Our weather is warming up across the Wasatch front and that typically means more outdoor activity and family adventure. If you’re thinking of taking your little ones to a farm for a spring break visit, stopping at a relative's pasture on Easter Sunday, or preparing them for riding lessons over the summer, there are several helpful tips that can assist in keeping everyone safe and happy;
1. Don’t startle the horse. Horses are prey animals, humans are predators. While youngsters may not comprehend this concept, it’s good for supervising adults to understand and remind the little ones that fast movements (running, jumping) and loud noises (yelling, screaming) can put the horses in a state of fright and panic. A panicking 1,000 lb. animal can be dangerous. Try to be calm when close to the horse.
2. Teeth are for biting. Horses are not mean, but they are relatively simple. They use their teeth to bite. If you put objects that appear edible (hay, apples, carrots, fingers) near the teeth, there’s a good chance they will be bitten.
3. Kicking is natural. Horses often kick when they run and play. Horses kick at each other if they feel their space is invaded. Horses kick if they are frightened or (see #1) startled, and if they feel they’re in danger in any way. Being large and powerful, their kicks can be extremely painful (or worse) when they connect with a human being. The height of the average horse kick is generally in the height range of the average child’s head. Keeping heads away from the kicking region of the horse is always recommended.
4. Horse hoofs can hurt you. While the hind feet are used for kicking, the front feet can paw (stomp) and it’s easy for even a non-kicking or non-stomping hoof to step on little toes. Weighing in at over 1,000 lbs., most horses are big and heavy. Being stepped on by an animal of this size is pretty painful. It’s best to avoid being stepped on.
5. Horses are fast. With their natural tendency to startle somewhat easily and that constant prey-animal awareness, horses are programmed to move swiftly. Anyone weighing less than the horse (which means most of us) can easily be bowled over should the horse jump sideways or, worse yet, run over you. Once on the ground, you’re closer to the feet, which (see 3 and 4) can be dangerous. Staying near the shoulder of the horse is usually a good place to be.
6. Be gentle with the horse. Horses, despite being pretty darn big, are also pretty sensitive. They can feel a tiny fly landing on their back! If petting or grooming (brushing) a horse, a light touch is appreciated. A calm touch can make the horse feel more safe and relaxed.
7. Know the warning signs. Horses can’t talk with words but they can say a lot with their bodies. The horse language is physical, and horses are always saying something. If a horse pins her ears, she’s warning you to stay back. If a horse swings his hind end toward you, he’s likely preparing to kick. A swishing tale might just be moving flies, but it can also mean the horse is getting annoyed. A horse that puts its head up in the air and makes a snorting noise feels threatened and may get excited or even a little aggressive. Pay attention to that warning because it’s usually only given once (after that the horse is likely to bite, kick or strike out).
8. Respect the friendly zones. If a horse is gentle and friendly and calm you may want to pet it. That’s great! There are areas where most horses like to be touched; up by their withers (the top of their back, near the shoulder) is usually a favorite spot and lightly stroking the neck (with a backward motion, toward the back of the horse) is nice, too. Most horses do not like to be touched on the face if they don’t know you very well.
9. Be alert but not nervous. It’s a good idea to be aware of how the horse is responding to you, to nearby activity and the general surroundings, but there’s no need to be nervous. A tense person will actually make a horse uneasy; they’re very aware of people’s emotions and easily interpret human nervousness as a reason for them to become jittery and uncomfortable, too.
10. Horses are health nuts. While it’s usually good to share with other humans, it’s rarely a great idea to share treats with a horse. Besides that biting issue, horses feel better when they stick to eating grass, hay and food that’s made just for horses. An occasional carrot or apple may be okay. Still, some horses have special health problems that might make digesting sugars dangerous (it could make them very sick), so not giving them snacks at all is usually the safest way to go.
Riding, grooming and playing with horses are terrific activities that offer the opportunity for a lot of fun! It’s even more fun when we all stay safe.