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Our Newsletter

2011 Incidentally Speaking

Driving 101

The Incident

Abby was the Equestrian Director at a summer camp for several years. The program consisted of riding lessons, horsemanship education and trail rides. It was a very successful program and had expanded to a year-round program. Part of the camp’s program included hay wagon rides, pulled by a tractor.

The camp administrators thought it would be nice if the hay wagon rides were pulled by horses instead of a tractor. They asked Abby to look into purchasing a team and harnesses, and since Abby had done some driving when she was a camper she thought she knew enough to proceed. She put the word out that she was looking and soon she was contacted by someone with a team to sell. They were beautiful crosses and had experience as carriage horses, as well as participating in the US Bicentennial wagon train. They were priced to sell at a significantly lower price than the other teams she had found.

Abby and the site manager, Bill, knew to give the horses plenty of experience on the site before they put any kids in the wagon. The horses were nice, although seemed somewhat excitable. They invited some friends out for the maiden voyage. While Abby and the site manager were behind the barn harnessing and hitching the team to the wagon their friends arrived with their dogs in tow. When the dogs came around the corner of the barn the horses spooked and took off. Abby was still on the ground next to the wagon, but the site manager leapt into the wagon to try to stop the team. Unfortunately the lines were not put back to the wagon yet, but still looped on the hames. To avoid getting crushed against the barn, Abby dove under the wagon, resulting in her leg getting run over. Fortunately the horses didn’t run very far, so Bill was able to jump out and go to the head of the lead horse and stop them. They were unharnessed for the day.

After a few more tries, with disastrous results, the horses were retrained as riding horses and went on to long and successful careers as lesson horses. The hay rides continued with a tractor.

The Analysis

This is truly a classic case of “ignorance is bliss.” Neither Abby nor Bill had qualifications in driving, selecting driving horses, how to safely harness and hitch or how to select a good location. Abby thought since she knew so much about horses that driving would just be another program she could manage. It never occurred to her that she might question why this team was so much less expensive than the draft teams. They did realize that horses needed to be acclimatized to a new situation and had a plan for that.

Abby should have told her administrators that if they wanted to have a horse pulled wagon that they needed to send her for some education on driving horses or hire someone qualified to run that activity. If that had been the case perhaps these particular horses would not have been selected; the first run would not have included friends, especially those who knew no better than to bring dogs; the wagon would not have been placed so close to the barn for the hitching; the lines would have been in the wagon; someone would have been heading the team during hitching and the team would not have learned that if they ran off they didn’t have to work.

Fortunately, Abby’s injuries were not too serious and the horses were successfully used in a more appropriate program for them. Just like with instructors, facilities might consider the benefits of certification. CHA now offers a Driving Instructor and Driver Certification (DIDC) which programs might consider. That way they will know if their driving staff is qualified for the job.


Keep Your Eyes Open and Your Jackets On!

By Polly Haselton Barger


It was a sunny day at Camp Horsaround and there were trail rides scheduled for the entire day. The program was a short, one hour ride that went around the edge of a field. Riders were given a demonstration that included trail rules, fitted with helmets, mounted, given a brief practice lesson on start/stop/steer and then sent out with two riding staff, one in the front and one out to the side. Things had been going smoothly, as usual.

The 3 o’clock ride was about half way around the edge of the field when one of the riders decided to take off her nylon jacket, as it was getting very warm. She had the jacket half way off with both arms still in it and behind her. Suddenly the horse she was riding spooked for reasons unknown (sound of the nylon, wild turkey in the brush?) and took off across the field. Because her hands were stuck behind her and not on the reins she had no way to try to stop the horse. As she began to lose her balance the horse began to buck and she went flying.

The ride was immediately stopped, the horse was caught and the staff radioed for help. Although the woman took a hard fall, she was fortunately not seriously injured. She returned to the main camp in a truck for treatment and her horse was ponied back with the rest of the ride.

