The purpose of this post is to provide some ideas for safe handling of horses in specific situations that are practical, and not necessarily the best best way to do things. In a perfect world our horses would be super well trained and excellent behavers and we would always do things “right.” In our actual world our horses are delightfully rotten, full of personality, handled by different people including students who are just learning, and always testing boundaries (as they should). We the handlers are at times stressed, rushed, distracted, too casual, still learning, etc. Hopefully with these reminders we can be more intentional, more present, and more fair to the horses through our consistency, and they can be more thoughtful and better trained equine partners. But let’s be honest, we all know Cookie is going to cause a problem and she’s not the only one :)
5 pages of instructions and thoughts - oh boy - you asked for it, Beth.
One of the most dangerous things we do with horses is bring them in from the pasture, for feeding especially. This is why for almost all of my lesson students the horses are already in the barn. Some barns have the luxury of effective design, where the horses somehow all end up in separate stalls without too much human handling, are locked in to eat alone, and let back out -- our barn is set up on a hill with the pastures all downhill around it. Some barns group horses by diet and can feed in groups -- our horses are not grouped that way and have very different dietary needs. Somehow when you go to catch a horse in the middle of the afternoon they are way down at the bottom of the field eating grass and will not come up unless you go get them, but at feeding time, they can suddenly turn into dragons.
*Disclaimer: I do believe consistency is key, and that if one person fed the horses every day in exactly the same way, their energy would calm down. But, we live in reality, where every day is a slightly different routine depending so many factors such as what horses are already in the barn to ride, what the weather is doing, and which of our small staff of 4 people is feeding. Because we are all different people we all have slightly different expectations for how the horses should behave, and as a result, they are more anxious than they might be if they knew exactly what to expect. I also think this variability is really good for them, as many of them travel to shows and school off property, and some level of flexibility is just a requirement for life.
**Second disclaimer: these are lessons learned from our herd, at our barn. Some of this may not apply to you in your situation. Every place is different. I am committed to safety and helping others develop skills, but am unwilling to be one of those barn managers who dictates every little thing or requires everyone to buy a special rope halter (nothing at all against those people, rope halters are very cool). If you have specific questions relating to your setup, feel free to ask.
Bringing in a horse
So let’s say you’re heading out to the field to catch one horse, to bring them into the barn for feeding or some other purpose, and you are faced with 2 or 3 or 4 horses all wanting to come in FIRST and come in NOW, because all that anxiety and expectation has their adrenaline up and they’re competing for space at the gate. Probably they’re running around, or at least pushing each other out of the way, ears back and teeth showing. Or maybe they’re like my pair of mares, who just crowd their bodies into the same small space up against the gate and don’t even leave room for you to get in there to catch them. Here are some tips to keep you safe and get the horse that you want out without the rest of them going for an unexpected trip around the farm.
1. Prioritize your safety and create a safe space for yourself where you feel secure. The horses can do whatever they want outside of your safe space, and absolutely not within it. Take a whip and don’t hesitate to use it. You can use it from outside the gate or inside. If there is an electric fence, it may be best to turn it off. Take a lesson on how to use a whip to drive a horse without unnecessarily increasing their energy level. Our biggest, meanest, baddest horse at feeding time is terrified of whips and will go stand in his corner and wait if you enter holding one. You can use it from outside the gate, too, to create for yourself a safe space to enter into. Another way if only 2 horses: take an assistant to catch the other horse.
2. Catch the horse you want. Hopefully they are easy to catch! If not, that’s another topic. Your horse is now with you in the safe space and it is your job to protect him. Since he’s attached to you and hopefully has good halter skills, he can’t get away from the other horses.
3. Go to the gate and create that safe space for you and your horse. Keep your eyes on the other horses and keep driving them away if they come towards you. Be patient. Use your whip if you brought it (if you did not remember your whip, you can use your lead rope that is already attached to the halter on your horse). Keep driving until they stay away. Drive them away, and stop driving when they move away. If they come closer again, drive again. Be mindful of your space and don’t get in a situation where you could be crowded into the fence. This is where it comes in handy that the horse you have caught knows their halter groundwork and will both A) follow you around as you chase the other horses off without being a burden or getting upset at the whip or swinging rope, and B) get out of the way and yield to your position if you need to move to address another horse coming up behind you. *Tip: we keep a whip at each pasture where we anticipate pushy horses.
