Every year we see several incidents turned in for liability claims handling that involve inexperienced people becoming injured when they are allowed to go in with a group of horses to halter one, or to separate one from the herd to give it special attention.
In one such case, as part of an Equine Assisted Therapy session, an incident occurred where a teenage girl was instructed to approach three horses while they were drinking water at a stock tank. The girl was to make her way to the front of the horses by threading her way between them from the rear. She got to the one she was to focus on and reached up to wrap her arms around the horse’s neck. The horse was either frightened by this approach, or it was right then being pushed away by a superior horse in the group that may have wanted attention for itself or didn’t want the competition of “now” four bodies being at the tank. The horse bolted, knocking the girl to the ground, and her leg was stepped on. In this case, three Equine Assisted Horse Handlers were watching, but were helpless to mitigate the situation, and quickly became scared that the girl’s head might get stepped on. One could look at this situation and think of numerous ways one can get hurt from being in this scenario. One can also think of numerous ways in which each potential for an accident might be avoided or mitigated.
When horses are standing close together and there is food, drinking, or even some special attention involved, one must always have respect for the fact that there is likely going to be a “jealous” pecking order in the group. If one horse decides it doesn’t want the other there, the horses can all suddenly move very fast to avoid being kicked, struck at or bitten by the “superior” horse. All that movement and ruckus can be caused by the “superior” (or dominant) horse just putting its ears back at another horse….it can be quite subtle. People who’ve not had a lot of experience with horses often just don’t realize how large, quick, and powerful a horse can be even when under relatively mild threat. If a person is in the midst of such a conflict, they can get hurt. The horses are not generally trying to be mean; but are following their own survival instincts. Humans who handle them need to understand and respect this characteristic of a horse’s nature.
Another potentially precarious spot on the farm is at the gate, when horses expect to come out of the pasture or paddock to get to their food, or again, are vying for special attention of a person (who they think might have food). A herd “underling” (lower in the pecking order) may be at the gate opening when the “superior” horse thinks they should not be, and a person in the midst of trying to get by or catch a horse, can suddenly find themselves cornered by the fence and in the middle of a horse squabble. The squabble or disciplining moment in the herd may not last long at all, maybe five or ten seconds. While the horses may not be injured, a person certainly could be seriously injured. Just bringing one horse through the gate while trying to keep others back can pose a challenge and cause an accident.
To avoid getting in the middle of such a situation, some novices will stand on the opposite side of the gate and put a halter on one of the horses and then attach a lead rope to the halter. If one thought ahead to what could happen, they would know not to do this. If a “superior” horse steps up to chastise the caught horse, the handler may be forced to let go and then have a frantic horse running around the pasture with a lead dragging and slapping between their legs. Or if they tried to hang on to the horse anyway, they may get pulled up against the fence and injured. If the person has made the mistake of wrapping the lead strap even one turn around their hand or fingers, the potential for injury could turn even more serious.
When handling horses or sending someone in to handle horses, one must always think ahead to what might happen, how a potential accident might be avoided, and how to do it in the safest possible way. Sometimes that may mean waiting; or it may mean providing better instructions on how to proceed, or by providing close hands-on co-assistance and supervision; or by separating out the targeted horse in advance. And sometimes it is simply best not to have a novice do the task at all.