Loading... Please wait...

Our Newsletter

2012 Incidentally Speaking

My Hands Are Tied

 By Julie Goodnight

The Incident:

It was a typical busy summer day at Mountaintop Rides, a popular tourist spot just off a major highway in the mountains of Colorado. Most of the year business was slow and spotty, but in July and August, they cranked.

On a busy summer day, the wranglers would saddle forty horses and the guides worked overtime, taking out one ride after another, with ten or more guests on a ride. To keep the rides moving along, an elaborate system had been created so guests could move efficiently through the stations of waiver-signing, safety talk, horse assignment and mounting, line up for the ride and go. Over the years, this system had been developed for efficiency and up until now, it had worked just fine.

While the horses awaited their next passenger, they stood fully tacked and tied to the rail with the halter and lead, the bridle on over the halter. Just beyond the tie rail was an abundant hay feeder so the horses learned to stand there quietly and patiently while they were groomed, saddled and mounted. Once all the riders in the group were mounted and the guides were in position, an assistant would come along and unclip all the guest horses and the group would be instructed to turn and walk off in formation. The horses became like robots and for years, this system worked well. Until the day it didn’t and Mountaintop Rides was forced to re-think the way they operated.

It was late morning and the horses had already been out on the trail with one group of riders and were patiently waiting for the next ride while they contentedly munched their hay. A couple of families would fill the next ride and the wranglers were busy getting the kids and parents situated on the best horse for each rider. The mom was mounted up on her trusted steed, stirrups adjusted, cinches checked, and instructed to sit still until everyone else was on-board. The guide left her, tied to the rail, confident she wasn’t going anywhere, while he went back to get the next rider up.

A few horses down the line, something startled one of the horses, causing him to suddenly shift his rear to the horse next to him, causing a chain-reaction of reshuffling as the horse next to mom slammed his hip into her horse. In a panic, thinking she would get kicked, mom screamed and jerked up on the reins, trying in vain to move her horse away. This startled her horse and as he threw his head up in response to her jerk on the reins, he hit the end of the lead rope and mom’s panic became contagious.

In a panic, the horse pulled back hard on the lead rope, struggling to break free while mom screamed and jerked. Finally the lead rope broke and the horse went tumbling backwards, slamming its passenger to the ground, narrowly missing the hind feet of the horse next to her. The other horses were scrambling to get out of the way and all the riders were shrieking.

Mom hit the ground hard and all the air was knocked out of her. She slammed her head very hard too but thankfully had a helmet on which relieved some of the concussion. Fortunately no serious injuries were incurred but needless to say, the day was ruined and the customers couldn’t wait to get out of there and tell all of their friends about their disastrous attempt to go trail riding.

The Analysis:

Tying the horses while waiting for the ride to leave is not a bad idea, and their stations for efficiency did really help to get the riders organized and moving. The problem was caused by having a horse tied with a rider mounted.

Once a rider is mounted on the horse, she should have the full means to control it, in case something goes wrong, as it did in this case. It is the same thing when you are leading a rider on a horse—the rider should still have the reins in her hand in case she needs to control the horse. Having the horse tied takes away the rider’s ability to control the horse and react to a bad situation. 

It also leaves the horse between a rock and a hard place with no escape route when he gets worried. This inability to flee increases the horse’s anxiety a lot and so in and of itself, being tied becomes a contributing factor in the horse’s panic.

Of course, with horses tied in such close proximity to each other, sooner or later something is going to go wrong. In this case, the riders were tied up so that the wranglers had better control during that awkward period where riders are being mounted on their horses, but have to wait for everyone to be ready before going anywhere. Trail guides quickly learn that this is when things go wrong—as long as you are moving down the trail there are not usually problems. It’s the stopping and standing where people and horses tend to get in trouble.

Chances are the horses were plenty well trained and adjusted to their routine, that if they were just unclipped from the lead when the rider was mounted, they could be left in place and would still stand quietly. Then, when something went wrong, the horse could’ve stepped away or the rider could have turned the horse away without incident. 

An important consideration worth mentioning here, is that this operation had been doing it this way for years and nothing had ever happened. It’s the old, “but we’ve always done it this way” justification. With horses, just because it worked before doesn’t mean it will always work that way. Proving once again that when it comes to horses, what can go wrong, will go wrong eventually. Always plan for the worst case scenario.

