Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Learning To Ride A Horse -- Safely

When my grandsons were little boys I introduced them to horses, and as much as I tried to get them interested in riding horses the pressures of modern society prevailed.  They became fine baseball players, and straight "A" students, so I really can't complain.

Much to my surprise my daughter-in-law recently informed me my two youngest grandsons (both in high school) would like to learn to ride horses.

Rather than trying to teach them myself, I opted to pay for some lessons with a local ranch owner and horse trainer whom I really trust.  She has a wonderful track record of teaching local children to ride.  

I've been riding horses for more than 60 years, and there's lots of things I'd like to tell the boys.  I've thinking about the thousands of things one needs to learn to be a safe around horses.  

The Most Important Thing to Know -- Horses Are Flight Animals

Horses are complex animals that have survived and evolved for over 50 million years.  In the wild horses are prey animals that are constantly at risk of being eaten by mountain lions, wolves, and bears.  As a result they have developed complex patterns of behavior to successfully detect and avoid predators.  

A few years back I published the following article on the website of an equestrian nonprofit I headed (Chatsworth ECHO).

A Basic Safety Guide for Beginning Horse People

Getting involved in horses is a wonderful and rewarding way to learn new skills, develop a relationship with a fascinating animal, and meet new friends in the process.  Like many activities, however, equestrian sport also involves some degree of risk.  Horses are large, powerful animals, easily capable of injuring a person.  But, if you are well armed with a basic understanding of horses, a few hard and fast rules, and your own good sense, the risks are readily minimized.

    • Never touch or feed a horse without the owner's permission.
    • Approach a horse from the front or side, never from the rear.  
    • Announce your presence and offer your hand for the animal to smell.
    • Avoid sudden movements such as waving, running etc.
    • Speak quietly; avoid loud or unusual noises.
    • Keep young children and dogs under direct control at all times.
    • Sturdy footwear and an approved helmet are essential if you intend to ride.

Understanding Horses

The biggest risk in being around horses occurs when they are frightened.  At this time, their only concerns are escape and survival, and people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time can be hurt.  Therefore, the easiest way to prevent such accidents is to understand what frightens horses.

Horses are prey animals; in the wild, they are constantly at risk of being eaten.  As a result, they have evolved systems of behavior to help them successfully detect and avoid predators.  Specifically, horses are always on the lookout.  Their long necks, widely spaced eyes, and mobile ears help them be aware of things all around them.  This means that they see things "out of the corner of their eye" much better than humans, whose eyes are on the front of their faces.

Equine ears swivel in all directions, allowing them to hear and locate faraway sounds.  These abilities are crucial to horses' survival, because despite their speed, they are not as fast as many of their natural predators.  Early detection is therefore essential.

Figure 1:  Horses have a large field of peripheral vision and three blind spots

Having widely-spaced eyes means that the horse's field of peripheral vision is very large (Fig. 1), but it also limits his field of binocular vision (i.e., where he sees with both eyes at once) to a small area directly in front of her.  Binocular vision is essential to accurately judge distance and depth.  Therefore, most of the things a horse sees are only one-dimensional - and it is difficult for her to know exactly where they are.  In terms of the horse's survival, it really doesn't matter - all he has to do is run the other way.  But it does mean that horses will often "overreact" to little things behind and beside them.

Kasidy listening for direction during a mounted shooting event

Equine Body Language

Take some time to observe horses from a distance, and learn a bit of their body language.  When startled, a horse (like all animals) has three typical reactions.  Some will show all three in succession; others may show only one in a given situation.  If you can recognize these signs, you will be better able to predict and avoid danger.

First, a horse will usually freeze.  This makes her less noticeable to the potential predator, while allowing her to better identify the source.  The horse will usually look intently in the direction of the surprising stimulus, with its head up and ears perked.  The animal is often very tense, and a second startle may cause it to bolt.

Second, horses run.  Many will freeze momentarily before running, but many may not.  Prior to running, a horse may sidestep, spin, rear, or jump, and it is these actions which are particularly likely to injure onlookers.

Finally, if cornered, horses will fight.  Despite their size and power, they are really not ideally suited to warding off predators, lacking weapons such as horns.  They can, however, do considerable damage with their hooves and teeth.  Never corner a panicked horse.

