“By your presence on these grounds you have indicated that you have accepted the limits of liability resulting from inherent risks of equine activities.”
You have seen this notice posted at every public stable. The word inherent means that horses are, by their nature, potentially dangerous. The person who hangs the sign is saying: You have been told, so you can’t sue us if you get hurt.
The fact is that horses really are, just by their nature, dangerous. This is especially true if you ride or drive. If you personally have never spent time in an emergency room after a horse accident, you certainly know people who have. Statistics show that horse activities are in the same inherently dangerous category as motorcycles. Motorcycle accidents result in injury or death 80% of the time. In an automobile accident you will be injured or die 20% of the time. We don’t know those statistics for horses, because after most of our falls or kicks we get up and dust ourselves off. However, 70,000 people are treated in emergency rooms in the US for horse related accidents every year!
The difference between motorcycles and horses is that motorcycles aren’t at all dangerous when we aren’t riding them. Horses are. The fact is that people are hurt every day just being around them. Walking them, grooming, picking out feet, even approaching them should be done in a careful and mindful manner. In most cases hospital visits caused by horse injuries can be prevented. The workers comp premiums for techs on the road in my veterinary practice is many times that of our office personnel. Insurance companies know exactly what the statistics are and charge their premiums accordingly.
I used to get beat up a lot by horses before I learned some hard lessons. My leg was broken when a horse fell on me while he was recovering after surgery. I have been kicked and bitten an embarrassing number of times. It took a full force kick to the crotch about 30 years ago for me to learn not to be so macho in handling horses. In looking back, almost every one of my run ins was because I was not paying attention or was just being stupid. Horses outweigh us many times and have very fast reflexes. They are wired to bolt and run when scared. If we are in the wrong place, and doing dumb things, it’s easy to get hurt. If you are naïve about a horse’s ability to inflict damage, go to You Tube and enter just two words: horse kick. It is amazing how many people are asking to get hurt. One thing we can learn from these videos is to never, ever surprise a horse when approaching them from behind. Their reflexes are far too fast for you to be able to react to their lightning reaction time. There have been some videos posted of riders, in the saddle, pouring ice water over them and their horse for the ALS challenge. Did they not expect the horse to take off and dump them?
When a tech comes to work for us, I always insist that they use a lead when handling a horse. I tell them that even if it takes an extra minute to find a lead, they should take that minute. If a horse gets startled and you are holding his halter by hand, he will pull you with him. Our tendency is to hang on, and that’s when shoulder injuries happen. I have a shoulder issue today because of times long ago when I tried to restrain horses by pulling on their halters without a lead. The lead gives you a few feet of slack and an extra moment of time to control the horse who may have checked out mentally for a few seconds.
I admire horse owners who will not permit their animals to run in and out of their stalls. If your horse tends to bolt into his stall, train him to stop and wait for you to lead him in at your pace. Go with him, turn him around in the stall and release the lead when you are back at the door, facing your horse. Don’t just let him go at the door. Horses will knock down their hips rushing through a doorway. If you are in the way, you will get knocked down too.
Crossties are handy to park a horse when he is in the aisle. However, ties can be deadly when a horse panics and pulls back. The chain or strap is instantly under hundreds of pounds of pressure and when it breaks it becomes a flying whip with hardware on the end. Don’t rely on the quick release feature of some snaps. Cross tie accidents usually happen in seconds and trying to release a snap under pressure may put you in harm’s way. I know at least one horse who was blinded in one eye when hit by a flying snap. A veterinarian in our office had several teeth fractured when she was just passing a horse who got scared at something, reared back, and the cross tie broke. If you are in a situation where a startled horse pulls back on the ties, turn away and duck. I decline working on horses that are cross tied, and always ask the owner or trainer to hold the animal with a lead, standing on the same side as me.
I don’t understand it when people with rude horses say, “I apologize for his barn manners, but he is bomb proof under saddle. That never made sense to me. If he is unmanageable with you on the ground how you could ever trust him up there on his back, several feet away from the hard ground. If he does not obey you willingly in everything you ask for on the ground, then it is time for some elementary training. If you aren’t up to that job, hire a trainer that will teach your horse and you. Any horse can be taught good manners. Horses with good stable manners are a joy to be around and are as safe as horses can be.
We value them for their strength and speed. Respect these same qualities as you move around them to keep yourself safe.
Dr Jefferson is the founding veterinarian of Maine Equine Associates. He can be reached at www.MaineEquineAssociates.com His previous articles that have appeared in the The Horse’s Maine are archived on that site.