Ostensibly, these procedures were put in place for the convenience of the wranglers, to help keep control while everyone is standing around and waiting. Seemed like a good idea and having better control seems safer for everyone, but in this case, although it was convenient, it was not the safest thing to do. Sometimes looking out for the safety of the riders means the job is a little tougher for the workers.

It is prudent to review your operating procedures regularly, even if incidents have not occurred and consider that even though you’ve been doing it that way without incident, there may be a safer way to do things. Not much had to change in the procedures at Mountaintop Rides; the horses just needed to be unclipped when the rider was mounted to have totally prevented this incident.

Fortunately, in this case, no one was seriously injured, no lawsuits resulted and the procedures were changed to keep the riders safer. But things could have been much different.


Extras in the Barn

By Polly Haselton-Barger

The Incident:

Big Tree Farm is a popular boarding facility outside of a large metropolitan city. They have about 40 horses boarded there, with half in stalls with runs and half on field board. It is an older barn, but is generally kept clean and neat. The horses are well cared for and the boarders are satisfied with how things are run. There is a lengthy boarders’ contract that includes such things as specific care issue (feeding schedule, vet and farrier care, bedding, stall care, etc.) as well as general release of liability verbiage.

Diane has kept her horse, Domino, there for two years. She rides dressage and hopes to show next year. She works with an instructor/trainer two times per week and both she and Domino are making good progress.

Domino receives full board and his stall has a small run attached to it. The stall door to the aisle way is a half door and he enjoys hanging his head out to check out the barn action. He is generally a well mannered horse and is well liked by the barn staff.

On this particular day another boarder, Anne, has brought a young neighbor she is watching with her to the barn. Bella, an eight year old, has not been around horses before and is very excited to see all of the horses. While Anne is talking to one of the barn staff Bella walks to Domino’s stall and gives him a pat on the face. His attention is focused down the aisle on the wheel barrow of feed making its way toward him, although it has stopped its progress while the feeder chats with Anne. Bella, wanting to make friends with Domino, grabs a handful of feed and holds it up to him. He eagerly reaches for it and inadvertently bites Bella’s fingers which were cupped to hold the grain. Although Bella didn’t lose her fingers she did required extensive stitches and some follow up surgery. 


Big Tree Farm is a well run facility with fairly knowledgeable staff. Diane is a good owner who has a professional working with both her and Domino. Domino is not an aggressive or ill-mannered horse. The problem arose when Anne brought Bella, a child who knew nothing about horses, into the barn and then failed to supervise her closely enough. Although many children might realize they shouldn’t feed any strange animal, an inexperienced child would have no way of knowing not to feed the horse with her fingers curled up. Bella was just being a child, just like Domino was just being a horse.

Many facilities have strict rules about their boarders bringing people to the barn unless they stay in a designated waiting area, or they have a signed waiver of liability. They also require strict supervision of children or other inexperienced people in the barn. Many facilities also have full stall doors so that the horses cannot hang their heads out into the aisle. This is especially important if people will be wandering through the barn area.

Fortunately for Diane, Anne and Big Tree Farm Bella’s parents chose not to file a lawsuit. This incident, however, clearly points out the importance of liability insurance, well thought out and strictly enforced rules of interactions between horses and the public and the importance of vigilance by everyone at all times in an equine environment.


Shoo Fly!

By Polly Haselton-Barger

The Incident:

Fair Valley Stables has a lesson program that serves approximately fifty students every Saturday. They have experienced and certified instructors, well cared for horses and a lovely facility. 

The outdoor arena was in the sun for the 3 p.m. lesson, and it was a fairly hot day in July. The class consisted of a group of eight intermediate riders, an instructor and assistant instructor. The plan was to have a lesson on the cloverleaf barrel pattern and all of the kids were excited. As they were waiting their turn in the corner of the arena, suddenly Princess, a very steady Quarter Horse, began to swish her tail violently. The instructor notices a large horse fly (Tabanus sulcifrons) on the croup and instructs the rider to reach back and smack it. The rider hit it, but it flew away. A few minutes later Sam, a very quiet Shire, began to swish his tail and bump up his hindquarters. The rider tried to reach the horse fly but her arm was not quite long enough. Sam got more and more desperate, and the rider soon lost her balance and fell off.

Fortunately all of the other horses stayed still, and the rider only had the breath knocked out of her. The instructors took all of the appropriate measures to handle the immediate situation, and then called the barn and requested more fly spray. All of the horses got an extra thick new layer of the fly spray in the hard to reach areas before the lesson continued.


