Safety and Being a Spoil Sport.

wm-nube-doorI’m a riding instructor. Wait, it’s worse than that. A riding instructor who has read the small print of her liability insurance, as if I didn’t feel responsible enough before. Beyond that, I’m certain that if one of my horses hurt someone, it wouldn’t be his fault and it would break my heart. Maybe literally.

My barn isn’t safe for kids. Wait, it’s worse than that. My barn isn’t safe for adults, whether they are city slickers or old hands. Come to think of it, it’s never been safe for the horses. I don’t mean to sound judgmental but I don’t think your barn is safe either.

A while back, the director of a riding program invited me to give a talk on safety to a group of good men who volunteered to help with handyman work on their farm. The director didn’t feel the men were taking her requests seriously. Among other things, they were bringing the horses in using an ATV and moving them at a breakneck speed. When the director asked them to slow down, they all looked at her like she was a whiny spoil sport.

I gave a strong presentation. I used examples and spoke intelligently from experience. Rules exist for reasons and I actually know those reasons. I made eye contact and sprinkled my talk with humor. They looked at me, the ones who stayed awake, like I was a whiny spoil sport. I get it.

Why is being around horses so complicated and tiresome? It’s the same look I get when I recommend that every rider wear a helmet, every ride. The look I get when I ask if a rider’s horse might have ulcers or if they’ve had a saddle fit recently. They tell me it’s just a horse, after all. I get it.

These things are inconvenient when we have time constraints and it all costs money that would be better spent on a vacation. Then, it’s my fault for being difficult when all they want to do is just ride. Oh, I really do get that.

It’s time for the annual reminder that horses are not dirt bikes. Or more poetically:

“The animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men.” ―Alice Walker

Horses are creatures of intelligence, great sensitivity, and instinct that has insured their very survival for centuries. Horses have physical requirements as complicated as any other wild animal, but are social and generally kind to humans. It makes horses can make appear more docile than they actually are–kind of like big stuffed toys.

Things come apart when a horse has a normal equine response that frightens or injures us humans. Then horses pay the price for our complacency, when it’s our responsibility to keep ourselves safe, and in that way, insure their safety and security, as well. Yes, I just said if we get hurt, it’s our fault.

I want you safe because I’ve been around long enough to know too many sad stories. I want you around to care for your horse into his old age, and maybe a couple of horses past that. I want you safe because our bodies are frail and standing around with that deer in headlights reality with a frightened thousand-pound horse will always be a losing proposition, even if you have to admit it in hindsight. And most of all, because there will never be a guaranteed kid-safe horse, or flawlessly secure barn, or totally predictable outcome.

And because sadly, we humans need to feel safe and sometimes we over-compensate, using bravado as a kind of false courage. Horses aren’t fooled.

It isn’t that we mean harm; we all love our horses. We like to show off or we fall into habits of taking shortcuts. We get distracted and lose sight of the big picture. Complacency is like gravity; it settles on us and makes us dumb to our surroundings, dulling our senses, and that’s when most injuries happen.

I understand how cool it is to stand next to a draft horse and call him Baby. Sometimes it can seem like throwing a leg around a saddle horn, laying on a horse bareback, or encouraging a horse come close and mug you, makes it look like you’re a horse whisperer in tune with the equine heart. I have to tell you–it’s the exact opposite.

Call me a whiny spoil sport. It’s my professional responsibility to look at a situation, imagine every horrible, crippling possibility for the horse and rider, while holding a light, positive thought for the best. But really, isn’t it just good horsemanship? Too many horses go to rescue or worse because we don’t hold up our end.

So a New Year reminder to stay focused and listen to your horse. If you don’t do groundwork, it’s time to start and if you do, freshen your focus. Know that he wants safe leadership most of all. Begin when you halter him, speak his language. Use your peripheral vision–your horse eyes–and be aware of your surroundings. Encourage good manners and reward him lavishly for every effort. Horsemanship boils down to what we give our horses, even more than what they give us.

Some of us are rule breakers by nature. We don’t like to do was we’re told. I’m at the head of that line myself. And some rules are meant to break. Common sense will tell you that when it comes to white breeches. But too many people are more concerned with the respect a horse shows them, than the respect they show the horse.

Perhaps consider rules as a way of demonstrating love for horses; a constant awareness of their dignity and a method for showing them respect for who they are and how they think.

And then we see them galloping with ears sharp, tails flagged, and hooves churning up the soil: Strength and sensitivity. Intelligence and timeless beauty. Even the most cynical people pause and stand a bit taller, just existing in the same world with horses.