4. Stand on the gate side of your horse to open it. This one is a biggie for me. That means: if you are facing the gate and the latch is on your left, the horse must also be on your left. You are between the horse and the gate. You hold your rope with your left hand, undo the latch with your right hand, and open the gate away from you, only as wide as needed for you and your horse to get through. You keep your hand on the gate the entire time and close it behind you as soon as the horse has stepped through. Just before you open it, you look around quickly to see where the other horses are (you may need to go back to step 3). Often, the other horses are attempting now to come through because you took your eyes off of them briefly to walk through the gate. The closing gate is hopefully enough to tell them they need to stop. If they are the kind to push through a partly open gate, they need to be driven off further, or brought in first, or brought in with an assistant, and definitely worked with on their gate skills when there are less horses around. Some horses get out and eat a little grass and are easy to catch, so I worry less about these ones (this is Cookie, frequently). Some horses will get out and run as fast as they can to the road and back (this has happened at our farm -- I used to think the road was far enough away to not be a hazard -- doesn’t matter to a racehorse). Those horses can NOT get out no matter what you have to do to protect them from their own silly habits.
5. Latch the gate securely while your horse stands with you. Your horse should not be eating grass, pulling on you, or wandering away. This is another place where good halter groundwork is important. I expect my horses to stand there while I close and latch the gate, even if I need to use both hands to latch it and the rope is draped over my arm for a minute or tucked into a few fingers. It is not only annoying to try to close and latch a gate with your horse dragging you away to the grass, it is dangerous. Toes will get stepped on and broken, fingers twisted, and gates left open for horses to get out of. I know because these things happen when our horses forget to behave (cough, Cookie).
Common pitfalls (and things I have heard):
“They should see me as the boss horse” or “they won’t threaten me.”
This mentality makes sense until it doesn’t hold up. Remember that horses are herd animals with social hierarchies, and often live together 24/7. You are not going to change that and no matter how much natural horsemanship youtube you watch, you are not a member of their herd. You are a human and they are horses who live together. This means that if you are standing in a bad spot and the dominant horse comes and pushes you or pushes the horse you are holding, your horse will likely run into you in response to the push from the dominant horse (geez Gabriel). If he stands there and takes a beating to save you, he’s an angel and no one deserves him (thank you Cookie). Of course, we hope the dominant horse is respectful and well behaved enough to not push horses around with a human out in the pasture, but it could happen, and we don’t fault them for being horses. Instead, we recognize that you are responsible for taking and using the tools you need and the skills you have to move those horses and create for yourself a safe space to catch and lead your horse out.
“This horse gets out all the time” or “He's an escape artist.”
I have a bit of an issue with people who blame their animals for their own inability to contain them (I have a german shepherd who is an absolute hazard to himself and the horses if he is out with them -- somehow he is not out with them, ever, so it can be done). All animals can be contained, and usually need to be for their own safety and well being, but it takes commitment and skill. Rather than give credit to the horse for being an escape artist, recognize that it’s okay to have a skill deficit and to admit it even if it seems ridiculous. You might think to yourself “But I’ve been working with horses for years, or decades, (or whatever), of course I know how to get a horse out of a pasture.” But maybe the reality is that you have gotten many many horses out of pastures but never really learned *how* in the same way you learn how when you have as many rotten ponies as we do. A truly rotten escaping pony might need a different fencing situation. Get creative and figure out what works to keep everyone safe.
“My horse rushed the gate and knocked me down.”
This one is the reason I am so careful and insistent about which side of the horse I am on when I open the gate (you want to be on the gate side of the horse to open it and open it away from you). Think from the horse’s perspective as if you are the horse: I want to get in the barn where my food is. I want to get away from these other horses that might push me. I need to eat to survive or I’ll die. I’m stressed about this!” When the gate opens their first thought is not “I need to protect the person,” their first thought is probably “I need to survive and get through that gate!” For all horses, but especially horses who have issues with gates or have particular anxiety about this, that opening needs to be free and clear and not have you standing in it. The opening can be very exciting to the horse who wants to get through it so badly, especially if coming through means going uphill since hills add natural energy.
Ideally: the horse sees the opening, moves through it, yields to your position or at least to the pressure of the rope and turns around, you move through the opening, they stand quietly while you close the gate.
This ideal scenario includes a number of assumptions about what the horse understands:
- How to stand quietly next to a person who is standing still.
- How to bend and yield around the person’s position.
- How to yield to the pressure of the leadrope.
- How to move through an open space when directed even if not led.
If these are not true for your horse, then you now have an entire list of groundwork to go learn and practice. Congratulations!
It’s never a bad idea to work on going through a gate without other horses present and not at a high anxiety time like feeding. Your barn staff will appreciate you and your horse for it!
Putting a horse out
Putting a horse out includes all the same things except the crowding, plus you do run the risk of letting loose a frisky horse who takes off away from you kicking, putting you in danger. Always turn the horse to face you and the gate before exiting, and assess the danger level. Does the horse look tense or nervous, like she wants to run off playing and forget that you are not a horse with horse instincts to dodge her kicks? If not, you’re probably safe to let her go as long as you have an easy exit by the gate. It’s not a good idea to let the horse go and you just stand there and hang out, or keep petting her, or whatever, unless perhaps she is a very laid back or senior horse and you’ve never seen her move faster than a sluggish walk. If she does look tense or nervous or has a tendency to take off, I suggest a couple of strategies to try.
