Two of the saddest words in the English language. After an accident, we tear ourselves apart thinking how we could have prevented it. If only I had seen...If only I had done...Yet, as horse people, we are surrounded by thousands of pounds of accidents waiting to happen. Just one horse taking exception can turn a day into a horror. While no one likes to contemplate tragedies, thinking about them beforehand can perhaps stop them from happening. To help you prevent injury to your horses, three safety experts give pointers on safety in the barn and show how to look at a barn to anticipate accidents, and tell how to prevent those accidents.
Space limitations preclude discussion of the equally important topics of possible injuries to people, fire prevention, or first aid after an injury.
The Virtue Of Paranoia
"I play devil's advocate," says Anne Donahoe of the U.S. Pony Club National Safety Committee. Two years ago, Donahoe had open heart surgery that put her on blood thinners for life. The experience changed the way she looks at horses. "I've been around horses since I was two and never, ever, thought twice about anything going wrong. Now I go into every situation knowing I can't get hurt. If I'm going to be doing this--if my doctor is going to allow me to do this--I always have to put caution first. It's put a whole new perspective on everything that I've done."
Donahoe works with young horses, so the potential for accidents is particularly high. "I don't take anything for granted. I am always staying in tune with what the horse's personality is, especially with the young ones. Before I used to just walk in and treat every single one the same."
Donahoe is a professional in anticipating hazards. In Corporate America, she had a career in contingency planning for business disasters, from medical, to kidnapping, to a building being destroyed. For dealing with horse facilities, her advice is to think, "If I were building my dream barn, what would I have to change?"
The Virtue Of Vigilance
"Every time you go in a stall, you should glance around and see if there is anything amiss," says Margie Margentino, Program Associate at Rutgers University in New Jersey. As supervisor of the New Jersey 4-H Horse Program, Margentino works continually with safety issues.
"In the 4-H, we try to instill safety awareness all the time. We work with the kids and teach them safe practice methods right from the start."
As part of her job, she visits 4-Hers' homes and sees a variety of set-ups. Margentino also works with horses as a judge and competitor in combined driving. In addition, she has written and published educational material about safety for the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, including "Accident-Proofing Farms and Stables" and "Fire Prevention and Safety Measures Around the Farm."
As a horse owner, Margentino understands that accidents can happen in the best-regulated barns. "I had one mare get caught on a feed tub. She ripped her eyelid on a feed tub that had been fine in the morning. She must have backed up against it during the day, and it cracked, and she caught her eye. That was the only thing we could think of that she did it on. Luckily it wasn't serious."
Margentino stresses the need to keep looking for potential problems. "When you're cleaning the stall is the ideal time to glance around. It doesn't take long. Just make sure everything's in line, nothing's been knocked down or knocked out of place."
The Virtue Of Preparation
"The best way to prepare for emergencies, and perhaps the best first aid, is to try and minimize the risk of accident, injury, and disease," advises Michael Ball, DVM, in his book on emergency management. In addition to standard safety measures--such as carrying a well-stocked first aid kit--Ball recommends talking things over with your veterinarian well before an emergency arises. What are your veterinarian's emergency procedures? Who will be covering if your vet is out of town? What should you do if your vet is tied up in another emergency on the other side of the county?
"It is always good to have a back-up source of care," says Ball. "Consult with your veterinarian on advice for what to do if these situations occur."
Ball also recommends solving transport issues well in advance. If your horse needs to go to an equine hospital, "2 a.m. is not the time to organize transportation!" Do you know which hospital to go to and how to get there? Have a map, detailed directions, and phone numbers ready to go with the driver. If you do not have a horse trailer, make sure you have a plan for one, whether commercial or through friends. If you do own a trailer, have a back-up plan for when your diesel engine decides it's too cold to start or the tire is unexpectedly flat.
"The goal is to lay awake at night thinking about how all sorts of accidents can happen, and then take the necessary action to prevent them--that is if your ulcer doesn't get you first," says Ball with a knowing smile.
Barn Injury Safety Tour
At your front door, decorative shrubs should not block the door or prevent the door from opening fully. Keep an eye on these, as once well-contained shrubs can grow into roadblocks over time. All shrubs on the grounds should be non-poisonous to livestock. Think of all the places a loose horse might go and what he might munch on.
Any doorways through which a horse passes should be at least four feet wide and eight feet high. Naturally, this depends on your stock. If you breed draft horses, you need to increase the dimensions. If you have ponies, you have smaller spaces. Measurements given here should be appropriate for the average Thoroughbred or warmblood facility.
