Everyone tells us how unpredictable horses are, and we know riding is categorized as a dangerous activity. This doesn’t change the fact that for many of us horses are a lifelong passion. Meantime, we’d better admit that even our most delightful, best-educated equine occasionally offers us unplanned behaviours. This doesn’t deter us in the least. We acknowledge that these lapses in his good manners are an acceptable risk.
So far apparently so good. But how safe is all this?
This situation may reasonably be compared to that of the mountaineer who accepts the fact that to climb the mountain he may encounter crevasses and ice-cliffs on the way up and blizzards and rock walls on the way down. If he’s knowledgeable and skilled, while being brave but careful, then he has a good chance of reaching the summit – and perhaps of returning to base camp. But even given the best scenarios, it’s only a matter of time before he hits trouble, because the risks associated with mountaineering don’t go away. They are inherent to mountaineering, as are the risks inherent to all equestrian activities. These risks don’t go away either.
So it’s a matter of recognising the horses’ potential for causing mayhem in our lives, and in managing him is such a way that we limit his opportunities to do so.
It’s somewhat astonishing that, despite horses being so much bigger, stronger, and heavier than we are, we’ve generally become pretty adept at managing the physical side of our relationship with them. But, of course, what goes on in their heads is very often another story altogether. We know many with erratic responses to steering and some with unreliable brakes. Then there are those which are chronically anxious, excitable, or uncooperative and others which are disobedient, remarkably strong-minded (not-to-say willful ) and a few which, despite our best training efforts, see fit to run their lives their way. It’s not enough to rely on luck to keep us safe in such a volatile environment. It requires us to learn to accommodate these lovely creatures through the lens of their own lives – not ours. If you doubt this, try telling a horse that the piece of plastic blowing about in the wind is just a harmless shopping bag.
Safety begins with understanding life the equine way.
Most of us have become very accustomed to the hazards which close contact with an equine presents. The odd kick or fall is no deterrent to our equestrian participation. However, it’s easy to become complacent perhaps after years of evading more serious incidents. Or maybe – like car accidents - they always happen to somebody else. If we feel secure enough in our skill set , we may not think of a horse’s unexpected or radical reactions as being a threat to our safety on the ground, or of shopping bag escapees as being a challenge to our security in the saddle. But it’s a big mistake to let such familiarity breed this sort of contempt. Instead, let it breed respect for the horse and for safe handling, riding and coaching practices. All day, every day. Let safety be part of your DNA, as it is, and must be, for the mountaineer. Mountains don’t move, and horses don’t change the way their brains are wired. But you can change your understanding of them.
Be safe on purpose; it’s a matter of priority.
To do this, you can develop a relentless eye for detail, and a 100% intolerance of safety breaches. You can be careful without being cautious. You can watch out for others who may not yet have activated their safety “antennae”. Incidentally, did you see that child wrap the lead rope around her hand? … did you notice that the person lunging that horse still had her spurs on? …did your alarm bells ring as you watched that video-coach, with her back to the ride? Closer to home, did you fix those un-taped bandages … did you shut that open gate … did you tighten that loose girth… did you catch that loose dog...
Safety is not an emergency response – it’s a habit.
Safety is not just something you have to remember to do, or that you learn from yesterday’s YouTube or a post on Facebook. And it’s not just another clinic or workshop, covering the same stuff you knew a decade ago. Safety has to be the lifeblood of your every equestrian hour, or the clock will be ticking till your luck runs out. It has to be embedded in your psyche until it’s as natural and normal part of your equestrian day as pulling on your boots or picking up a bale of hay.
Safety is not a subject to brush up on. It’s a subject to live and breathe!
It’s not something to pay attention to when you think there might be somebody looking. This is like climbing the mountain when the TV cameras are rolling. Better to look where you are going and miss out on falling into that crevasse – even if that means you’re not headline news!
A horse, is a horse, is a horse… and he doesn’t care whether he’s got an audience or not. Neither should you.
……and in case your attention is starting to wander or you’ve just remembered something you absolutely have to go and do, safety is not something to read about when you have the time. Spare time is not down-time. Spare time is an opportunity to learn how to be safer. It doesn’t happen unless you generate it and it doesn’t contribute to your life unless you use it. Like now.
You have to make the time to be safe around horses, because if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to rattle any horse, it’s being in a hurry. It also has a high potential to make you careless and generates a strong desire for taking short cuts. That’s before you get distracted from the horse at hand. None of this looks good on your safety record.
Safety is not an inconvenience or an interruption to your equestrian life.
It is a necessity for living it.
Safety needs to be the foundation of every single thing you do, every hour of every day that you are with horses. No matter whether they are big or small, young or old, schooled or green, yours or anyone else’s. It’s not just how you lead a horse, it’s how you move around him and what you say and see and hear. It’s not just how you put on his saddle or take off his bridle, it’s how you respect his sensitivities, his needs, the boundaries of his learning, the extent of his understanding, and his capacity to object to what you are doing. Safety needs to be embedded in everything to do with being even a small part of a horse’s life. This puts safety at the very core of how you care for him, ride him, train him and teach others to do the same.
Safety needs to become a lifelong, unbreakable habit.
This habit is an entire ‘way of being’ around horses. It’s everything you do around a horse, whether it’s the first time you meet him or whether you’ve had him in your life for twenty years. It’s called seeing the world through a bridle. Like most things worth doing well, this takes effort and practice.
So the question is not “…how do we avoid the horse’s reactive behaviours?” We can’t. They were programmed into his ancestors brains long before mankind ever came into their lives and they will happen.
The question becomes “… how do we best minimise the frequency, scale and consequences of such behaviours?”. We can certainly do that. To a large extent, kind and consistent training will reduce the occurrence of his more undesirable behaviours, and training will also modify his more extreme reactions by building his trust in us.
Then there’s his rider, who also needs training to respecting the horse’s view of the world, rather than by assuming he sees things the same way that they do.
Safe practices are a matter of education – for horse, rider and coach.
Of course, to achieve these ends, we first have to educate ourselves. Given the immense diversity among individuals of the horse population, this is inevitably a life-long task, hence our need for the ongoing growth of our equestrian skillset. While we can’t change the basic nature of horses, what we can do is to continually refine our horse-handling skills, our riding protocols and the choice of our coaching practices. Safety is the outcome of good practice. Bad practice is an accident waiting to happen.
So, now we know the dynamics of safety, and accept that good quality safety rests on good quality continuous education, our professional development (CPD) takes on a whole new look.
As our world is changing around us, so we must change too. With ongoing, good quality review and refreshment of our skills we can put a shine on all aspects of safety in our equestrian environment. This means adding to what we know and do, in ways that continually refine, re-energize and re-sensitize us to safe practices.
Updating is not enough. We need up-skilling.
But suppose this all sounds rather time-consuming and just a tad tiresome? After all, we have heard about safety for ever. Well, before you skip your CPD and stick with the degree of safety awareness which your current level of equestrian education delivers, consider wearing the backlash of poor safety decisions and ill-informed choices, with all the associated emotional trauma, reputational damage and potential financial ruin.
Be safe by design, before inviting disaster into your life.
Yes, this leads us into the discussion about insurance, which opens a whole new Pandora’s box of issues. We shall address these, without fear or favour, in the next ANECA editorial.
Meantime, having started your CPD today - right here! Keep it happening, because tomorrow may be a day too late.
Stay real, stay educated – stay safe.