Basic Horse Handling (Book Excerpt)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from Understanding Basic Horse Care by Michael A. Ball, DVM. This book is available from

Always think in terms of safety first when handling horses -- safety for you, the horse, and anyone else in the general area.  Like it or not, horses are fight or flight creatures and can be unpredictable when faced with new people or surroundings.  With quick thinking and action, close attention to the horse's language, and some common sense, you can handle most situations safely. 

A close colleague once shared a saying to help me deal with university politics:  if there is going to be a battle, make sure the time, place, and person are worth it.  This applies well to horses, too.  For example, I was at the ring with a show hunter and needed to switch bridles.  The horse went bonkers whenever the leather straps got anywhere near the ears, even bolting and running away -- definitely not the time or place! So, I took the bridle apart and reattached it to the leather already behind the ears.  The moral here is that there are many ways to accomplish the same task and get it done somewhat correctly.  My preference is to avoid a fight with a horse if possible -- it keeps the whole process more fun.  

The Bare Basics

One of my first rules when working on a horse is to have a well-fitting halter in place and a correctly placed lead shank attached.  Being prepared for the unexpected -- the engine backfiring on a passing motorcycle, for instance -- can prevent an accident or even tragedy. 

If you want to tie up your horse, make sure it has been trained to tie.  If not, don't tie the horse and expect it to stand quietly.  You must be sure that the tie is solid, but will also break if a horse panics and pulls too hard.  Many of today's nylon lead shanks will not break, so use either a leather shank or rope.  In addition, you can tie the end of the shank to a loop of bailing twine or a plastic wire tie, which is affixed to the actual tie.  Be sure to choose sturdy objects to which to tie your horse.  I remember seeing one unfortunate horse running around the show grounds, scaring the other horses, with a wheelbarrow bouncing up and down between its legs -- a consequence of someone not thinking.

Lead shanks should be long enough (six to eight feet) to give you some room on the end of one if your horse acts up.  My preference is a leather lead with a long brass chain on the snap end. Be careful about letting the horse accidentally stand on the shank while grazing or walking.  Most horses will freak out when they pull back on it.  If a horse pulls back with you on the end of the shank, it is generally best not to pull back in return, especially with young horses that can have a greater propensity to flip over backwards.  Walk back with the horse and use voice commands to try to snap it out of whatever has triggered its flight.  It sometimes takes only a little of this action to get a horse back under control.  But if the horse starts to overpower you, let go.  Your own safety is important.  If this happens on your farm and all the horse will do is go for a gallop in the paddock, that's not so bad; but if you drop the shank at a crowded horse show, you might have to think twice about letting go.  

When approaching a horse, I like to let it think that it wants to come over and see me rather than vice versa.  I usually offer my hands and let the horse come over and check me out first.  After a few minutes of "making friends," I then will go about whatever I had intended to do.  This can make the difference between a horse that is interested in you and what you are doing and one that wants nothing to do with you. 

Horses are head-oriented animals so it is always better to approach them from the front as opposed to the rear.  The domesticated horse is a left-sided animal -- generally more accustomed to you working on its left side first.  Since horses are creatures of habit and routine, you make the least waves by doing things the same way or as close as possible each time.  Some horses don't seem to care, but most do.  For example, when grooming, always start on a horse's left side and work around its butt and over to the right side.  The same goes for leading a horse.  Most horses are trained to be led from the left. 

When turning a horse out to pasture, open the gate, lead it into the paddock, turn it around to face the gate, then let it go.  Letting the horse go at the gate while it faces into the paddock is a sure way to get kicked in the head sooner or later.  

Some horses do bite and like to do it.  When working on a horse that bites, you usually have two choices:  Stay out of range of the mouth, or if you have to be in range of the mouth, keep it on a short lead where you can maintain control over the head.  For horses that kick, you have the same first choice:  stay out of the way.  When grooming, always let the horse know where you are and where you are going. Total hands-on contact is best.  A blast from behind could occur if you suddenly grab or touch a part of the hind end.  Many people keep kickers at arm's length, which is actually the worst possible distance.  When a horse kicks, it winds up and lets fly.  During the wind up, the foot is not moving very fast and has little power behind it.  As the foot moves farther from the body, it gains power and speed, both detrimental to your kneecaps.  The place to be is close to the body, and the closer the better.  You are not fast enough to get away from a kick and what usually happens is that you position yourself where the force is the greatest -- behind the horse.  Also, the horse's kick is straight back most of the time, so staying to the sides can be safer.

When working with a horse, two is always better than one, right? Actually the two times I have been most severely hurt by a horse was because of my helper.  Rule one:  If the helper is holding a horse for you while you are doing something the horse is anxious about, the helper should keep his or her mouth shut (no gossiping with other people milling about) and pay attention.  Rule two:  The helper always should stand on the same side as the person doing the task so he or she can see what is going on and react quickly.  Rule three:  The helper always should be prepared to push the horse away from you if there is a problem.


About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

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