In that light, treating horses like a fuzzy teddy bear seems outlandishly demeaning, doesn’t it?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro



Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Safety and Being a Spoil Sport.”

  1. Oh, dear. I saw myself while reading this. Not pretty. Great reminders to keep us all, two-legged and 4-legged, safe. Thanks, Anna!

  2. Fellow spoilsport here. 🙂

    When I have people here doing anything with my little herd of 5 (which used to be 6) I feel like an over the top control freak because of the rules I enforce. And then of course they witness me breaking the rules but what it seems impossible to get across to anyone is that I have spent years being with and listening to and observing these horses and even when it looks like I am in the midst of them relaxed and not paying attention, I AM. I am keenly aware of where the pony is in relation to Cody, who can be moved and sometimes quite suddenly by the pony’s bossy but sometimes almost invisible signal. I’m plugged into Keil Bay who though he would not intentionally hurt anyone, weighs about 1450 lbs. and if he brushes by you it can knock you down. I’ve been in the middle of the herd in the fields many times when they spooked, and with me standing there they spooked in place, in unison, but I spooked too, head up, my ears as forward as a human’s ears can go. I just don’t trust anyone to be able to walk into a herd of horses and know all the tidbits I have stored in my brain and my muscles over nearly 15 years.

    Sometimes though it’s my family members who are the hardest to manage. I have a lot of rules about how things are done and they regularly break them. A few weeks ago the rule that you never ever leave the door open to the hay stall not even for 5 seconds got broken. The pony seized the day to go in there, got his leg in a pallet, and dragged the entire pallet out of the stall and up and down the barn aisle in a flash of pony strength and probably panic. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt, nor was anyone else, but the pallet was torn to shreds. And it was a NEW pallet, not old and rotting! I think that got the message across, for now at least, that mom’s rules make sense.

    Happy New Year – I’m looking forward to many wonderful posts in 2017!

    • And knowing everything we know, we hold focus and mitigate possibles… and still make mistakes from time to time. Yikes.

      Great comment, Billie. I appreciate your point that familiarity (or family) breeds complacency. Thank you.

  3. I was out cleaning in my herd of 4 last week. Forklifts were off-loading new insulation for the barn. White plastic that covered the insulation was flapping. Uh oh – not white plastic! My 27 year old Arabian mare, Frankie, who was mostly sleeping, turned on a dime, kicked at me (threw mud down my sweatshirt (YUK) and bolted. I bolted for the nearest tree because I knew that the other 3 would instantly be in hot pursuit and indeed they we’re – heads up, ears up and tales flagged and at full gallop in the fraction of a second. Frankie’s old, beautifully trained and she’s still a horse who knows “white plastic” just isn’t right! (I confess part of me was smiling because the old girl’s still in there.)

    • You’re right, Susan. That’s just a good old girl having some fun. Glad you appreciated it from the tree. Glad that “horses be horses” and a burst of personality isn’t a crime! Great comment, thank you.

  4. I am an older (67) rider and get it now. I can’t believe how many decades my horses and I survived while I was being foolish. Your article made me feel intelligent instead of overly cautious. I needed to see it through another riders eyes. Thanks. Now back to enjoying my horse.

  5. Yet another great article, Anna. But I’m guessing, still people believe a horse is no more than a large dog! Boarded at two different barns when my horse owned me. The first was a hack stable(where my horse was a lesson horse) & boy, did I see far too many scary things done there – by the workers & by the very very inexperienced people who came there & TO the horses!. As in buses from down in the City (NY) that brought people out for a day of skiiing or an afternoon of going for a ride on a horse. And yeah – this obviously was in the winter. Sometimes we (other boarders & I) would go along on a ride – mainly to attempt to guard against accidents. Like someone deciding they didnt want to ride & getting off the horse & just leaving to go back to the barn. Or the worst kind of accident – runaway or falling off. As I said – learned far too much there. The second barn was super – the care was great & finally my horse was buried there after he was put down. There should (I say should) be experienced, caring people in charge at any public barn. Even then, theres no guarantee that someone wont get hurt. As Susan said above – “white plastic” just isnt right and there are so many other things that provoke the same response! Because they are prey animals. But I just love them all.

  6. Thank you for this reminder! After all these years, I still need to be reminded. I like the caution to see the world via our horse’s peripheral vision instead of our predatory forward vision. They see a different world than we.

