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Safe in the Saddle and on the Ground

By: Rebecca Sweat

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Horses are wonderful to be around, but they also can be dangerous. The average horse weighs more than 1,000 pounds – about eight times as much as the average woman. So when you're riding or working with your horse from the ground, you must be careful your horse doesn't accidentally injure you.

"People often underestimate the danger potential when they work with horses," says Sandy Arledge, a horse trainer and a breeder of American quarter horses in San Diego, Calif. "You have to exercise extreme caution around your horse and be aware at all times that this is a big, strong animal whose flight instinct tells him to kick or run away when he's frightened, and that can get you hurt very badly."

The most common types of injuries that occur with horses can be prevented, or at least minimized, by taking basic precautions and being attentive. Here are a few suggestions from professional horse trainers as to what riders can do to reduce the risk of getting hurt:

Dress Appropriately

Wear a safety helmet designed specifically for equestrians, not only when riding to protect your head in case you fall, but also while working with your horse on the ground to protect yourself if your horse kicks you. Always wear leather riding shoes or boots when you're with your horse to protect your feet and toes in case your horse steps on them. Avoid wearing sneakers, sandals or open-toed shoes.

Leave big rings, necklaces, bracelets, hoop or dangling earrings at home. "If you wear jewelry, it could get caught on your horse's tack when you're riding and you could end up losing an ear lobe or a finger," Arledge warns.

Tread Carefully in the Stall

When you approach a horse who is loose in a box stall, speak to him first so that he turns and sees you coming before you enter his stall. Try to get a feel of whether the horse is comfortable with you being there. "Nothing is more unnerving than being stuck in close quarters with a horse who dislikes you," says Audrey Bray, a horse trainer in Seminole, Fla.

After you enter the stall, stand between the horse and the door so you can make a quick getaway if necessary. Don't allow yourself to become wedged in the back corner where the horse is between you and the door. When you enter the stall to clean it, Bray recommends you catch and halter the horse and tie him up before working in the stall so you have some control.

Keep Lead Lines Loose

Never wrap the lead line around your wrist when leading your horse. "If the horse spooks over something and pulls back or takes off, he'll drag you with him and you could end up with rope burns, cuts or in a worse case scenario, your hand or a finger could get pulled off," Arledge cautions. The safest way to lead your horse, she says, is to hold the part of the rope near the horse's head with your right hand, with the loose end in your left hand. Don't get too lazy about holding the rope, letting it dangle on the ground or hang loosely. This will teach the horse that it does not need to pay attention. He may drift away or spook with dire consequences. Not all horses are perfectly ground-tied at all times.

Tip-top Tack and Equipment

Always inspect your tack before riding. Make sure the stirrups and buckles are fastened tightly. Check the saddle for cracks or signs of excess wear and tear. Bray says, "Be sure all tack is properly cared for and examined before using, so that the straps and buckles don't break unexpectedly while you're out riding." It doesn't take long to do this, and it could save your life. It's also important to clean and condition your saddle after you use it to prevent it from becoming dried-out and brittle.

Saddle Precautions

When out riding, choose quiet roads and trails that are designated for horses. Stay away from busy roads; horses often get nervous in high-traffic areas. Avoid unfamiliar fields or wooded areas where holes or obstructions may cause your horse to trip and fall. According to Bray, "Even if you are riding on an established trail, be extra careful on your first ride so that you and your horse can get a feel for the terrain."

Be tuned into your surroundings so you can forewarn your horse of vehicles, other horses, cyclists and people in the vicinity. This will aid your horse, who may not see things like you do. Horses have a unique visual system in that focusing is achieved by moving the head up and down, thus changing the angle of the eyes to the ground. As you have control of the head-neck angles from the bridle, you may inhibit the normal focusing mechanism. If the head is not allowed to move freely up and down, things right in front of the horse might seem out of focus, or "jump out" at them. In addition, the wide separation of the eyes provides the horse with a tremendous peripheral vision, which can be distracting and add to the spookiness of things coming from the side.

If you're out riding and you hear an approaching semi truck, turn your horse around so he can see what's making that loud sound. "Any kind of noise coming from behind could spook your horse and cause him to take off running," Arledge says. "If you allow him to face what is coming, he won't be so afraid."

Riding at night is fun but there are obvious safety hazards. Horses can run into things, fall into holes, spook at night sounds and get bitten by snakes that come out after dusk. If you're going to ride at night, take an experienced guide that knows the area and don't get so far away that you can't get back. Make sure you have a means to contact someone in case of injury, like a cellular phone.

Finally, use the same common sense you apply to any sport – try to ride with someone else, bring plenty of water, and keep your head out of the sun. Bug sprays applied to you and your horse will also make it a safer, more enjoyable ride.

Don't put you and your horse in situations where there's a chance either of you could get hurt. By taking these basic precautions, you and your horse can enjoy a safe and enjoyable riding career together.

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