Safe Horse-Handling Techniques
by R. D. Scoggins, D.V.M., Equine Extension Veterinarian, University of Illinois
Horses are large, reactive athletes. They can seriously
harm people when trying to escape a perceived danger. Horses
and humans don't see the world in the same fashion. As a
result, situations that humans don't see as dangerous could
appear very frightening to a horse.
Horses are naturally claustrophobic (fearful of tight
places). Their eyesight is designed to detect motion or
potential danger, and they are afraid of sudden movement.
Horses are also neophobic-afraid of new things or new
situations. Because of horses' phobias, humans need to be
alert and aware around horses all of the time. The horse
doesn't jump on you because it's being silly; often it's
because the horse's natural instinct overrides its learned
respect for the human.
Always carry a rope or rope and halter when you are
around horses. When the horses become accustomed to seeing
it, they don't only associate a rope with being caught.
Because most horses are handled primarily from the left
side, it is usually safest to approach horses from the left
side. When two people are grooming or tacking or doing
another procedure on a horse, it is best for them both to be
on the same side. Then, if the horse is startled, it can
move away from both without running over anyone.
Approach horses at an angle between their head and
shoulder, not straight towards their face. Rub the neck,
then place the halter or rope around the neck. Teach the
horse to lower its head and allow you to tip the head and
neck to the horse's left. If you are not standing directly
in front of the horse, the horse is less likely to run over
you if something startles it.
Avoid tying horses and especially avoid cross ties until
you have received specific instructions and are sure the
horse is foolproof to tie. Tying horses should be done with
equipment that won't break; tie it higher than its withers
to something that won't break or move. If a horse is
frightened and breaks loose, it may never again be
dependable to tie solidly the rest of its life.
Horses that tie well, lead well. If a horse won't lead
up on a loose line with little or no pressure, don't expect
it to tie. Teach the horse to lead freely first.
Windy weather, concrete floors, or a hard surface,
especially if the horse is shod, will increase the risk of a
horse becoming nervous. If other horses in a group become
upset or restless, the herd instinct tends to cause them all
to become restless or upset. Handle the horse so that it
wants to trust and respect the human. It will gradually
learn to ignore what's going on around it.
Horses should be tacked up (saddled and bridled) on a
surface with good footing. A hard surface (concrete)
increases the risk of the horse panicking if it slips,
swells up against the girth, or is being troublesome to
bridles. A tight cinch and hard slick footing is an
invitation to a wreck. The horse may flip over backwards or
rear and buck because the slipping frightens it.
Lead horses with some length and slack in the lead. The
horse needs to pay attention to the leader and where both
are going. It is work! If the horse is attentive, it will
be less reactive to other stimuli in the environment. The
better horses handle on a lead line, the better they will
ride. The two don't seem connected, but they are.
When leading horses over grass, don't allow them to graze.
Horses that eat grass on a lead line soon start doing it
when ridden. They also start leading the leader by dragging
them to where the grass is. Get in the habit that when the
halter and lead or the bridle is on, eating is not
When riding, be sure tack fits. Ill-fitting bits or
bridles cause horses to toss their heads and fight the bit.
Loose cinches allow saddles to slip and may cause a fall.
If the saddle slides under the horse's belly, it may result
in a real wreck and cause the horse to be unsafe in the
Horsemanship is an athletic event and should be coached /
taught like any other sport. Because of the risk of injury,
riding should be supervised by someone experienced and
skillful at handling horses.
Safety equipment, including helmets and boots, should be
used. Riding in sneakers is dangerous. More serious
injuries occur from falls from a horse's back than from all
other athletic activities combined. Serious head injuries
and broken limbs are too common.
Most handling techniques are better demonstrated than
described. Numerous videos and clinics are available that
show safe horse-handling methods. View and discuss these;
then, pair off and practice with a partner. Trade off and
critique each other until practice safety becomes a habit.