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Our Newsletter

2013 Incidentaly Speaking

Rider Progress Notes

By Polly Haselton Barger

The Incident:
Camp SummerFun is an agency camp that runs a large summer riding program. Most campers are only there for a week, but they get to participate in riding every day. The riding staff keep close notes on rider progress to help with planning and evaluation. It is a well-run program with an excellent safety record.

Last summer Anita came to Camp SummerFun’s riding program and was very excited to be with the horses. She had a difficult year in school and couldn’t wait to be at camp. Anita’s parents had made the decision to take her off of her medications for ADHD while at camp-not an uncommon decision.

Loretta, Anita’s riding instructor, had complained to her supervisor about Anita’s inability to pay attention in the class. She had made notes on how she couldn’t hold the reins correctly, how she didn’t keep her feet in the stirrups, couldn’t focus, etc. In other words, she created a written trail of notes on how poorly Anita was riding.

On Friday, the last day of the five day session, Loretta decided to reward the class by letting them ride bareback. They pulled the saddles and then each was led at the walk and then the trot. When Anita’s horse was doing the downward transition from the trot to the walk she lost her balance and fell off. Fortunately she was not injured.

The Analysis:
CHA recommends keeping rider progress notes-in fact we provide the written and electronic means of doing so. It is important, however, that these progress notes be used with the intent for which they were designed. Notes should be carefully reviewed and analyzed to make decisions about advancement of riders. In this case Loretta’s notes clearly showed that Anita might not be ready to ride bareback, especially at the trot. CHA considers bareback riding to be appropriate for a skill level well beyond what anyone is likely to have achieved in four days, especially a highly distracted rider. It is the unfortunate reality of group riding lessons that you must plan to the level of the least skilled rider. Of course, Anita should not be singled out, but Loretta could have easily come up with a last day activity in which everyone could safely participate.


Panic in the Cross Ties

By Polly Haselton Barger

The Incident

 Breezy Acres is a boarding facility that serves mostly high caliber dressage horses. The facility owns a few lesson horses, but the majority are privately owned. One day in early May the facility manager, Laney, was helping some of the clients ready their horses to leave for a show, and had two horses in cross ties in the barn aisle. There was lots of activity, with people going in and out of the tack room and feed room getting supplies to load into the trailers.

Laney was sitting on a mounting block trimming the front fetlocks of one of the horses in the cross ties. A young girl who was there for a lesson had gotten her saddle out of the tack room and was walking past the horse Laney was working on from behind when the girth got caught on a saddle rack and fell to the floor with a clatter.

The horse startled, kicked out at the girl, lost its footing on the concrete and scrambled to catch its balance. In doing so it got turned around in the cross ties and one of the lines was now over its neck, causing further panic. Laney was knocked over and the young girl had dropped the saddle completed and was crying loudly, rooted to the spot. The girl’s instructor came into the area and tried to undo one of the panic snaps of the cross ties, but it was on the horse’s halter and when she tried to get close enough to the flailing horse she was struck on the arm by a hoof.

Fortunately, one of the clients had a knife in her pocket and was able to cut one of the lead ropes, although not easily since her blade was dull. Laney has a serious scrape from the clippers when she was knocked over; the little girl was only grazed by the kick, but had a bruise on her hand; the instructor had a broken wrist; and the horse had scraped hocks and a rope burn on its neck.

The Analysis

 Getting ready for an off-site show can make a barn chaotic, with people out of their normal patterns of behavior. There are multiple places where this might have been prevented, or at least made less
serious. As far as the facility goes: rubber mats where the cross ties are, panic snaps on the wall instead of the horse, and ropes short enough a horse can’t get turned around are basic safety principles that might have prevented this situation.

Barns should consider rules and procedures that would have students under direct supervision when in the barn to prevent them going into areas where they could accidentally spook a horse and get kicked. Sitting on anything next to a horse can lead to a dangerous situation, as Laney found out. All adults working with horses should have a sharp knife in their pocket. And lastly-even when there is busy, excited rush around horses all the safety measures should be observed.


‘Tis the Season to Come Into Season!

By Polly Haselton Barger

The Incident

 The Young Trees Riding Stable is a small, privately owned facility that provides group and private riding lessons, as well as some trail rides. They have about 15 horses and the staff is mostly family, mostly certified. It is well run and very popular with the clientele.

They are always on the lookout for quality horses for their program and in November they acquired a very lovely 10-year-old mare, with impeccable ground manners and a quiet way of going. She was 15 hands, so a great size for their program. After spending two months with just staff working with and riding her (standard operating procedure for all of their new horses), they named her Cupcake and put her to work in the lesson program. She quickly became a real favorite with the students. She stood quietly while they groomed and tacked her up and was easy to handle, both in the arena and on the trail. She was so sweet and much requested.

On a sunny day in April, a student named Teresa (12-years-old and an intermediate rider) arrived for her lesson and was excited to see she was assigned to ride Cupcake. When she went to get her out of her stall to put in the grooming rack, Cupcake pinned her ears and swished her tail. Erin, her instructor, noticed and thought it was unusual behavior for Cupcake, but told Teresa to give her an extra pat and get her groomed for the lesson. While in the grooming rack Cupcake urinated three times and pinned her ears at every horse walking by. She was unusually touchy while being brushed and actually swung her head around and snapped at Teresa. Erin decided to saddle Cupcake herself, and she seemed to settle down. While Teresa was leading her to the arena, however, Cupcake lunged at another horse, dragging Teresa with her, then quickly swung around to push her hindquarters toward the other horse, lifting her tail and squirting urine. As Cupcake swung around Teresa was knocked to the ground and, if not for the quick actions of Erin, would have been stepped on. Sweet, sweet Cupcake was like a different horse.

