20 Hidden Hazards of Horsekeeping

Here's a rundown on some less conspicuous horsekeeping dangers you may be overlooking.
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You've had horses long enough to know how to play it safe. You wear boots around the barn and would never consider putting your horse in a trailer with a questionable floor. But there are some safety hazards that aren't so obvious; you may not even notice them until the damage is done. To help keep you and your horses safe, we've identified 20 of these hidden hazards, described the associated risks and suggested long- and short-term fixes.

1. Compromised helmets
The risk: Most modern helmets feature a specialized foam layer that absorbs the impact of a blow to the head, intercepting the shock before it can be transmitted to the brain. In other words, the foam gets crushed so your head won't. The helmet doesn't "recover" from the crushing blow, however, so it can't absorb subsequent impacts as effectively. Although the damage to the foam may not be visible, take it for granted that a helmet that has protected your head through one serious contact can no longer offer the original level of protection.

The fix: After a helmet saves your skull, it's ready for retirement. A minor spill in which your rear takes the brunt of the blow probably won't harm a helmet, but if you hit your head hard enough to be thankful you had a helmet on, it needs to be replaced. Some manufacturers have replacement programs in which you can send in an old helmet for a discount on a new one, so it's worth a call to find out if you qualify.

2. Stall-guard failure
The risk: Stall guards and chains give confined horses much-needed social stimulation and fresh air. But the screw eyes attaching them to the door frame can be broken or pulled from their moorings by excessive pressure, freeing the occupant to all sorts of mischief or worse.

The fix: Regularly check the security of stall-guard screw eyes. Tighten them if necessary or relocate them on the frame if the wood no longer "grabs" the threads. The safest guards have multiple anchors, so you may want to upgrade from a single-cable barrier to a solid-body or web design with three or more snaps on each side. Even more secure but still visually open and airy is a door-filling screen.

3. Closed trailer windows and vents
The risk: A tightly closed trailer can not only cause the horses inside to overheat, but it can trap carbon monoxide gas emissions from the pulling vehicle and kill the occupants. The tale of the owner arriving at a veterinary clinic only to open up the trailer and find both horses dead of carbon monoxide poisoning isn't an urban legend.

The fix: Keep the trailer as wide open as possible whenever you ship, blanketing the horses when they need protection from the cold. Stock trailers with their slatted sides allow plenty of airflow, but on solid-sided vehicles you'll have to open the doors, windows and vents to keep the atmosphere inside clear. If you're trailering in very wet weather and must close the back doors of a ramp trailer to keep the horses from getting soaked, make sure the ceiling and side vents are wide open.

4. Blinding lights
The risk: You might think that a well-lit barn is a safe barn, and, in many ways, it is. However, horses can have problems with intense lighting when entering a building from the outdoors at dusk or after. Their eyes adjust much more slowly than yours to light changes. You might blink a time or two as you enter a bright barn from the dark, but your horse is effectively blinded for a full minute or more. During this slow adaptation, horses might run into objects or their handlers, and some may even be panicked by the temporary loss of perception.

The fix: The ideal solution is to have two sets of lights, with the first one or two strategically placed bulbs providing low-level illumination that allows you to see without blinding your horse. The second set with higher wattage can then be turned on once your horse has adjusted. If you can't install two sets of lights, minimize the risk by taking your horse to the edge of the illuminated area and allowing him to stand for a full two minutes while his eyes adjust before proceeding into the full light.

5. Loose broodmare halters
The risk: Foals naturally play close to their dams' sides, and moms are likely to spend much of their days grazing with their heads down. If a foal steps through the noseband of an oversized or even slightly loose halter and the mare lifts her head, serious injury is likely to befall both.

The fix: Whenever possible, leave broodmares halterless at all times, in the stall and during turnout. Many breeding farms use neck collars as a means of identifying and handling their mares without posing the potential hazards of haltering. The leather straps, which fit around the throatlatch much like cribbing straps, are available from tack-supply catalogs.

6. Lost shoes
The risk: Nearly every horse owner knows the frustration of having a horse come in from the field missing a shoe. Yet the extra farrier visit is the least of your worries. If the wayward shoe is sitting nails up in the field, it can cause a serious puncture wound in the horse who "finds" it.

The fix: Make an effort to find every missing shoe. If your property is large, you may be able to do only a limited search; look in "boggy" areas of shoe-sucking mud and along fence lines where a pawing horse may have pulled his footwear loose. If the grass is long, a metal detector can be useful. Also, make it a habit to scan the ground closely for hazardous objects, including thrown shoes, whenever you walk in your fields.

