up in the stirrup with a tennis shoe and drug flopping under the horses stomach until my shoe fell off. Dropped out just a few feet before the upcoming telephone pole would have hit me in my head with the horse at a dead run. BIG lesson learned!
I agree jenj--that's the bottom line. I do think one has to decide which point of view to go with--catching the stumbling horse with the reins or giving him his head. I've heard both viewpoints often, and catching the horse has worked better for me. But I wish only good fortune to those who take the other approach. I will add that it has a lot to do with the horse. As I said in my first point, a horse that has never fallen under saddle mostly will not fall, and I have known horses that have fallen multiple times with a rider. Watch out for these. This factor probably makes more difference than to "catch" or not to "catch."
Ouch, Ruth, so glad you survived that. Good tip--though I will admit that I ride in sandals occasionally, as well as Ugg boots. I do this, however, knowing that it is a risk--not so much the slip-on sandals--these WILL come off--but the Ugg boots are problematic.
Thoroughly second a lot of what you say here, especially the bit about not riding a horse that falls a lot. My childhood mare was a stumbler and it took me a long time to get over that fear (plus I fell with her several times). Mocha is so sure-footed in comparison, plus she doesn't want to push it, that it's like night and day.
I also completely and totally agree with the ground manners piece. Any horse I handle quickly learns that my space is to be respected, and I'm not shy about enforcing that rule.
Looking ahead to anticipate problems is a crucial skill to develop. I used to daydream so much on horseback as a kid--I don't do that now.
And I've kept horses up by the reins, too. Had one big Arab slip on grass with me and I ended up burying my hands in his withers and throwing my weight back...he scrambled back up and we didn't go down, but it was touch and go.
Joyce--It sounds like we are on the same page, as often are (!)
Good post, Laura. I'd add don't ride with an iPod on! I was having a lesson the other day and another girl was riding with he iPod on. She's not an experienced rider and is not in control of her horse. Not only could she not hear what my trainer was telling me to do (you know, like change the rein, or take the diagonal) so kept getting in my way, but when her horse spooked her earphones fell out and the wires started flapping around and made her horse bolt. So silly! And so annoying!
Cesca--I 100% agree. I think jenj mentioned this, too. I think it is ridiculous to ride or work around horses with an Ipod on. At the risk of offending, such people are absolutely ASKING for a wreck. I also think people who walk and jog on the streets wearing one are just asking to be injured. You really need all your senses and to be aware when interacting with the world at large...especially with 1000 pound horses and even more lethal motor vehicles.
After a while with nothing much happening I had a stirrup leather separate at the buckle today. When we stopped from quite an energetic gallop (the ground has been drying out nicely and was lovely on that hill) there wasn't much about the leather to show wear and tear. Oh, well, one lesson is that stuff can break. It was old, maybe time for some investment. The other lesson was that riding the horse through the problem without treating it like a wreck about to happen was the right thing to do. At least the mare didn't get the idea that something alarming was happening, so she kept on going straight and stayed nice and fluid which made her as rideable as possible.
Having fixed the problem we rode home meeting a couple of tractors pulling big noisy machinery. That's where the right mindset comes in. Consciously thinking 'only a tractor, nothing to worry about' whilst sitting calmly without tensing up at all made such a difference. Being calm like that does take some willpower but it's the leadership that the horse needs. Over time that mare has learned that big machines and so don't bother me so she doesn't need to react for us.
Overall footing is the thing that I look out for most attentively. We ride on a lot of chalk. Some trails normally good for a gallop aren't safe above walk after rain. Rabbit holes are a hazard too. A proportion of riders don't seem to get this (nor bicyclists - I've seen a few go down on slippery ground). A horse around here slipped and went down a few years ago, unseated his rider then stepped on her head as he got up. Her helmet didn't save her from an untimely demise. In the end it's avoiding accidents in the first place that makes the biggest difference, whatever one might do to reduce the consequences.
