Safety around Horses
a basic guide for beginning Horse People
The Equine Research Centre, Guelp, Ontario
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
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.
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 behaviour 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. 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 him. 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 him 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.
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 him
less noticeable to the potential predator, while allowing him 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.
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.
Let's now consider some specific situations where you may come
into close contact with horses: the horse show, while driving
your car, and in the context of your first ride.
At a Horse Show
For many people, a local fair or horse show is their first
close-up exposure to horses. Going to a show is a wonderful way
to learn more about the different types and uses of equines, to
meet people involved in the sports that interest you, and to make
contacts that may lead you to riding lessons, or even your first
horse. For the competitors, however, a horse show is a serious
thing. Behind the scenes at a show can get pretty hectic, and
there are risks to both spectators and horses alike. In addition
to the basics we have just covered, here are some specific
cautions for the horse show environment:
Keep children under direct control at all times. Young children
are often very excited at seeing horses and other livestock, and
many will run up to them, unaware of the risks. By their very
nature, children represent those things horses find most
frightening: sudden movements and loud noises. Teach your
children the correct way to approach animals, always first asking
the owner for permission to do so.
Leave your dog at home. Dogs that are not used to horses may
bark, lunge, or chase. Horses that are not used to dogs may
become panicked by such behavior. Further, summer shows can get
hot, making parked cars unsafe for dogs and creating problems
with access to water and shade. In addition, having a dog may
limit your access to parts of the show grounds (stands, etc),
reducing your enjoyment of the event. For the safety of both dogs
and horses, leave your pet at home.
Be especially careful at ringside. Many outdoor shows have only
single ropes or chains defining the show ring, and children or
dogs could easily dash under these into the ring. Avoid sudden
movements such as taking off jackets or shaking out blankets
while there is a class in progress.
Occasionally horses break free from their handlers at shows, and
the call "Loose horse!" will ring out. Perhaps the rider has
fallen, or the animal has escaped from its stall. In such
situations, some horses wander harmlessly, but more often they
become frightened by the activity, the strange environment, and
people trying to catch them. Remain calm. Running will only
frighten the animal more, and increases your risk of being hurt.
Restrain your children, and move slowly towards a solid object,
such as a building or tree. Stand still and let those with more
experience handle the situation. If the horse runs toward you,
stand your ground, make yourself appear large by holding out your
arms, and speak to the animal in an authoritative tone. In most
cases, it will avoid you.
Avoid taking flash photographs while horses are competing in the
ring. Flashes of light can startle horses, distracting them from
the task at hand and risking injury or collision.
Never feed a horse anything without the permission of the owner.
Some horses may be on very controlled diets, others may nip; in
any case, it is discourteous and potentially dangerous to feed a
horse at a show, even if only grass. Never tease a horse with
For your own safety and comfort, bring a few essentials with you.
For outdoor events, remember your sunscreen, sunglasses, hat, and
insect repellent. Sturdy footwear will protect you from rough
terrain as well as horses' hooves. If you suffer from allergies
to animals or dust, be sure to bring appropriate relief with you;
horse shows are full of both!
Sharing the Road
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 laneway 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.
Your First Ride
So, you've decided to take the plunge and learn to ride. Whether
at a riding school, a trail riding establishment, or a friend's
stable, there are a few basic rules you should follow to ensure a
safe and enjoyable first ride.
Wear a helmet. Helmets have saved untold numbers of lives in
riding accidents - don't even think of riding without one. If
driving is your chosen sport, you should also wear a helmet. Head
injuries can occur if you are thrown out of the cart. Make sure
the helmet fits snugly, and has a solid chin strap to hold it
securely in place. Avoid helmets labeled as "items of apparel",
as these have no real protective value. Look instead for a logo
indicating approval by a safety or standards organization, such
as the Canadian Standards Association or equivalent such as (in
the U.S.) the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)
or the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) Bicycle helmets are used
by many pleasure riders, who find them cooler than conventional
equestrian helmets. As long as they are similarly endorsed by a
recognized standards organization, they are a safe alternative.
Wear solid shoes with heels. Never ride barefoot, in sandals, or
in slip-on shoes such as loafers. Your feet must support you in
the stirrups, and flimsy shoes can fall off or get in the way.
Heels are important to prevent your foot from going all the way
through the stirrup and getting stuck. Sneakers are unacceptable.
A lightweight, ankle-high boot with laces is ideal.
Wear comfortable but not overly baggy clothing. Tight jeans do
not stretch and are uncomfortable to ride in. Very loose clothes
can chafe, or catch on fences or tree branches. Sweat pants or
exercise tights are a good choice. Men should consider some form
of athletic support for their comfort and safety. Don't chew gum
(which can be inhaled) and avoid carrying anything in your
pockets, such as a wallet (which is uncomfortable) or a pen
(which could stab you if you fall).
Before saddling or harnessing, check all equipment to ensure that
it is in good condition and free from foreign bodies that may
irritate the animal. Do not use equipment that is cracked or
frayed, as it may snap during use.
Finally, use your own good judgment and be realistic about your
abilities. Do not ride a horse that frightens you. Be patient
with the animal and with yourself. Learning to ride or drive a
horse is a long-term prospect, and you will not be able to gallop
across fields, jump fences, or rope cattle on your first outing.
If you enjoy your first experience, seek out an experienced,
qualified instructor and enjoy the process of learning. It is a
This article was kindly contributed by the Equine Research
Centre, Guelph, Ontario.
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