The Analysis

 By now you have undoubtedly guessed that Cupcake had come in to heat. Most mares cycle every 18-21 days between April and October, depending on the climate where they live. Estrus (the heat cycle) typically lasts from 5 to 7 days. It is near the end of this that a mare might become testy, showing signs of irritability, lacking attention or focus, “winking,” squatting and squirting urine. Some mares hardly change at all during their heat cycle, and some might change so radically that they are difficult to handle.

When Cupcake first came to Young Trees Riding Stable she was in the winter dormant phase of her cycle, called anestrus, and was very docile. The staff took plenty of time handling and riding her and found her to be quite suitable. Because her heat behavior was more extreme than in most mares they just didn’t really expect her to change so much. Because the staff closely supervises their students, tragedy was averted by Erin’s quick actions. It might have been better, however, if Erin had paid more attention to Cupcake’s change in behavior. Cupcake’s behavior was pretty classic heat symptoms, so that might have crossed her mind. A thorough safety check will take note of unusual behavior in both horses and/or students and if very unusual an instructor should consider making some changes. A good instructor will know her horses extremely well and will make adjustments if a horse is not its usual self.

Note: Some owners decide to control the estrus cycle to make the mare more consistently tractable. There are several ways and means of doing this, so a discussion with a vet is in order. Surgery, drugs, hormone injections, herbal remedies are all available. Some programs choose not to use mares at all, but my experience has been that most mares were just fine, if occasionally a little cranky. I did have a mare that was especially rank when in heat, but was so wonderful the rest of the time, that we just gave her time off when she was cycling.

A Fall Worse Than Suspected

By Polly Haselton Barger

The Incident

Four friends at a boarding facility decided to go for a ride to end up 2012 on a great note. All were very experienced riders: Anne, a highly certified riding instructor, riding her own horse; Ali, a member of the local college equestrian team, riding her personally owned horse; Carrie, who rides jumpers, on her personal horse; and Nicole, a barrel racer, on her own horse.

Anne, Ali and Carrie arrived earlier than Nicole and already had their horses warmed up by the time she was ready to mount. Their plan was to ride in a nearby field, where a trail course was set up. Nicole decided to stay in the arena with her still-green three year old, since she had not ridden him for a few weeks and she was not ready to leave. She changed her mind at the last minute, saying she thought he needed to be with a group and she didn’t want to ride alone.

None of these women were the “gallop around the field” type of riders. They all walked to the field, where they split up to work on their own things. Ali and Carrie’s horses both had a history of being fresh when ridden in the field, so they were going to work on that. Two of the horses were cantering circles at opposite ends of the field and one was trotting poles in the trail course. Nicole was working on her natural horsemanship training and appeared to be doing okay.

Suddenly the other riders heard Nicole yelling “Whoa, whoa” and turned to see her horse galloping across the field. It had spooked, leaving her behind the motion, and she soon fell off, landing on her hip. The other riders immediately followed all of the normal emergency procedures, including a first aid assessment. Nicole, a registered nurse, felt she was OK and the others agreed. She got up slowly and walked back to the barn to do some ground work with the horse. She worked with him in the arena for about 15 minutes, and then took him back to the field where he spooked to continue ground work. Soon she began to feel bad and barely made it back to the barn. Her friends helped her sit down and called family to come pick her up.

Later that evening Nancy felt faint when she sat up, so her husband took her to the emergency room. It turned out that she had severed an artery in her pelvis, and had to have an arteriogram to repair the artery and stop the bleeding. She required 4 units of blood. She had also broken 4 ribs. This seemingly ordinary fall could have been deadly if she had not received the medical care when she did.

The Analysis

 The first thing that struck me here was Nicole’s decision to go to the field with the others even though her initial decision was that she and the horse were not ready yet. In hindsight she stated that she should not have taken her horse to the field without its normal warm up. It was a good decision to not ride alone and she had done some ground work before she mounted. The horse appeared calm and focused, so she chose to go with the others. This could be a classic case of always needing to listen to your gut feelings.

The point was to have her horse with the group, but when they all split up to do their own thing it is possible that her horse felt some anxiety because it was not actually with the other horses. It may have been focused on the other horses rather on Nicole and that could have led to the spook.

While Nicole’s fall was not particularly unusual (falling from a running horse and landing on the hip) it is never a good idea to take the word of the fallen rider. No matter how medically qualified, they might be in shock and not thinking clearly. The other friends also realized in retrospect that they should have been more demanding in assessing Nicole’s condition. It is a good idea to at least have a fallen rider remain quiet for a while and then reassess. In this particular case, as it turned out, it would have been good to call EMS.

It is a somewhat old fashioned idea that a fallen rider should get right up and get back in the game. Whereas it is true that it might be a good idea for the training of the horse to immediately put it back to work, the wellbeing of the rider is more important than the training of the horse. Please be very cautious if you are helping a fallen rider. It is far better to err on the side of caution. It could save a life!