7. Stable clutter
The risk: An untidy barn is more than an eyesore. Clutter in horse-handling areas is an invitation to accidents. A loose, frightened horse can injure himself on a pitchfork, and a calm but inattentive horse can whack a knee painfully on an ill-placed tack trunk or step into a bucket.

The fix: Keep horse areas as sparsely furnished as possible. Store stall-cleaning tools where horses can't reach them, and place all tack trunks, saddle racks and other such items in a tack room or an unoccupied stall. You'll also need to be vigilant about picking up after yourself: Even a single brush left out can cause a person to trip, and if that person is leading a horse, the result could be painful for everyone.

8. Treacherous treats
The risk: A treat that's too large to be easily swallowed but too small to require chewing can end up lodged in the horse's throat, causing choke, a serious and sometimes fatal condition in horses. Small apples measuring 2 to 2 1/2 inches in diameter and the butt ends of large carrots represent this in-between size.

The fix: Cut all treats into safe sizes. Nothing larger than golf-ball size is a good rule of thumb for apples and nothing bigger than your thumb for carrots. If you can't cut an apple down to size, smash it under your heel, scoop up the pulpy mess, and offer the "prechewed" treat to your horse. He won't mind a bit of dirt, and you won't have to worry about choke. For big carrots, bite off an inch at a time, and offer the pieces to your horse.

9. Unsecured grain
The risk: Mice and rats aren't the only creatures looking for easy access to grain. Feed stored in an area that a loose horse can reach is a huge incentive for escape. Combine a convenient location and containers that can be tipped or opened with a strong nudge, and it's an invitation for a colic- or laminitis-inducing nighttime feed raid.

The fix: The safest place for grain stores is a room with a secure door that everyone remembers to shut. An empty stall with a door is also a safe option. You can build in an extra safeguard by putting grain in containers with tightly closing lids. Trash cans with flip-up locking handles are a popular and inexpensive option. Large grain bins that close with a footlocker-style flap and loop can be made safer with the addition of a metal snap through the loop.

10. Square fence corners
The risk: Crisp 90-degree corners might look picture-perfect, but to a horse being harassed by a pasturemate, such junctions are a menace where there's no escaping the attack. A rounded corner lets the horse continue his flight around the pasture without slowing.

The fix: When planning new paddocks, put in rounded or very open-angled corners. For an already-established fence line, you can accomplish the same thing by placing boards across square corners. Either use two boards or place a single board no further than three feet from the existing corners to prevent a curious horse from slipping under and getting stuck in the triangular area.

11. Dragging gates
The risk: Attempting to get an impatient horse through a sagging paddock gate that has to be lifted or dragged through the mud is an accident waiting to happen. During turnout, your attention needs to be focused on the horse, not manhandling the gate. A poorly maintained gate is headed toward complete collapse, which means loose horses and a whole other set of dangers.

The fix: Start with high-quality gates designed for livestock use, and hang them properly on heavy posts. Then, place a large wooden block or rock as a rest to hold the closed gate in horizontal alignment and take stress off the hinges. Faithful use of the rest will keep the gate swinging freely for as long as the materials remain sound. A tension wire running diagonally from the toe of the gate to the top of the hinged end also fights sag. When you inspect your fences and gates, pay particular attention to the hinges and their attachments to the wood or metal. Finally, don't let anyone climb or swing on the gate, which can cause serious sagging in a matter of minutes.

12. Hoof-trapping stall bars
The risk: Bars on the front of a stall improve the view and the air quality for the occupant. If the bars are too widely spaced, however, a kicking or striking horse can get a hoof stuck between them. The hung-up horse is then likely to panic and injure himself. Even if you get to him quickly, releasing the trapped hoof can be difficult, sometimes requiring a hacksaw to cut the bars.

The fix: Check the spacing on your stall grills, using the soda-can test. If the soda can fits through the bars only when upright, the spacing is horse safe. If there's room for the can to pass between bars when lengthwise, a horse hoof could get stuck. Adding chain-link fencing on the inside of the bars is a make-do solution to the entrapment problem, but one that introduces a new danger from the chain links' irregular edges. The best solution is to either add bars to existing grills to reduce the spacing or install safe replacements.

13. Exposed jump cups
The risk: Metal jump cups hanging empty from jump standards and wings are collision risks for both horses and unseated riders. The sharp metal edges can cause bruises or open wounds.

The fix: Remove all jump cups that aren't being used, especially during jumping rounds, and store them in a box or bag kept outside of the riding area. If a horse treads on the jump hardware, the injury may be worse than if he collided with it on a standard. A large plastic bin near the ring provides convenient, tidy and protective storage for the spare hardware. To keep track of the pins, tie them to the cups with twine before putting them in the bin.