A narrow doorway could catch a horse's hip, causing a fracture or dislocation. Part of your saddle or a hanging stirrup leather could catch on the doorframe, causing the horse to spook. In the real world, we often make do with less than ideal circumstances. If you must lead horses through a narrow door, be extra conscious of your horse's sides as you pass through, and do not lead a horse wearing tack though that particular door. Even doors that are wide enough need to be free of sharp edges or projections that could catch a flank, blanket strap, or piece of tack.
Ceilings should be high enough to give clearance to a rearing horse, at least eight feet, but 12 feet would be better. Floors should provide traction, dry or wet. Hard-packed dirt can be surprisingly slippery when wet. Consider rubber mats for high-traffic or grooming areas. Wooden floors need to be continually inspected for rot.
The walls along the aisles should be tidy and as free of clutter as possible. If items must protrude into the path of traffic--we all have hose racks, tack trunks, and blanket racks--they should not be at the main door or in the way of stall doors. Hoses should be rolled up to keep from tripping human and equine feet. Designate an area for pitchforks and wheelbarrows, then keep them there when not in use. Blankets should be hung up immediately after taking them off a horse. A blanket heaped on the ground is an invitation for a hoof to get tangled.
Doors to feed or tack rooms should be recessed to prevent a strap or a stirrup from getting caught on the doorknob.
Lights should be high enough to be out of the way of a rearing horse. Fixtures should be covered by cages with metal bars and a dust- and moisture-tight, heavy glass or plastic globe, for when the horse rears into it anyway. Covers on the lights are useful if the bulb explodes.
Look for and destroy wasp nests. The most placid school horse will go ballistic when stung.
Cross-ties should hang out of the way when not in use. When in use, they should not hang low enough to allow a dancing horse to get a foot across. Consider panic snaps at one end of your cross-ties. One school of thought recommends the panic snaps be connected to the halter so that when turned loose, the horse is not dragging a length of cross-tie weighted with a panic snap at the end. Another school puts the panic snap near the wall since a horse in a panic is not easy to get close to. Wherever you put panic snaps, test them periodically. A single piece of baling twine can also be used as a breakaway spot in cross-ties. This can be cut with a knife it if doesn't break first. A horse can flip over in cross-ties that do not break. Ball estimates that, "At least five times a year I treat a horse--especially a young horse--that has been injured due to flipping over on cross-ties that either don't break or break with great difficulty."
Ball continues on the subject of tying. "Learn how to tie a horse properly. People love rubber bungie cords, but if they stretch before breaking, the snap can fly back with such force it can pop an eyeball. I like to tie a piece of breakable twine on both the horse end and the wall end and not use anything that will be elastic."
If you tie with quick-release knots, make sure they do release, even after a horse has pulled the rope tight.
Doors need to be wide enough for a horse to pass through safely. Latches should slide flush with the doorframe. The protruding end of a sliding latch is a prime attacker of flanks. Both latches and sliding doors should continue to slide easily over time. Do not get complacent about a latch that no longer goes all the way back or a door that sticks when opening. One day you might need to get through that doorway quickly.
Examine stall walls for changes over time. Boards can rot and weaken. Fighting horses can loosen the partition between them. Nails can work their way out, or a chewer can eat down the wood around a nail. Nails and other sharp objects can cause lacerations.
Nails are particularly a problem with temporary stabling. No matter how nice the facility, your stall might have been used as a tack stall. In the first days of a 200-horse show, Ball says he will treat two or three horses for trailer- and stall-related injuries.
Back home, your stall flooring needs to promote drainage, otherwise bacteria could flourish, leading to thrush or pneumonia. A formerly level, or properly sloped, floor can change as the horse paws under the feed tub, stamps at the door for dinner, or urinates repeatedly in the same place. Margentino is a strong believer in rubber mats. She recommends that if you cannot afford them for the entire stall, consider them for areas that get heavy wear.
Stall windows should be covered with bars or screening and made out of safety glass or plexiglass.
Although your horse spends most of his time upright, examine the stall for potential hazards when he rolls. Horses which become cast either are placid and wait for help, or, in most cases, begin thrashing and banging against the floor and wall. This can cause serious injury to the horse, and to any humans who try to intervene. Make sure that your stalls have a casting grove, rail, or other system to help your horse "get a grip" and push away from the wall.
Casting is another reason to keep the stall floors level. If he is cast against the door, can you still open it? Will a flying hoof catch a bucket or hay rack? Could a foot get stuck between the bars of the wooden partition or in the partition itself if you have a pipe corral?
