Horseback Riding Safety Tips

Horseback Riding Safety Tips

Whether you're horseback riding or working from the ground, heed these safety tips to keep you and your horse out of trouble.

palomino horse tied to horse trailer (Credit: Tara Matsler)

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By Dennis Moreland

Rules for Tying a Horse

Everywhere you go, you see horses tied incorrectly. If the lead rope is too low or too long, the horse can get a foot over the rope. 

  • “Tie to the eye,” so that your lead rope is tied to the fence at about the horse’s eye level.

  • Leave no more than 18 to 24 inches between the knot and the horse’s halter.

  • Tie to something solid that won’t break if your horse happens to spook. The only exception to that is if you have a horse that may sit back. In that case, just wrap his lead rope around the fence; don’t tie him with a knot.

  • Find a safe spot when tying a horse to a trailer. Don’t tie around trailer door latches, where a horse could get his halter hung. Also, don’t tie around the wheel well where it’s possible for a pawing horse to get a hoof stuck between the tires.

  • Do not duck underneath the horse’s neck when tied, because that could cause a wreck. Take the extra seconds to safely walk around behind your horse.

  • Do not leave your halter tied to the fence as you bridle your horse and ride away. Someone can ride by, get his toe in the halter, and the storm is on. Untie the lead rope from the fence.

Opening Gates Horseback

As you’re leading your horse through a gate, be sure that you open it wide enough for the horse to get through. A lot of people will walk up to a gate and open it plenty wide for them to walk through, but it’s too narrow for the horse. If the horse is saddled, you also have to accommodate for the stirrups.

  • Watch out for latches on the gate that could snag a stirrup, breast collar or flank cinch.

  • Remain outside the gate until the horse turns around to face you, if you send your horse through the gate ahead of you. Don’t send him through and walk in behind him, as that could scare him.

  • Be extra careful with gates that open into you, because if a horse hangs a piece of his tack on that gate, he’ll likely hit his shoulder or hip.

  • Consider teaching your horse to sidepass before you work a gate with him. If you don’t, you’ll get in a storm because the horse doesn’t know what to do.

  • If you’re riding in an arena, make sure all the gates are shut. A half-open gate is very dangerous. Something can spook even the gentlest horse, and if it does, you want to be in the arena - not dragged under the gate or out in the pasture.

Mounting a Horse

  • Barely have your left toe in the stirrup, just enough to support your weight and get on. If the horse shies, your foot can come out easily. If your boot were pushed all the way in the stirrup, you might get hung up. 

  • Push your foot in further after getting settled in the saddle.

  • Make sure you’re in a safe location. Maybe you’re in a barn that gave you plenty of room on the ground but when you got on your horse, your head was in the rafters. Trees could present the same problem.

Dismounting a Horse

  • Children need to pull their left foot completely out of the stirrup before dropping down. 

  • Adults need to slide their foot back to where only the tip of a toe is in the stirrup when they swing their right leg over to dismount. That way, when they get to the ground, their foot will come out.

  • Consider riding with boots that have slick leather soles. Any sole that’s sticky could hang in a stirrup in the wrong situation.

How to Hazard-Proof Horse Pastures

Any place where horses run loose needs to be free from hazards. 

A horse can get hurt in a box stall, so you don’t need to be asking for trouble with a stack of tin, an old plow, loose wire, trash piles or farm equipment in his pasture. Horses can be grazing quietly and if something – say, a rabbit or a dog – spooks them, they could run over a plow, and you’re heading to the vet.

  • Trailers in the pasture are extremely dangerous. A horse can be running and playing and hit the stem of a gooseneck. I saw a mare that exploded her shoulder that way.

  • Old feed troughs are dangerous, too, if they’re rusty. Horses can stick a foot through the bottom of the trough and have major cuts.

Understanding How Horses Think

Accidents can happen so quickly around horses. To stay safe, we’ve got to always be conscious of where the horse is, what position we’re in and how we might react if something happens.

Horses are prey animals, and their instinct is to flee. If you’re putting protective boots on underneath a horse, up against the wall, and somebody walks by and scares him, he could be right on top of you. You have no place to go. You’d be better off to play that scenario out in your head and come up with a safer position.

Any time you’re doing anything with a horse:

  • Be aware.

  • Watch his ears.

  • Watch his facial expression. 

He’ll tell you if he’s getting nervous. A horse is a herd animal:

  • He looks for a leader. 

  • He’ll take his cue from you. 

If you’re nervous and waving your hands, he’s going to be nervous and fidgeting. Be calm and confident around a horse, and he’ll likely do the same.