Horse flies and Deer flies come in many forms, but the large ones can be the most difficult to deal with. They seem to know where exactly to land on a horse to avoid the swishing tail (right on the croup) and unless you smack them really hard they just fly away-either landing back on that horse or on another horse nearby. It is often difficult to get a rider to hit them at all, but it is almost impossible to get them to hit them hard enough to kill them. Horse flies will terrorize a certain horse and the horse may become increasingly reactive to the horse fly.

Horses have different levels of tolerance for these biting insects. Some horses, like Princess, react minimally, but some, like Sam, seem far more sensitive and become much more agitated. The innate gentleness and level of training don’t necessarily affect these reactions. The key is to know how each of your horses tends to respond and take measures to help prevent a violent reaction. Observe horses in their pasture, or during the feeding/grooming time to see which the more reactive ones are, then make a special effort to coat their hard to reach spots with extra fly spray. If you don’t want to use fly spray make sure your riders understand that swift action on their part is the only thing that will solve the problem. The horse fly must be hit hard enough to kill it, which is very hard. It is my experience that no matter how hard you smack a horse it will not react if it is at the site of a horse fly that is biting it. People are concerned about being bitten themselves when they swat the horse fly, but that doesn’t really happen as it is already feeding.

Preventing the buildup of biting insects, flies and horse flies is critical to the safety of people, the comfort of horses and good facility management. The larvae of Deer and Horse flies are semi-aquatic and are mostly found in shallow or moist soil along the edges of ponds, dug-out, small streams, and cattail areas of some ditches. They are strong flyers and can come in from great distances. If repellants or insecticides are used, some decrease in feeding may occur but many will still feed. The Horse flies lumber around you before they land and bite, while the Deer fly zooms in, circles fast and bites quickly. Specially designed fly traps are the best means to control large biting flies. 

Note: this information is from Spalding’s Fly Guide, which is a comprehensive guide to controlling flying pests around the barn. Call 800-714-0143 to receive a free copy.


Jumping Distances—An Accident Averted

By Polly Haselton Barger

The Incident

Diana is an independent riding instructor who travels to different barns giving lessons to people on their own horses. She loves her work and is much liked and appreciated by her students. She is an experienced teacher having taught for over ten years. Many of her students go on to successfully show.

One day she had a group jumping lesson scheduled for a family of five. Both parents as well as three children were in the group, with various levels of jumping experienced. They are all riding their own horses and ponies and are very familiar with their mounts. Dave (Dad) is a large man and is not very experienced with jumping. He has mainly ridden his Quarter Horse for pleasure trail riding, but is pleased to be joining his family for this activity. Annie (Mom), Alisha (12) and Justin (16) are all fairly experience riders and have been over fences in the ribbons quite a bit. Their horses include a Thoroughbred, a Sport Horse and a Warmblood. Julie (7) rides a Shetland pony and has been over a small cross rail. 

Diana arrived early to get the arena set up. She planned the warm up for an outdoor arena and then a move to the adjacent large indoor for the jumping. Knowing she had such different levels of jumpers she set up the arena with simple cross rails down one long side of the arena, verticals on the centerline and trotting poles down the other long side. Her plan was to have some challenging jumps for the more experienced riders, keeping the jumps on one wall low for the less experienced. She was very careful about the heights and difficulties of the jumps for the different rider/horses, but not so careful about the spacing for the differing lengths of strides. 

The Analysis

Normal average canter stride for most horses is 12’, but small ponies have an average 9’, medium ponies 10’ and large ponies and lazy horses 11’ and when moved to an indoor arena these can become shorter. Trotting poles are normally spaced 4-4.5’ apart, but once again different sized equine have different striding at the trot.

When both Dave’s rather lazy Quarter Horse and Julie’s small pony both stumbled on the trotting poles, this reminded Diana that spacing needed attention. She was able to quickly change the distances between the cross rails to accommodate the less experienced riders on the shorter strided mounts, thus minimizing the chances of them stumbling at the jump. Those fences then also became a challenge in rating for the more experienced riders, since they would need to shorten the strides for their horses.

Teaching jumping to a group like this can be extremely challenging, and great care must be given to having the difficulty, height and spacing of the fences such that it will be safe for everyone in the group, as well as challenging for the more experienced riders.

You can find great information with helpful charts in Designing Courses and Obstacles edited by John H. Fritz. Special thanks to CHA Master Instructor Jo-Anne Young from Houghton, NY.