Margentino uses canvas hay bags instead of hay racks. A hay rack that is high enough to keep a foot from getting stuck while rolling often is so high that dust from it falls into the horse's eyes. However, hay bags require maintenance, as Margentino explains: "Hay bags should be cleaned or emptied on a regular basis to prevent build-up of chaff and other debris that sometimes is found in even the highest-quality hay. This action helps prevent food/soil-borne illnesses such as botulism."
Hay nets should be hung so that a horse cannot get a foot caught. Even ones hung high enough initially might get too low as they empty. Buckets and feed tubs should be secure to the wall. They should be hung high enough to keep a horse from planting a foot inside the bucket during the normal course of events, such as pawing or fighting. Make sure there is nothing to catch a blanket or halter, if you choose to leave either on in the stall.
Ball points out buckets and snaps are especially hazardous, since "the sharp stuff is at eye level when the horse is drinking or eating. Buckets hanging with several different types of snaps can cause bad eye and nose lacerations. Many of these can be made safe by turning the snap around so the clip part is facing inward." All snaps should release quickly at both ends.
As in the aislesways, lights should be in cages and out of reach of active horses.
If you hang a stall toy, hang it from a single cord. A loop of rope is an invitation for a horse to get stuck. Margentino also recommends panic snaps for anything that hangs.
All of the above applies to the washstall, with the addition of watching out for the water. Floors must be non-skid when wet. Standing water leads to mold in the summer and ice in winter time. Panic snaps are more likely to rust with constant exposure to moisture. Lights need to be covered so that stray water does not hit the bulb and cause it to explode. Electrical outlets for clippers or vacuums need waterproof covers.
Equipment in a wash stall should be kept to the required minimum. Treat the space as a work area and not an extra closet. Keep shelves for brushes and shampoo high enough so that a shifting horse does not hit the shelf with his hip. If hitting the shelf does not cause him to spook, something is bound to fall off that will.
Be extra careful of the hose. "I've seen horses start to panic in wash racks, then they get the hose wrapped around their leg. It turns into a real scene when they start pulling the pipes off the wall," says Margentino.
In addition to the concerns for a stall, a run-in shed is subject to erosion. Over time a gap can form between the shed and the ground that could catch a leg.
The entrance to a shed depends on the stock. Two horses which get along can manage with a six-foot entrance. Otherwise, the shed should have an open front or two entrances, enough space to allow two horses to leave in haste when the boss wants in, or to prevent a horse from getting trapped and beaten up by an unfriendly herd mate.
Examine fence lines for loose wires or broken boards, and repair them immediately. Remove fallen branches and tree stumps. Horses collect puncture wounds in the oddest places from the most unlikely objects. Ball estimates that each year he sees "at least a dozen with some sort of laceration related to something they were hung up on in the pasture--wire, pipes, nails, staples."
Water tubs and feed buckets out in the elements can break down and develop sharp bits faster than stall buckets.
Drain pipes can have sharp edges or develop them over time as the ground around them erodes. Examine every inch of a new pasture. Ball admits that even veterinarians are not immune to oversight. "Sometimes we do so many things with horses without thinking them through, it's a wonder we don't have more disasters," he said. "Once, I was turning a yearling out in a paddock that had been used for many other horses. This was the first time I had turned a horse out in this particular paddock, and frankly, I just assumed (Lazy? Stupid? Costly? Yes!) that it was an OK paddock without making an inspection. Well, the yearling ran straight to the center of the field (as if drawn there by some "Close Encounters" type force), pawed twice at an exposed drainage pipe, and severely lacerated her leg."
"The cleaner the barn the better," says Donahoe. "I'm a neat freak." Less junk around the barn means less stuff to cause accidents and less to get in your way when an accident does happen. A simple plastic bag from your lunch could fly into a horse's face, causing him to spook, or slide under his feet, causing him to trip.
Cultivate good work habits. Put all equipment--from blankets and halters to pitchforks and muck buckets--in their proper places. Imagine cleaning a stall, putting the pitchfork down in the stall to answer the phone, getting detoured, and having someone put a horse in the stall before you get back.
Fear is not necessarily your enemy. A healthy dose of imagination combined with a touch of anxiety will help you envision and prevent accidents. Turn "If Only" into "What If."
About the Author
Katherine Walcott is a freelance writer living in the countryside near Birmingham, Al. She writes for anyone she can talk into paying her and rides whatever disciplines she can talk her horses into doing.
POLL: Emergency Evacuations