Totally agree WHP. In fact, that was my main point in the post--preventing accidents BEFORE they happen. And I also agree about holding the mindset--no big deal. Sometimes it helps if one sings, or talks in a casual conversational tone to one's companions (if any) or to one's horse. Thanks for the tips. You've certainly covered a lot of country on horseback in your life.
Laura - always a timely message. The hardest thing I guess is that 500 kilogram animals with a flight response and a mind of their own can do a lot of damage!
I wholeheartedly believe they're not a vindictive animal, just reactive.
I'm recovering from a kick to the head last year that resulted in me being in a coma for 4 days. The frustrating thing is that this was handling a horse on the ground and there were no witnesses to the accident, and I don't remember it!
Never take a horse for granted is a point I'd encourage all to consider, wear your protective clothing, have others around just in case, but don't live in fear.
Forearmed is forewarned. Learn as much as you can, and have fun!
Christine--Oh dear, that sounds like a very serious accident. I'm so glad you are OK. As I mentioned in the post, I knew of an old horseman who was killed turning a gentle horse out in a pasture. There were no witnesses, but judging by his injury, he was kicked in the head. It is scary. I agree that living in fear won't work--if you feel that way you shouldn't have horses at all. But I am quite careful and proactive, and as I said, I never assume that a horse WON'T kick me. Yours is really a cautionary tale. Thanks for commenting.
Great Advice Laura! I'll be getting on Relish soon after a LONG layoff for both of us. I need some confidence and this will help.
The two worst horse accidents with which I'm familiar (happened to friends) were both on the ground. In one, my friend was leading her mare; something spooked the horse and there was enough slack in the lead shank (or friend let it slip through) that mare was able to catch friend in the head when she kicked out with both hinds. One hoof made contact - Friend had a shattered jaw/cheekbone and almost lost an eye.
In the other incident, the horse was tied. He spooked when the wind blew over a wheelbarrow and knocked Friend down, then stepped on her head. Also resulted in a broken jaw and cheekbone.
Both of these accidents happened in seconds, as horsey accidents are wont to do. Both *could* have been prevented if the people had been more aware of their surroundings and using proper skills (no long lead shanks).
I'm with you, Laura, on helping to hold the horse's head up when he trips. I didn't realize that's what I do, it's an unconscious reaction, but I surely do that. Unless the reins are snatched clean away I think it's the right thing.
Regarding turning the horse's head towards you before letting them go in a pasture: YES. ALWAYS. I read a horror story not long ago in a British publication. A long-time equestrian, a lady my age with tons of experience, was found dead on on the ground just inside a pasture gate. A halter with lead shank attached lay nearby and the horse was off grazing. She had massive head trauma. Pretty obvious what happened... a tragic accident resulting from error in judgement.
I like your list very much and will keep these points in mind!
Thanks, Alison--I'm sure Relish will be good--these solid older horses aren't much affected by a layoff.
And RiderWriter--that British woman's fate is exactly what happened to the horseman I heard of. Found dead, in the horse field with the leadrope in his hand and a head injury. I have been really careful turning horses loose since I heard that story. Thanks for your comment. Every little bit of info can help the rest of us avoid problems.
reliable, safe baasha kicked me in the head when i stupidly crawled under the fence one night in total darkness. i think he must have been asleep, and woke up to what he thought was a predator. i always laughed about it, "he's good - no biting or kicking, except that one time.."
in my horse search experiences these last 2 years, one comes to mind while reading your post. one owner told me his ritual for turning the horses out and made sure i did it with him. we walked thru the gate, turned the horses around so they're facing the gate, unhaltered them, and gave them a treat. this way they had no urge to run off, they knew a treat was coming. i thought it was a good idea and something he probably learned the hard way.
lytha--Yes, that is exactly why I try never to mess around with my horses when they are loose. I knew another reliable, safe horse that bit someone very hard when approached in the pasture one day--the mare had been dozing and was just startled. And that's a very good tip about the turning loose. I always bring the horse around to face me, but had not thought of the other. Thanks.
Great post, good comments!
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