  7. Hi Anna, it seems to me that you should make sure that each and every student you take on should read this piece! It’s so full of commonsense and could be eye opening to some! Over the years I’ve been harsh and soft, and everywhere in between, in dealing with my horses’ manners, but I learned that I could keep myself safer using clicker training, and have a lot of fun while using it. My baby Lusitano was very pushy at feeding time, and ever since starting clicker with him, he waits politely if I even so much as turn around and look at him, and will even back up further without any word from me. The fact that a horse can easily spook and run into you, or whatever, made me think just now that by giving a click (I use a tongue click) at the beginning of a spooky move, it could stop a horse in its tracks. I remember when my late Saddlebred, Comet, was just going under saddle, he started to take off in panic about something and I had the foresight to click, and guess what? He stopped dead! It’s just another tool. If I ever get a boarder here at home to keep Xino company, I would love to hand this piece to them to read. Okay with you?

    • You describe clicker training almost as a way to converse beyond emotion (too harsh or soft) and that’s good horsemanship: being in the moment and clearly communicating, clicker or not. Share away, and thanks for the great comment, Christina.

  8. Thanks, Anna. There’s something about clicker that instantly engages the horse’s brain (the knowledge of an immediate reward), and that’s why it works: it makes him think, or brings him back to reality in case of panic.

  9. Anna, thank you for the reminder — we all constantly need to review our handling activities.
    One of the areas that needs a reminder: when you are around horses, speak softly and with a low voice. All wild animals react to high-pitched, loud noises — it’s a sign of danger. Our last barn had a large sign posted: NO SHOUTING. It was there for the kids, but a reminder for adults as well.

    Treat all animals with respect and ask for respect. Nothing is ever achieved through force — nothing good, that is.

    Thank you, Anna, for your constant inspiration.


  10. I once got a reminder about complacency in my pasture, and have taken it to heart ever since.
    Y’see, I’m an amateur photographer who loves capturing the running, bucking, playing games that go on in my herd of 4. I *used* to do that while in the pasture…until my daughter’s big palomino mare went blowing past me one day, aiming a double barrel kick at her pal, our little bay mare, who happened to be running by on the opposite side of me.
    I am here by the grace of the Horse Goddess herself, because that big hoof just barely missed me (I felt the wind and the *snap* of that pally’s full extension) and left no mark.
    Mentally, I was a wreck…for several months after. It was the only time I had ever felt unsafe with my horses, and they were simply playing.
    It changed the whole way I work with them. I took a long time for me to get over the fear, but, I finally did and now, I listen better, I observe more, I’m insistent on good manners, both from humans and equines alike. And, I take pictures of the running, bucking, playing games from *outside* the fence now. 😉

    It was a hard (and truthfully, terrifying) lesson…one that I am a much better horsewoman for.

    • There’s something about having a camera to your eye that somehow makes you half-blind… or it does me. Glad you took the cue; it was just that close. Glad you’re still with us. Thanks for commenting.

  11. I really like this essay especially starting with the Alice Walker quote. I’m 71 and mostly very reclusive with my 3 mares because I have had my fill of people who don’t respect the sanctity of all life as well as the differences in normal behavior. Thank you for your sensitive writings.

  12. Your timing is uncanny. I got stepped on for the first time over………..30? years just last week. I’ve been sick the entire holidays. Luckily it rained a lot so I didn’t feel too cheated out of riding. Well I finally made it out to ride and of course I wasn’t yet 100%. It wasn’t Dooley’s fault. He was being led out of the grooming bay and being a good boy. I just didn’t move my own feet fast enough and there he went, right onto my right foot. Luckily he backed off very quickly and no damage done other than some sore toes the next day. I was raised around horses in England………you want to talk about rules go to an English barn LOL! But every one of those rules was for a darned good reason. It’s what has kept me safe for so many years around horses and will continue to do so. Thanks for the reminder Anna.

    • Yikes. I got a tune up on all this after my foot surgery. I have a foot full of screws and levers and fencing staples and the thought of getting stepped on has me focusing really well! (Sometimes I wish all of us grew up in English barns.)

  13. I get terribly frustrated by people who refuse to acknowledge how immensely dangerous a horse can be. Maybe it’s because I’m the height of a 12 year old girl, and I grew up working with slightly crazy eventing/dressage horses as a working student, but I have a deep respect for how quickly, and unexpectedly, they can seriously injure a person.

    I tried for years to get my husband to understand how powerful even a small horse can be. He consistently blew me off, thinking he could overpower or move faster. Eventually one of the horses hurt him and he’s had a much more reserved approach to them ever since. We’re lucky he was only bruised up and sore for a few days. He could’ve died.

    Why does it always take an accident for people to learn? Sometimes even that doesn’t do it.

