Photo: Erica Larson, News Editor

Suggestions from veterinarians, a farm manager, and a large animal rescue ­instructor on what to do to make your farm—and keep your horses—safer.

"Horses are accidents looking to happen" is an old saying around the barn. So how do you create the safest possible environment for your horses? First, remember you get what you pay for. When you equip your farm or pay board for your horse's living arrangements, investing in farm safety procedures can save a lot of expense and headache. Here are some tips to help you.

Confining Spaces

As flight animals, horses tend to disregard their confines when frightened or when squabbling among themselves. One important means of avoiding injury is to consider the state of all fencing, latches, walls, and doors.

Jennifer Feiner, VMD, of Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington, Ky., collaborated with Brent Wilson, manager of Pin Oak Stud in Central Kentucky, to offer the following safe confinement suggestions:

Double fence along perimeter roads, and make rounded corners in paddocks when possible so a horse doesn't get pinned by pasturemates.

Fence posts should be well-embedded into soil or reinforced with concrete and should be sturdy enough or braced to resist horses pushing on them. Fence height of at least 4½-5 feet (withers height) lessens a horse's motivation to try to jump a fence and prevents a horse from accidentally flipping over a low fence if he approaches it at speed. The bottom fence rail or wire should sit 8-12 inches above ground to lessen chances of hoof entrapment, yet that gap should not be spacious enough for a horse to reach beneath for tasty morsels. It helps to run electric wire or tape inside fence perimeters to keep horses off fencelines. If T-posts are used to install temporary electric fencing, cap posts to reduce the risk of injury. Avoid using barbed wire whenever possible.

Avoid the use of metal siding on run-in sheds, or at the very least check regularly that it (and metal roofing) is secure and flush with the building so there is nothing to snag and lacerate a horse.

Feiner suggests using secure latches to keep horses confined: "I like the pin-and-hole style for stall door security. On outside gates use a two-latch system--one latch with a chain around the gate." Gate bolts that stick through doorways or fences should be sawed off to safe lengths and edges rounded.

Fence off ditches and culverts in pastures when possible. If sharp culvert edges are accessible to horses, surround them with rubber tires. Store all farm equipment away from horses to avoid entanglement. Also, fence horses away from potentially poisonous trees (yew, red maple, Russian olive, cherry, and oak)--and be aware that horse necks have considerable reach across a fenceline.

Stall Safety

The risks stalls can pose are avoidable with planning. Many owners can vouch for how quickly a horse can injure himself in a seemingly innocuous space.

To avoid injury, Feiner urges facing double-ended bucket snaps towards the wall. All wiring should meet electrical codes, and Feiner recommends sheathing all electrical wires in metal conduit, even if wires are seemingly out of reach. Electrical outlets are best placed outside stalls, flush with the walls or encased in conduit and weather-proofed. Sufficient numbers of outlets reduce your need for extension cords. Cover all windows and light bulbs--broken glass hazards--with metal grills.

Metal strips along wall and door edgings prevent wood chewing, and regular inspection ensures they remain flush with wood surfaces. Stall walls constructed of splinter-proof and fairly unbreakable materials prevent injury to horses that kick. Check also for broken boards and for protruding nails in stalls and paddocks.

For stall flooring Feiner recommends #4-mix porous asphalt, a type of flooring used in new construction, noting, "It drains well, is softer than concrete, and is readily disinfected." Stall mats add padding to floors and prevent the development of deep holes in dirt floors. Mats should be impervious to urine or positioned for optimal drainage. A solid mat prevents hooves from tripping on overlapping sections. Feiner also finds that anti-casting strips and rails are inexpensive and give horses more leverage when getting up.

"High ceilings with mesh stall doors improve ventilation, while clean straw bedding cuts down on dust," Feiner comments. Doors should be a minimum of 4 feet wide, although 5 feet is ideal. She prefers sliding mesh doors that lock from the outside and stalls with exit doors leading to the outside for emergency evacuation.

Aisleway Safety

Aisleway hazards can be minimized with simple steps. Feiner recommends asphalt or interlocking rubber paver flooring to increase traction. She adds, "Contractor-grade water hoses avoid leakage that make aisleway floors slick."

Safety improves if aisles are at least 12 feet wide (14 feet is best) with level floors and everything recessed or flush with the walls.

Feiner notes the importance of removing clutter, which creates hazards and complicates evacuation: "Tack trunks, wheelbarrows, muck buckets, trash bins, vacuum, rakes, pitchforks, and shovels should be kept in rooms, not in the aisle." Open collapsible saddle holders only when tacking up a horse.

Safe Tying

Cross-ties are notorious for creating calamity and fatal injury if a horse pulls back, slips, or flips. Secure cross-ties to the halter with something breakable, such as baling twine, or a device that releases with pressure or turtle snaps. Many devices have been manufactured to improve safety when tying a horse to a solid object. A knotless tie ring, for instance, allows a horse to pull slack on the lead rope from any angle in the event of panic or a fall. While it is tempting to use bungee cords, the energy stored in their elasticity can seriously injure a horse or human should the bungee break as a horse pulls back.