Option 1: Let the horse loose away from the gate (but still facing it), so you have space to back up as you let go.
Option 2: Get in the habit of dropping a treat on the ground as you let her go, so she expects the treat and looks for it, rather than thinking about running away.
Or, even safer--
Option 3: Close the gate with you on the other side of it. So you lead the horse in like normal, turn her around, sneak out of the gate, and close it. Then let her go and if she runs off kicking she kicks the gate and not you. The only pitfall here is the horse might run off before you are ready in which case the horse wears a halter and lead rope as they go running around and someone still has to go take that off. We only use breakaway halters so relative to your safety, I am not worried at all about this scenario.
You can apply many of these things to getting a horse out of a stall. I’ll post another one about that soon because being closed in a box vs out in a field produces some different challenges.
Oops - that didn't go well
Here are a few things I have seen, heard about, or had happen that could have been prevented by the tips outlined above. As a thought exercise, try writing down or thinking through what could have prevented these situations. If you recognize yourself in one of these, know that we can all learn from what happened, and most of these were me!
1. Handler went into a group of 4 to catch a horse to bring in. When the gate was open, the horse trampled the handler. Either the horse was being impatient, nervous, or was pushed by another horse. Now the gate is open and all 4 horses are loose and the handler is injured.
2. Handler unhooked an electric fence and hung it on the gate. Electric was on and the horse got shocked in the face and stepped on the handler’s foot. Horse likely lost confidence about the gate and the handler has an injured foot.
3. Handler went into the pasture of 2 horses to catch the pony, who is less dominant. Handler was standing between the horse and the gate to catch the pony. The dominant horse pushed the pony directly into the handler’s position. The handler could have gotten smashed into the gate by the pony but luckily that pony was a saint and took a body slamming instead of smash the handler. Pony looked mildly annoyed.
4. Handler entered the pasture and pushed the gate closed but did not check to see if it had latched. Rotten pony pushed it open and went to eat grass. The other horse panicked about being left behind and ran out, trotted around the farm for a few minutes before being caught. Could have been worse.
5. Horse panicked about the opening and ran through, pulling out of the handler’s grip. Raced to the road and back and was caught in his stall. Lucky horse, who needed more work building confidence at the gate without the added pressure of the other horses wanting out.
6. Handler did not open gate wide enough. Horse catches her side on the latch and has a small scrape.
7. Handler opened the gate to the inside, towards the horse. Horse went through opening, handler gets slammed into the gate, horse slams hindquarters into the fence, horse loses confidence in going through the gate, handler has bruises and feels like an idiot.
8. Handler took horse out to the pasture, closed the gate, and let the horse go but was not facing the gate. Horse is now free in the pasture and handler is trapped in the pasture with no easy exit, has to wait until the horse moves to get out. Not a big deal but not safe.
9. Handler lets the horse graze around her feet while she does the gate latch. The horse wanders towards her and steps on her foot, breaking a toe. Handler was not wearing boots.
10. Handler took the rotten pony out, who did not yield to the pressure of the halter and dragged the handler towards the grass. Handler had to either let go of the rotten pony or the gate. Since there was another horse still in the pasture, handler chose to let go of the rotten pony and closed the gate to protect the other horse from getting loose. The pony wins the game of life.
Okay, that went well
Here are few examples that were tricky but worked really well for everyone:
1. Handler went out into a group of 4 with a whip and drove the horses away from her space. She caught the horse she wanted and used the whip to keep the others away. They go through the gate without a problem.
2. Handler forgot to take a whip but effectively used her leadrope to drive off the other horse. He is persistent and really wants to come in. She took 5 extra minutes to drive him off until he gave up. The trainer is proud of the young handler.
3. Handler spent extra time teaching her horse to yield to rope pressure and practiced going through gates until the horse was calm. Everyone benefits.
4. Handler caught the less dominant horse first. Dominant horse has a history of charging other horses but understands boundaries after having a lot of groundwork and waits her turn.
All is well.
Happy horse handling.
P.S. Feel free to add if there are other misconceptions or things you have heard that don’t seem to work, or other Oops moments you’d like to share for us all to learn, or other tips and tricks that are helpful.
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Elle writes here about her experiences teaching, training, and running the barn. Lots of how-to and expansions on things we focus on in lessons, etc. Note: I have not had a blog before but the downtime from Covid-19 is inspiring me to get creative and keep communicating and connecting with our JoyRide crew!