  14. This is a wonderful post! I’ve always been able to see the danger in almost any situation which has been both a blessing and a curse, and I’ve always felt very strongly that all animals think, feel, remember and all the rest much as we do but in their own species specific and individual ways. I’ve never entirely understood the people who dress their pets up like humans or baby talk them to death. Anyway…

    I love being around horses but I’m always on a sort of alert status around them- not tense, just watchful and trying to be observant not only of them but everything around us. This has saved me countless times- and saved the horses, too, from completely unnecessary danger and injury. So many folks think their pets of any size are perfectly safe to be around and forget that even the gentlest of little animals can wreak havoc on us at a moment’s notice when they’re frightened, sick or otherwise prompted by their genetics to act out for whatever reason. When that animal outweighs you as much as ponies and horses do even the most casual of mistakes can result in serious injury or even death. I so appreciate that you post about this subject and that so many of your readers take this seriously. It’s always the animals who suffer for our lack of awareness or lapse in focus and that’s just a really bad thing for everyone.

      • Oh, absolutely! I aim for the same awareness and caution with humans as with other animals- but being human I’m a bit blind now and then. 🙂

    • OUTSTANDING essay, Anna, and lots of excellent comments but Ferlonda, I like yours the best. I try to always be observant and not complacent around all animals but especially horses, since as you both note they are large. Their sheer size and weight means they can hurt us in a flash without meaning to, at all. And if they DO aim to injure after being scared or provoked – forget it, we puny humans are at a huge disadvantage.

      Being safety-conscious doesn’t mean trying to ruin anyone’s good time, including our own. It just means including self-preservation in the equation. You can still have a wonderful time with horses while also taking care that you (or they) don’t wind up injured or sick. This is for everyone’s good….

      Like mom said, “It’s always fun until somebody gets hurt.” Keep it fun but keep it SAFE and the fun will last longer!

      • My mentor used the same quote you mom did… and again, what if we saw this as respect for the horse? Self-preservation isn’t being a weakling, it’s common sense. Great comment, thank you.

      • RiderWriter, thank you. 🙂 I’m really kind of excited to have been directed to this blog and all you intelligent, kind humans!

  15. As temperatures begin to plummet, the hardware (6 inch titanium plate and 8 screws) in my left arm becomes an achy heat sink. The hardware was courtesy of an preventable incident – on the ground, in a stall, caused by a jumpy and impatient instructor. My horse shifted quickly. I was between him and the wall, and the instructor who spooked him slipped around behind, so no exit there. I was smashed between the stall doorway and horse, and my arm made the sound of a champagne cork as it snapped.

    I had expressed the desire not to ride that morning’s clinic session but work on the ground instead, and allowed myself to be coerced – there was a schedule to keep to. My horse was out of his skull from having been put on October grass (he hadn’t seen pasture for years) even though I had requested and been promised a stall. (He came up with raging digital pulses the next morning) Two people in a stall with a wiggly horse – why?!

    I learned a very, very expensive lesson that day.

    • I’m so sorry; that was a costly lesson. And this situation where there is a clash of time and horses and people…I guess for lack of a better term, I’ll call it peer pressure… I have come to really hate situations like that. Too many times they end badly. Why is it so hard to say no? I’ve gone along when I knew it was wrong, but not paid so high a price. Thanks for sharing this with us. It was a no win/ no win for sure.

  16. One reason I love being around horses is that it shuts down my “monkey mind” and keeps me alert and in the moment. Also, horses have given me the gift of slowing down.

    Thank you for this essay, Anna. Always a joy to read your writing.

  17. Thank you Anna Blake. Well said. Needed to be said. First rule about being around horses: “No one gets hurt”….??

  18. Yeah. I’m such a bitch. I spent all of last month at a new barn (winter boarding) getting pushed around and bullied by the three horses who were pastured with my horse or whose pasture I had to pass through to get to her. (Passing through multiple, difficult gates with frozen fingers) At the end of the month I spoke up, said this was not acceptable. My horse has great manners. It’s not fair to her or me to have to go through 10 minutes of bullying every time I come to ride. (Six days a week) I was …. belittled. Told maybe my trainer could spend some time teaching me some basic horsemanship skills. (Really? It’s not my horse that’s the problem!) I was told I could throw the other horses some hay to distract them. (The logistics of that was beyond ridiculous, not to mention that it didn’t work.) When the barn owner watched my trainer and I going through the paddock ordeal her comment was that the issue didn’t seem “That bad.” Right. On that day with two people managing gates and loose horses … a luxury I don’t have because I’m (always) there at a time where there’s nobody around to help. After beating myself up mentally I finally put my foot down: MOVE MY HORSE. Put her in a paddock where we won’t get threatened by three horses every time we come and go. Move her or we leave. Now. Because I’m 60 with a trashed back and a well-behaved horse who doesn’t deserve to get bit and kicked while she’s waiting for me to wrangle two gates open. Move her because I’ve been doing this dance since I was seven and I know stupid and dangerous when i see it. And thanks a bunch for making me feel like I’m one of “those” boarders.

