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.
By Dennis Moreland | June 2, 2013
Editor’s Note: Tack maker Dennis Moreland, who wrote the “Tack Talk” series in America’s Horse and was featured in the companion DVD sold by Quarter Horse Outfitters, knows his tack. But he has also been around the arena a time or two and has seen his share of horse wrecks – and heard of even more.
Dennis called them “storms,” and he sat down with America’s Horse to talk about some of the most common horse safety mistakes he has seen. Heed his advice, pass it on to the youngsters you know – and keep yourself safe around your horses.
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. Remember “tie to the eye,” so that your lead rope is tied to the fence at about the horse’s eye level. And leave no more than 18 to 24 inches between the knot and the horse’s halter.
Make sure you’re tying 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 set back. In that case, just wrap his lead rope around the fence; don’t tie him with a knot. It’s better to have a loose horse than one that’s thrashing and possibly hurting himself.
When you have to tie to the horse trailer, make sure you find a safe spot. Don’t tie around trailer door latches, where a horse could get his halter hung. And don’t tie around the wheel well when it’s possible for a pawing horse to get a hoof stuck between the tires.
Dennis Moreland takes lead rope safety a step further by offering more advice in AQHA's free report, How to Tie a Lead Rope.
A few more notes: When a horse is tied up, do not duck underneath the horse’s neck, because that could cause a wreck. Take the extra seconds to safely walk around behind your horse.
And, if your horse is tied in the arena – like you’ll see at many ropings – 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.
Get the Gate
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.
If you want to send your horse through the gate ahead of you, remain outside the gate until he turns around, facing 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.
The same concerns apply when you want to open a gate from horseback. Be sure to open the gate wide enough and be aware of where the latch is. It’s also a good idea to teach 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.
Talking about gates, 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, I want to be in the arena. I don’t want to be dragged under the gate or out in the pasture.
When a kid is getting off a horse, she needs to pull her 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.
The other day, I saw a man on the ground with his left foot still in the stirrup. He reached up with his hand and took the foot out of the stirrup. If his horse had taken off, there would have been trouble.
Make tying a pleasant experience for you and your horse by learning how to tie a leadrope correctly. Download AQHA's free report, How to Tie a Lead Rope, to learn more.
It’s the same deal when you get on: 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. After you get settled in the saddle, then push your foot in farther.
I like riding with boots that have slick leather soles. Any sole that’s sticky could hang in a stirrup in the wrong situation.
Some of these things seem obvious, but they’re worth repeating. Be careful when you’re getting on and 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.
When I go turn a horse loose in a pasture or pen, I turn him around facing the gate and put the lead rope around his throatlatch. Don’t loop it down low on his neck where you wouldn’t have any control. Hold the lead rope high on his throatlatch, take the halter off and make the horse stand. Then release him.
A lot of times, if you put a horse out every day to graze, oh, he’s ready to go. When you walk through the gate, he wants to leave. You need to take control of the situation and make him wait on you. That will save you from getting in a storm if he jerks away.
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, baling wire laid around, trash piles or farm equipment in his pasture.
Horse 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.
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, and 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.
For more tips on how to safely tie your horse, check out this AQHA video.