We own Clear Creek Stable and recently have leased out some of the stalls to a woman who takes care of the boarding end of the business. We have a formal lease agreement with her and liability releases from her and all her boarders. Several of the horses here are hers, including a seven year old Paint Mare. This mare is her 14 year old daughter's 4H horse, but I am really concerned about the safety of the horse for a youth rider. The mare has had about six incidents in the last five months of falling over; twice she fell to her knees (once in the paddock and once in her stall when eating hay--both times without obvious provocation); once she got hung upside down in a panel with one hind leg all the way through the panel; another time they tightened the girth too quickly and she fell over and dented a car(not here thank goodness, but at her trainer's); several times she pulled back and freaking out when the nose band on the bridle was tightened; and most recently (this week) fell over when the girl was either mounting her or perhaps already mounted. None of these incidents occurred when I was in charge of the horse or rider although I do occasionally teach her. In the last one, the girl seemed to have a mild concussion and her helmet (An ASTM approved helmet) was cracked. I checked her over as best I could and recommended going to the doctor, but they declined. Initially, the girl did not remember what had happened, but then said that she girthed the mare up very quickly and tightly and then proceeded to mount after which the mare freaked out and fell. I am not sure of the veracity of this version because the girl is very worried that her father will take the horse away. There was dirt on the left side of the saddle and on the pommel and horn as well. Also there was a great deal of blood from the horse's mouth presumable from the bit being pulled hard. I was down in the house and the girl's mother was up at the barn with her, but neither of us saw the actual fall. I filled out an incident report, even though I was not teaching her at the time, but wonder if there might be anything else to consider. I believe that the horse has some kind of neurological problem, but who can tell? I strongly recommended that they have it checked out, but they do not seem very worried. It is a concern for us because it is our property and we may bear partial liability. Any thoughts or opinions that you have would be helpful.
Thanks, Elisabeth (Betts) Ervin-Blankenheim
Hi Elisabeth, It is hard to get a real understanding of this picture without seeing the horse. In many ways, the horse doesn't sound that unusual, just a cold-backed puller. Cold-backed horses will react the way you describe when mounted with the girth too tight. Cold-backed horses are often cinchy and tend to buck with the weight of the rider, until they are used to the sensation of weight on their back. If a cold-backed horse has not been ridden in a while, it may buck at first (or at first canter), but then will be just fine in this and subsequent rides. This is a natural reaction for the horse and is most prevalent when breaking the animal. It is not a mean or obstinate behavior, just an honest uncomfortable feeling for the horse that he must get used to. I do not allow any horses to be bridled while tied because it can lead to pulling, even in a horse that would not normally pull back. The horse can reaming at the hitching rail for bridling, but the knot should be untied, in case the horse needs to raise his head or move back because he is frightened. I always teach people to lead the horse forward a few steps after tightening the girth and before mounting to allow the horse to get accustomed to the tight girth before you compound the problem by mounting. I also insist that people tighten the girth in increments, over 10-15 minutes, rather than all at once, again to prevent cinchyness and a cold-back. This is important on any horse, but especially for a cold-backed horse. As for your liability, I think you have done the best that you can and have met your professional obligation by telling the mother your opinion of the horse. The fact the mother is a horse professional puts the burden on her (it would be very difficult for her not to take responsibility and say she didn't know any better). Documenting any incidents that you are aware of will help protect you as a property owner and instructor; it shows your concern and documents the facts of the incident. You may want to also make a note of any conversations you had with the mother regarding this horse. I don't think it is necessary to formalize this documentation, just make a note for yourself in your day runner or something. I agree that this horse sounds unsafe, as evidenced by the crack in her helmet. On the other hand, I am not sure it is an extreme or unusual circumstance, but as you say, who knows? You have done your best professionally and ethically to inform the parent that in your opinion the horse is unsafe, that is all you can do. The rest is up to them. If at any time you felt the horse was too unsafe, you could refuse to work with the girl on that horse, but I am not sure what purpose that would serve other than causing a rift between you and them. As long as you continue to work with them, at least you can have an influence on what they do and what decisions they make with this horse. My father, the first great horseman in my life, taught me some very important lessons about horses. Perhaps the most important one was, that there are too many good horses in the world to mess around with a bad one. Regardless of the cause, this mare has some very unsafe behaviors and I my opinion (and obviously in yours) this mare is inappropriate for children. Unfortunately, in this instance and many others, we cannot impose our beliefs and opinions on the owners; they will have to make that decision for themselves.