    • Oh jeez. The idea of having to lead a horse through pens is a bit crazy, but I confess it happened to me back in the day. It isn’t really a horse problem at all, is it? When did safety become a bad thing? Oy. At the same time, great comment. Good job of sticking up for your horse. Thanks, Cheryl.

    • You & your horse deserve better; I’m glad to hear that you put your foot down. This is one instance where I might have been tempted to use my age to my advantage and scold me some dumb bunnies!

  19. Thanks, Anna. I’m back to having horses after a 25 year break and I’ve enjoyed picking up where I left off — for some habits — and developing new ones, too. My youth in Pony Club was pretty close to British-barn-training. I enjoy laughing at myself — a middle aged woman with three furry, muddy old horses in a humble little barn — standing there re-hanging lead ropes so they’re like an S and not a loop on the bendable rubber hooks . . . oy. Yes, I am a well-trained horse safety soldier still, and grateful it’s so deeply ingrained. Those habits keep us all calm and as safe as possible.

    It’s my guests, friends and family who’ve surprised me by being . . . stubbornly oblivious? Hard to convince about the nature of equines? My formerly rank ex-stud mini was tossed out of several homes for . . . being a powerful, brainy Boss Pony. With a lot more respect aimed his way he is doing very well learning to coexist more peacefully with humans. But, it amazes me how fiercely protective I have to be of his right to that respect. People wanted him to be cute — instead, he’s majestic and brilliant. And I’m his bodyguard and spokesperson. Every little equine needs one — who knew? I would sort of, secretly, love to let him hand out his own brand of justice to these, um, cuddle-the-pony people — but who would pay the price? Him. Again. So, I do the rule-enforcing and sometimes the yelling-at. And he’s protected by TWO legal contracts (rescue return agreement and my will) from being treated like a broken toy and tossed out. Again.

    Yesterday he reached over and casually unplugged an extension cord I’d stupidly left hanging in the aisle for ‘just a few minutes’. I sent a namaste his way for reminding me, always, of the nature of reality :-). Kinda like your essay. Thanks!

    • I have that sort of Ex-stud Mini here, too. I can’t convince people to respect him and I have been known to rant about it. He is one of the most challenging horses I’ve ever known. I hear you. And I agree; stubbornly oblivious is a great description! Thanks for this comment, respect isn’t a size-related thing. Ask any chihuahua.

    • Julia H., year ago on a walk through the countryside in the UK we came upon a field full of miniature horses- and a fine young stallion on a long line picketed out in the lane we were walking down. My friends said, “Aw- isn’t he cute!” and I said, “Yes, he is- but let’s walk on the other side of the lane, okay?” They all thought I was nuts but obeyed me anyway. The little stud arched his neck and pawed at the ground as fierce and territorial as any wild mustang. He was just gorgeous, palomino in coloring and sleek and just everything you could want in a stallion, just tiny. But he was just as dangerous if not more so than a full sized horse because of how my friends viewed him, as something cute, like a toy and not like a real thing at all. I was very glad he wasn’t able to reach us! He could have done a LOT of damage with those little hooves and strong teeth.

  20. Having been a riding instructor, I always feel like the bad guy: constantly nagging on awareness and safety. Thank you for capturing so eloquently the nature of both horses and humans in this important reminder. Your way with words encourages further thoughts on the matter. Thank you!

  21. Luckily, I’ve never been seriously hurt by our horses. Twice I’ve almost been hurt and both times they were the older and gentler horses that would never do anything on purpose. Both times they were startled and didn’t realize I was there. So easy to become complacent and forget they are still big animals with fast reactions.

  22. “consider rules as a way of demonstrating love for horses; a constant awareness of their dignity and a method for showing them respect for who they are and how they think.”

    Well said.
    Happy New Year Anna!

  23. Well said Anna! Years ago we owned a rodeo and I saw enough people get hurt by trained horses to get the “big picture” quickly. Years later in a Buck Brannaman clinic he said “everybody needs to get bucked off now and then in order to learn to respect the horse”. He did not want anybody hurt, but when you fail to fully understand the horse and it’s needs at all times, that’s when you get hurt. “From the time the screen door slams behind your butt” to go riding, you should be aware of your horse because he is aware of YOU!


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