14. Round trotting poles
The risk: Called trotting poles or cavalletti, evenly spaced ground poles are training aids to help improve horses' rhythm and coordination. The trouble with using round poles is the likelihood of their rolling if the horse doesn't clear them, creating a tangle of feet and moving poles. Stumbles and outright falls can result.

The fix: For more secure ground poles, use four- by four-inch treated posts with the corners planed or sanded off. If you don't want to replace your round poles, you can make them safer by carefully cutting one flat surface or screwing six-inch wood blocks to the ends of each pole. Standard cavalletti--poles affixed to x-shaped end pieces--are rather unwieldy but virtually roll proof.

15. Parked machinery
The risk: Your tractor, disk harrow, manure spreader and other invaluable farm machinery can pose significant risk to curious horses who are allowed direct access to them. At least one spooked horse running loose has sliced off half a hoof on an exposed disk harrow. Idle farm equipment is also an attractive nuisance to children and even some adults, who might climb aboard and start pulling at knobs without knowing the consequences.

The fix: Store all farm machinery in its own lockable shed. At the very least, park it in a fenced equipment area to keep loose horses out of the vicinity. And never turn a horse out in a field with idle equipment or use cutting machinery, such as mowers, in an occupied pasture.

16. Fragile tack
The risk: Tack failure while riding can be deadly. A cinch that gives way during a barrel run or a cheek piece that fails during a cross-country course leaves the rider with no control or stability. A fall is almost inevitable.

The fix: Examine key places on your tack each and every time you ride. The high-risk locations include the attachment points of cinch rings or billets, stirrup-leather stitching and all points where metal meets leather. Check each of these locations for signs of wear, such as deep cracks or peeling, and replace weak pieces before you ride with that tack again. During regular cleanings, give every inch of your tack close scrutiny, and immediately repair or replace questionable portions.

17. Dangling hay nets
The risk: A full hay net that hangs well above the range of a horse's hooves sags anywhere from several inches to two feet lower once it's empty. A horse who then paws at an empty net can snag a hoof and panic, leading to serious injury.

The fix: Hang an empty net a few times to get a feel for how it needs to be tied to be out of hoof range. When hanging a full net, leave as little slack as possible, looping the cord through the very bottom of the net several times if need be. As an added precaution, use a loop of old baling twine as a breakaway element between the net and the stall or trailer ring. If the net is tied to the twine it will give way readily if the horse does get hung up.

18. Discarded yard waste
The risk: Neighbors with good intentions and little horse sense might dump their landscaping debris, complete with toxic trimmings such as yew and red maple, onto your property as a "snack" for the horses. If your pastures are large or have hidden corners, you may not know the clippings are there until a horse colics or dies.

The fix: Inform your neighbors in a friendly fashion that landscaping plants and grass clippings can poison or sicken horses. You don't have to give them a list, just ask them to never feed your horses anything or place any yard wastes on your property. To prevent drive-by dumpings, post signs wherever your property borders a public road. "Caution: Horses can be killed by landscaping waste. Please don't dump" is an effective message.

19. Collapsing pool covers
The risk: The flimsy cover of an in-ground pool can appear to be solid footing for loose horses, who then plunge in after the first few steps. Without a shallow staircase or ramp to walk up, the horse can be stranded in the water. If a horse is not discovered right away or can't be rescued from a deep pool, he may swim to exhaustion and drown.

The fix: Every swimming pool should be fenced as a barrier to both human and animal drownings. If everyone faithfully shuts and locks the gate, you can't get much safer. If a fence can't be installed, leave the pool uncovered to make it more visible to roaming horses. You can also talk to a contractor about installing a sturdy in-pool ramp with a nonslip surface as an escape route. Alternately, you can keep a heavy-duty wooden ramp near the pool for emergencies.

20. An unsecured perimeter
The risk: Horse properties without continuous fence lines or series of barriers encompassing the entire facility are asking for a runaway wreck. With no ready way to quickly contain a loose horse, the chances of the animal making it to a nearby road before he can be caught are greatly increased.

The fix: The perfect horsekeeping setup has a single gate to the outside world. When a horse gets loose, the first response is to close that one possible exit and afterward go after the escapee still contained on the home property. Putting in a perimeter doesn't necessarily mean having to install a whole new fence line. Look at the layout of your place and see if simply adding a few fences to join buildings and existing fence lines will complete the circle of safety.

This article originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of EQUUS magazine.

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