Precious cargo and an intense Sunup listening for direction

Approaching a Horse

In terms of your safety, then, you should be aware that horses are most easily scared by sudden movements or loud noises, particularly outside of the animal's field of binocular vision.  Quick movements or loud noises in these areas will trigger fear reactions such as spinning or bolting, and you may get trampled or kicked in the process.

For this reason, avoid approaching horses from the rear or side.  Move to the head, giving the animal a chance to see you.  Most horses are more used to being approached from the left.  Announce your presence and put a hand on the horse's neck or shoulder so he knows where you are.  Offer your hand in a closed fist for the horse to smell.  Never run up to a horse, throw things toward a horse, or move in a quick or unpredictable manner.  Never stand directly behind a horse; he cannot see you well there, and you risk being kicked.

By learning about horses, how they perceive and react to the world, and by adopting a few basic rules of conduct, you can look forward to safe and enjoyable interaction with these beautiful creatures.

While Driving Your Car

Do you know what to do if, when in your car, you meet a horse being ridden or driven down the road?  This can be a particularly dangerous situation for all concerned: if frightened, the horse may bolt into the oncoming vehicle or jump into a ditch or fence line.  The horse may be injured, the rider or driver thrown, or your car damaged.

Your best strategy is to slow to a crawl, keeping to the opposite side of the road.  Dim or turn off your headlights, if possible, and turn down your car stereo.  If the horse appears particularly nervous, stop and wait for the rider to either enter a lane-way or wave you by.  Never brake or accelerate suddenly, both of which cause noise and throw up gravel.  Spraying gravel will certainly frighten and may even injure the horse.  Never, ever honk the horn.  When you are well past the horse, accelerate gradually and be on your way.

"Slow down" and "Pass wide" when you approach horses 
(from an another article I penned a few years back)  

My horse is a flight animal; that means her first reaction is to run from danger.

She has taught me that horseback riding is inherently dangerous and that there are significant risks involved with horses.  She is a powerful and potentially dangerous animal.

Any horse may, without warning, and for no reason, may jump up, forward, backward, or sideways.  She may become uncontrollable, run wildly, buck, bite, kick, or rear up without warning.

When she becomes tired, stressed, or cantankerous her behavior is unpredictable.   She may trip, stumble, and/or fall down when being ridden, led, or otherwise attended to.  Her eye sight is very different than yours.  She sees motion faster, but she does not see things as clearly.  She sees separate images on each side of her head, but she has a blind spot directly in front of her and directly behind her.

Weather, terrain, other animals, people and motor vehicles may adversely affect my horse's behavior.  She is afraid of car alarms, leaf blowers, lawn mowers, sprinklers, manhole covers, unusual concrete structures, things that are very black, things that are very white, blue plastic tarps, cardboard, balls rolling, flags, umbrellas, suddenly appearing dogs, skateboards, motorcycles, trains, tractors, and about a thousand other things she hasn't seen yet.

If you saw a loose dog in the street you would probably slow down.  When my horse is scared she is just as likely to jump in front of your car as a loose dog.

In general my horse can cause property damage, bodily and personal injuries, paralysis, and death to you or members of your family if your automobile hits her.  

That's why the California vehicle code gives equestrians to right to advise you to slow down or stop when we know our horse may be uncontrollable.

Section 21759 of the California vehicle code states, "the driver of any vehicle approaching any horse drawn vehicle, any ridden animal, or any livestock shall exercise proper control of her vehicle and shall reduce speed or stop as may appear necessary or as may be signaled or otherwise requested by any person driving, riding or in charge of the animal or livestock in order to avoid frightening and to safeguard the animal or livestock and to insure the safety of any person driving or riding the animal or in charge of the livestock."

Kasidy - a nice quiet horse - listening to her rider.

More about horses...

The Most Dangerous Horse

Cowboy Wisdom -- Halters and horse sense

Cowboy Wisdom -- Speak softly and carry a big stick

Still more cowboy and horse tales

Update June 29, 2013

Jody has done a fine job teaching the boys to ride... they cantered for the first time today and are thrilled.

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