Horse Handling

Safe handling of horses protects both humans and animals involved. Use a lead rope and halter at all times when leading horses--avoid shortcuts, such as leading a horse in from the pasture by holding the halter. Thin leather or "breakaway" halters are essential if leaving halters on horses in a pasture; remove halters when possible.

Feiner says, "Only experienced people should handle tough horses--use a chain on fractious individuals (under the upper lip or over the bridge of the nose, depending on the horse's individual response). Stallions and mares are best housed in different areas, and avoid leading a stallion past mares."

Feed and Water Considerations

Hay handling poses health problems if not done correctly. Feiner suggests, "Hay lofts tend to collect dust as well as trapping air beneath a low ceiling, so it is best to only bring enough hay inside for one week, with another site (hay barn) used for bulk hay storage." This hay storage should be set away from horse barns as a fire safety precaution. Stack hay on pallets, rather than on the floor, to reduce moisture that encourages proliferation of mold.

To prevent a case of grain overload in your horse, always store grain and supplements in locations inaccessible to horses that might escape from their stalls or paddocks. Feiner stresses, "Store grain in metal or hard plastic bins in a locked feed room rather than in paper bags or wooden grain chests, which are accessible to mice.

"Hay racks and hay bags can cause eye injury and pose risk of entrapment. Horses feeding at chest height also inhale excessive dust and particulates--it is safest to feed at ground level. This allows natural nasal drainage and minimizes respiratory irritation." Ground-level hay feeders also reduce waste and prevent feed contamination. Feiner recommends feeding stalled horses their hay on mats or shavings rather than a dirt floor; this prevents them from ingesting sand and dirt. Or, use ground protectors such as tire feeders or rubber mats to limit intake of nonfeed materials.

"Automatic waterers aren't great because they don't allow you to see how much your horse is drinking," says Feiner. "It is best to use freeze-proof tanks or any watering system that allows monitoring of intake." Clean water sources at least weekly and inspect daily. She adds, "Water tanks in fields and paddocks that aren't in use should be drained and spigots turned off. Eliminate sources of still water, like puddles, that tend to allow mosquitoes to breed."

Medication Handling

Every horse facility should have a comprehensive first-aid kit on hand, which might contain medications, needles, and syringes. You must keep these away from children and pets. Feiner insists all medications be stored in a locked cabinet or locked refrigerator. In addition, post a list of emergency contact numbers, including a poison control center, by each phone and/or by the barn entrance.

Biosecurity

To minimize spread of infectious disease, isolate all newcomers to the property in an area away from the resident herd, where there is no opportunity for direct contact, shared water, or shared feed. Feiner comments, "All new horses entering a farm should have up-to-date vaccination records and proof of a negative Coggins test within the past half year. ... Furthermore, quarantine these horses for two weeks to observe for signs of infectious disease, like coughing, nasal discharge, or fever."

Feiner prefers cement block barns with steel roofs for sanitation, ease of disinfection, fire retardance, and biosecurity. She notes, "Wood is impossible to disinfect thoroughly and promotes cribbing if a horse is prone to chewing wood."

Fire Prevention

Wooden construction leads to unstoppable fires, whereas poorly combustible materials--such as masonry or cinder block with metal or tile roofing--minimize the risk. Sheath electrical lines in conduit, use sand flooring or other noncombustible materials, coat wood surfaces with flame-retardant paint, and compartmentalize areas within a barn to lessen fire risk. Barns with adequate eave ventilation allow heat to escape with a reduced likelihood of rafter and hay ignition from superheating of the ceiling.

Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, an instructor of the nationwide training program Technical Large Animal Rescue, urges every ¬person at a facility to formulate and practice evacuation plans. Identify the presence and location of combustibles--such as forage, shavings, stall planks, and wooden roofs and walls. Store other combustibles (alcohol, cleaning products, oils used for feeding, clipper grease) in steel boxes.

"One critical safety consideration," stresses Gimenez, "is for fast exit from a stall through doors facing outside walls. Stalls that open only to the inside barn aisle deter rapid emergency evacuation."

Store a chainsaw or axe in an easily accessible location in case you need to create an escape route in an emergency. You should install locks on barn doors or stalls that can be unlocked quickly or cut with readily accessible bolt cutters. Doors and aisleways should be clear of obstacles at all times.

Gimenez recommends installing sprinkler systems, along with locating sufficient fire suppression materials (extinguishers, axes, dirt/sand), at various stations throughout the barn and ensuring barn personnel know how to use them. Special detectors signal the presence of heat or flame as they rise, whereas inexpensive smoke detectors can activate from air particulates and dust to give false alerts. Consult fire safety professionals for recommendations. Carbon monoxide detectors are valuable, as well.

Equip the barn with working fire extinguishers, and have the local fire department check each routinely, installing up-to-date tags. Gimenez stresses that implementation of fire mitigation strategies reduces insurance costs, improves safety, and potentially saves lives.

Take-Home Message

Advance planning before constructing fencing, paddocks, and barns creates safe conditions for housing horses. Farm safety also requires thoughtful human ¬behavior--don't be in a hurry. Haste can cause unnecessary accidents that are avoidable if you ensure safe practices to avoid mistakes. Consider every event--or potential event--on a farm carefully, as it will allow you to anticipate dangerous situations and explore safer alternatives.