The Analysis

Camp Horsaround has a very organized trail riding program which normally operates without a hitch. They follow many of the recommendations for trail riding-good demonstration and practice session, use of helmets, two qualified staff on every ride. As often happens some experiential learning took place here for the staff. Where it had not previously occurred to them to include in their pre-ride talk that you shouldn’t take your jacket off during the ride, they have now added that. In the pre-ride safety check now all riders are informed if they think they will need to take off their jacket it must be done before they mount. In fact, the side rider saw the woman start to take off her jacket, but it didn’t occur to her it would cause a problem. Now they know and include it in their staff training as well as trail rule list. The side rider should also have ridden in the back of the line to see the woman starting to take off her jacket sooner, hopefully in time to stop her.

They did handle the situation very well and followed up with an incident report as well as some desensitizing training for the horse. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict every single thing that could possibly happen, nor can you predict a horse’s reaction to something.


Inappropriate Staff Horse

The Incident

It was a bright, sunny day so Judy and her two experienced adult students decided to take a trail ride rather than work in the arena. Judy decided to ride Dallas, her ten year old Foundation Quarter Horse stallion, a well trained and very docile horse that she had taken out with these riders many times before. Just as they were finishing up getting their horses tacked, two of Judy’s younger students showed up early for their lesson. They begged to go on the trail ride also and since the women all thought it would be fine, Judy let them. She saddled up her trusty pony, Snickers, and one of the beginner horses, Bonnie. They set off after Judy gave instructions on what to do if any problems arose. The ride would stay within sight of the barn, so it seemed it would be a fun and easy ride for all.

Snickers’ rider was having a difficult time keeping him from putting his head down and eating grass, so Judy decided to swap the two girls, putting the younger, less experienced girl on Bonnie and her sister, who was older and had more experience on Snickers. They continued on without any problems.

When the ride got within about 20 feet of a neighboring pasture horses suddenly came galloping up, whinnying and snorting. Bonnie left the ride and began trotting back toward the barn, but Judy was able to give the young rider instructions to get her stopped. She was not, however, able to get Bonnie to come back over to the rest of the ride, so Judy rode Dallas over to hook a lead rope onto Bonnie and lead her back to the group. As soon as Judy got the lead rope hooked to Bonnie’s halter, the mare began to flirt with Dallas, causing him to dance and buck. Judy dropped the lead, but was giggling because the bucking was so ridiculous. Suddenly Dallas began to rear, and went so high that he fell over sidewise, pinning Judy beneath him. The horses in the field began running again and Dallas went into his “protect my herd” mode, leaping up, jumping and bellowing, all the while with Judy under his feet.

Meanwhile, Bonnie went over to the other horses, and all of the riders dismounted, as per Judy’s pre-ride instructions. They watched, horrified, as Dallas appeared to be trampling Judy. He then ran over to the fence, lunging at the other horses in the field. Judy managed to stand up and hobble over to him. As soon as her hand was on his rein he dropped his head and immediately reverted to his docile, well mannered self. Everyone remounted and decided to ride back to the barn for a short arena lesson. Judy, although in significant pain, managed to finish up with the group. Judy had a painful recovery period and her students experienced nightmares from witnessing what appeared to be their instructor being trampled to death.


There were several places in this scenario where different decisions would have probably eliminated the incident. Judy could have told the younger riders that they needed to wait until their scheduled lesson. When the younger children were allowed to join the ride Judy would have been wise to switch her own mount to a horse she could assist the other riders from. If on another horse, Judy would have been able to easily pony Bonnie, if the rider needed her to. The lead rider or trail guide should always be mounted on a very reliable horse, in case they need to switch with someone or assist them.

Riding horses near a field of loose horses always has the potential for problems similar to this. Horses often want to see what is going on, so routing a ride into other areas away from loose horses might be a good idea. Although Judy’s husband was working on the roof at the barn, and heard yelling, he thought it was just Judy and the riders whooping it up and having fun. They had no cell phone or radio with them, so there was no way to call for help. No matter how close you are riding it is always a good idea to have some form of communication with you. It would have been better for Judy not to remount, but since they couldn’t call for help it seemed like the best and fastest way to return to the barn.

Any time a stallion is involved, no matter how well trained and reliable he seems, there should always be thought given to whether it is appropriate to use him around other riders. Judy had had Dallas for several years and had ridden him extensively, but as Judy said: “Hormones trump training.”

