Friday, October 21, 2011

Staying Safe On the Ground

There's a very nice post over at Fern Valley Appaloosas about staying safe when working around large animals, and she's got some links to some other blogs that have posted on the same topic.  Here's a follow up post with some of my thoughts on the subject.

I'm going to talk about some things to help us stay safe on the ground - when in the stall with a horse, when leading, when trailer-loading, when grooming and saddling, when doing groundwork, when feeding, when doing turnout and when among loose horses.  Horses are very big and strong and can certainly be unpredictable, and it's possible to be seriously injured and even killed when on the ground.  We can never completely eliminate risk but we can significantly reduce it with some forethought and training (of ourselves and our horses).  No one wants to be hurt - to have their feet stepped on or to be head-butted, bitten, kicked, dragged, knocked into or trampled.

Here's a summary of what I think it takes to stay safe on the ground:

  1. Consistently define your personal space and what it is permissible for your horse to do and not to do around you.
  2. Teach your horse to reliably give to pressure.
  3. Teach your horse to lead well.
  4. Have a plan and build safety into your routines.
  5. Be aware of where you are, what you are doing, what the horse is doing, and most importantly, what the horse is thinking about doing.  Anticipate things before they happen if possible.
  6. Don't be in a hurry.
  7. Try not to do things that are really stupid, even if you can get away with them 9 times out of 10 or 99 times out of 100 - pay attention to that small voice that's saying "this is a really bad idea".

You'll notice that none of these things are really about the horse, they're about us and how we decide to interact with our horses and train them - it's our responsibility to create the conditions for safety.  We can't expect the horses to do it for us if we don't give them the leadership and direction they need.

And now some examples and thoughts on these principles for safety.

1.  You need to decide what your ground rules are, and adhere to them - every single time.  How can we expect our horses to consistently maintain a proper distance - for me it's at least an arm's-length - if sometimes we let the horse come closer and sometimes don't?  How can we expect our horses to not try to snatch grass when we're leading if we sometimes allow it?  How can we expect the horse to know it's not OK to rub their head on us, step on our feet or bump into us if we sometimes let them and sometimes don't?  My rule is that I can come closer to the horse if I choose, but the horse can't come closer to me without my explicit permission.  And if you don't want your horse to nip at you, don't ever let it happen without saying something to the horse about it.  Can your horse "just stand around" with you without nudging you or bumping into you or dragging you?  I don't care if the horse wants to move its feet as long as the horse doesn't come into my space (this type of exercise is under the topic of patience and self-calming in the Working Towards Softness sidebar).  One rule I have is that a horse on the lead may never interact with another horse - they can do that when they're loose in the pasture - this avoids things like horses striking when sniffing noses, which can be very dangerous and also avoids being too close to a loose horse.  When I'm among a herd of loose horses - which can be one of the most dangerous situations due to horse on horse aggression - I always carry a 10' lead line that I can use to define a larger personal space and to swing to move horses away - if I'm leading a haltered horse among loose horses, the other horses are not allowed to approach and interact.

2.  That leads to point 2.  In order to define our space, we have to be able to move the horse away.  By "giving to pressure" I mean a variety of things - and the horse should know them all.  It includes the horse backing off due to verbal or hand commands or pressure on the halter.  All my horses know "one step back" - in response to a raised hand, palm out, or gentle pressure on the halter. It includes the horse moving its body away in any direction as a result of soft hand pressure - if I touch my horses on the chest or side, they're to step away.  It includes teaching the horse to softly give to pressure on the halter,  including laterally, downwards and backing (my Working Towards Softness sidebar has some posts including some of this).  Will your horse allow you to touch it most anywhere on its body? When I get to lungeing or ground-driving, I teach "leading by the legs" so a horse won't panic if a line gets tangled (in the lungeing and ground-driving post in the sidebar).  This teaches horses to respond to the cues I use to define my space, and also mean the horse is soft and not braced and pulling when handled on the ground.

3.  Leading - good leading, not the horse dragging or bumping into the handler - is fundamental for me.  Good leading is about defining your personal space and what the rules are, and being consistent about them.  I do a lot of leading, including doing turnout of sometimes excited horses, and trailer loading - which is really just leading - and I want the horse to choose to lead, on a loose lead, in the position I choose at a distance determined by me, and to stop when I stop and go when I go, without pressure on the halter.  If the horse is ahead of me, setting the pace or direction, or there's pressure on the halter, that isn't me leading the horse, that's the horse dragging me.   I've got a series of exercises on leading I do - they're in a couple of posts on the sidebar.  It takes some time and effort to get good leading established, but it's worth it.  And don't ever, ever, coil a rope or line around your hand or any other part of your body, when leading or doing ground work.

4.  Know what you're intending to do and how you're going to do it, and know what you're going to do if things go south in a hurry.  Having safety baked into your routines is good too.  For example, when I turn a horse out, I always turn the horse to face me before taking off the halter - this reduces the chances that I'll be kicked or run over on departure - although I do sometimes get splattered with mud!  When leading a haltered horse among loose horses I'm my horse's "protection" and it's my job to be sure no other horse is permitted to approach and possibly bite or kick - this keeps both me and my horse on the lead safe.  What are you going to do if another horse approaches with ill intent? If you're trailer loading, be sure your leading and giving to pressure are established first.  Being in a trailer with a horse is one of the most dangerous places there is - you're in close quarters - be sure you know what your plan is - and what your escape route is if you need it.  For this reason, I wear a helmet when training trailer loading.  If your horse takes off on the lunge line, what are you going to do?  Feeding time can be particularly hazardous - make sure you have rules - if you want your horse to step away from the feed bin, teach the horse to do it; if you want the herd to back off and wait for feed to be distributed, teach that.  (Horses with dangerous food aggression issues are a whole different topic - they may have ulcers or have been starved or had to fight for food.)

5.  Being aware is really fundamental.  Know where you are, where the horse(s) are, and learn to read your horse(s) - problems don't arise out of nowhere and there are usually warning signs that something's about to happen.  If you're talking on the phone, talking to your friends or texting, you're not aware. If you're going to be doing things out among loose horses, spend time observing the herd and how they interact and what their signals to one another are - they're often very subtle.  Know the herd order and how aggressive the various horses are likely to be to one another - it may affect what you do - extra care may need to be taken when leading a low-ranking horse while an aggressive higher-ranking horse is loose nearby.  If something's about to happen, don't let the thought turn into action - get ahead of it by providing some leadership and direction - if you're just reacting you're already behind the curve.

6.  A very large percentage of accidents on the ground with horses, in my personal experience, are caused by a combination of being in a hurry, or changing a routine in a way that reduces its safety (often because you're in a hurry).  Don't let other people rush you either - the only time I've (so far) been seriously injured on the ground, another boarder was in a hurry to turn her horses out and I was in the barn aisle and let myself be rushed - see point 7.

7.  Don't be stupid - this often happens together with number 6.  This may seem self-evident, but even experienced horse people make this mistake - "I'll do this just once", "I'll get away with it this time", etc.  Listen to that internal voice that says "you shouldn't be doing this . . ."  Sure you may get away with it once, or many times, but is the risk really worth it?  And, if you have a mare that tends to double-barrel kick when she's in heat, don't ever, ever, ever, pick her hind feet while she's loose in the barn aisle and about to sniff noses with another horse . . .

If you have points to add, or ground safety stories to tell, please feel free to put them in the comments.

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