With my involvement in horses for so many years, I’d like to say I’ve seen it all, but I probably haven’t. My following comments regarding safety concerns in our sport are all based on actual experience. I’ve seen catastrophic events that could have been prevented with simple and easy safety protocols. Here is my essential list of safety tips to help keep you safe:
1. Wear your properly fitted helmet and do up the chin strap. The days of riding in a baseball hat have long past.
2. Proper footwear while riding is equally important. No running shoes please! And please, never, ever flip-flops when working around horses!
3. Let go. The reality is if you ride there is a chance you’ll fall one day and you rarely land on your feet. Your instinct when you fall is to try and hang onto the reins because you don’t want a loose horse. When you are on the ground you can get kicked or stepped on – I’ve seen many serious injuries from this. While every case is different, the rule of thumb is let go.
4. Breakaway cups. By far the worst falls are the ones where horse and rider fall together. There are many reasons why a horse falls with a rider: slippery footing, a bad stumble, jumping solid fences, etc. The most common fall at the horse show is the horse not clearing the back of an oxer. Breakaway cups were introduced a few years ago and prevent horses from falling. Show organizers should take note that it is equally as important to include them in the warm-up ring.
5. Avoid nylon halters, but if you must, be sure it has a leather crown. You want the halter to break, not your horse’s neck if it gets hung up.
6. Avoid nylon crossties. In a grooming stall or wash stall where there is a wall behind the horse to prevent it from backing up they work fine. In the aisle, you must make them breakaway. You do that by attaching the snap on the halter to the crosstie with some string. When the horse pulls back, the string snaps and the horse is free. Do not put the string on the other end of the cross tie or you’ll have a loose horse dragging a couple of cross ties, which is very unsafe. It could also snap back and injure an eye. If they don’t break easily and the horse panics, it could end up on its back.
7. Lead your horse with a shank and when turning your horse out in the paddock always enter the paddock, turn the horse around to face you, then remove the shank and turn it loose. Never let it run by you as you could get kicked.
Putting the chain over your horse’s nose gets your horse’s attention and gives you more control of the situation, thus reducing the chance of something unexpected happening. Using the chain over the nose when loading and unloading your horse in the trailer is especially valuable to ensure you have their full attention.
8. Check your girth and make sure it’s in good repair. Nothing is more scary than your girth breaking midair over a jump. Also, when you get on, check your girth a couple of times to make sure it’s tight enough so your saddle doesn’t slip.
9. When mounting, be in control of the situation. If you have someone to hold your horse, great! If you use a mounting block and it is movable, place it near a fence or wall or horse trailer and stand your horse between the block and the wall. Now your horse can’t move away from you while you are mounting and leave you hanging.
I make a bridge with the reins in my left hand that is short enough so if my horse moves off before I get my right foot in the stirrup, I can be in control. I like to rein-back from the mounting block so the horse never thinks about accelerating as I mount. Many horses have mounting issues, so place your mounting block in the corner of the arena or paddock so the horse has no place to go until you are settled in the saddle.
10. At the horse show, safety issues pop up everywhere. Loose dogs, motorcycles and golf carts zipping around, tarps not secured properly on the hay, or garbage bags blowing around. It’s the responsibility of everyone to be responsible and assume the worst could happen. That child on the pony or the rider on the green horse can’t deal with a spook or a spin, so be prepared.
Horse shows are making efforts to make separate horse and golf cart paths. Make it a priority to use them properly. Also, the warm-up ring can be a busy place, so watch where you are going and be aware of your surroundings; that person riding towards you may not even see you, as they are staring at the ground! Please don’t ride in front of the warm-up jumps ‒ this is downright dangerous as well as discourteous to others warming up.
Always anticipate potential problems – and then try to prevent them!