Pushed Too Far Too Soon

By Lynn Acton - CHA Instructor - Berkshire, NY

The Incident

Amy’s mother insisted that she participate in her horse club’s trail class practice, even though Amy did not feel that her timid bay mare Gracie was ready for such an event. With the help of a qualified instructor, Amy had built Gracie’s skill and confidence level to the point that they could enjoy a ring or trail ride with a few familiar horses, but Gracie was still easily frightened by new situations and strange horses.

The first activity, walking across a crinkly blue tarp, confirmed Amy’s fears. When asked to approach it, Gracie backed away, snorting. The more Amy urged her forward, the more frantically Gracie backed up, until Amy declared that she was not going to push her horse any more. The group leader, feeling that Amy needed the confidence boost of a success, instructed her to walk Gracie through the pattern of poles instead. When Amy explained that poles made Gracie nervous, the leader countered that the only way to get over being nervous about something was to “just do it”. With her friends adding a chorus of “Come on, Amy, you can do it!” Amy was embarrassed to refuse.

Despite her anxiety, Gracie demonstrated her trust in Amy by stepping carefully over a set of three poles, walking straight between the parallel ones, and halting neatly inside the “parking space” bounded on three sides by poles. When Amy asked her to back up, however, Gracie swung her haunches to the right, causing her right hind hoof to land on top of a pole. As the pole rolled under her foot, Gracie scrambled to regain her footing, spinning around in the process. Amy lost her balance and fell, landing hard on one arm. Gracie ran to the arena gate, which popped open as she leaned on it. Gracie raced up the driveway and down the road. An arriving boarder spotted the loose horse, parked her car in the middle of the road with emergency flashers on, and went to Gracie’s rescue. Although Gracie was uninjured, the blow to her confidence may take longer to heal than Amy’s broken wrist.

The Analysis

A secure gate latch, even a chain clipped around gate and post, would have prevented Gracie’s escape. Ground poles with a flat side to discourage rolling might have prevented Amy’s fall. But these issues are only the tip of the iceberg.

The underlying problem was that Gracie was pushed too far out of her comfort zone. Pressure to approach the tarp triggered her anxiety, which carried over to the poles, setting her up to panic when the pole rolled under her foot. Gracie’s reaction was that of any normal horse under pressure. In fact, she had made a valiant attempt to follow Amy’s instructions despite her anxiety. Amy’s only mistake was deferring to authority figures.

The real problem was the adults. It is one thing to encourage a nervous rider who wants to participate in an activity for which she and her horse are well prepared. It is quite another thing to pressure a rider into something that she does not feel ready for, or that she does not believe her horse is ready for. A sensitive rider feels the tension of a horse’s anxiety or frustration even if the horse is not overtly “misbehaving.” Riders should be taught to tune into their horses, and trust their own perceptions, even when observers do not see a problem. For Amy the best confidence boost would have been validation of her insights into Gracie’s behavior, and recognition of the tremendous progress she had already made with her horse.

The group leader also overlooked the crucial point that pressure provokes anxiety, and an anxious horse is not a safe horse. Horses learn best when new things are presented in small increments, and the horse is permitted to investigate without pressure. This stimulates the horse’s natural curiosity, and sets her up for a positive experience. For Gracie an appropriate introduction to the tarp might have gone thus: Watch from a distance as other horses cross the tarp; watch Amy walk across the tarp; then approach the tarp with Amy leading her on a loose leadline, allowing Gracie to decide when to move forward. Success should have been defined by how calm and confident Gracie was, not how close she got to the tarp. A successful introduction to ground poles might have led up to Gracie’s sniffing and stepping over a pole or two. That would have set her up to approach tarps and poles another day with more confidence in herself and in Amy’s judgment. As the incident transpired, the rolling pole and Amy’s fall only confirmed Gracie’s suspicion that poles are dangerous.

Horses and riders do not progress by being pushed into risky situations. They progress by building skills and realistic confidence in those skills. This process is different for each horse and rider, and cannot be rushed, however slow and unglamorous the progress might be. When success is defined by someone else’s agenda and time frame, then safety and reliability are compromised. When success is defined by what an individual horse and rider are ready for in the moment, progress is based on a solid foundation that promotes safety and reliability.