Of course you want to share the joys of horse ownership with your children and grandchildren. Horses are a wonderful teaching tool for kids. Working with horses builds confidence and instills responsibility in children. But nothing-nothing-is more important than their safety.
A split-second accident involving a child and a horse could change your family forever.
And while you don’t want fear to rule your life or theirs, it’s important to instill a healthy sense of respect for potential dangers around horses and insist everyone follow a reasonable set of rules.
Penny Campbell, program director for Healing Reins Therapeutic Riding Center in Bend, Oregon, and her husband, Jeff, own Faith Run Farms. Campbell is a certified instructor for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, as well as a mother of two children, Kaitlin, 9, and Nicolas, 7. Whether Campbell is catching horses with her own children or helping students learn to groom and ride, safety is always on her mind. She shares some of the ground rules that she sets for her children and clients. Penny would like you to review and share them with the children in your life.
Finding Your Way
- Set a good example for your children by safely handling horses yourself.
- Provide your child with a horse or pony appropriate for the child’s age, size and experience level.
- Stay vigilant when your child is around horses.
- Communicate with your child at his or her level and make barn rules clear to your kids.
- Set up rewards and consequences for following or breaking rules in the barn.
- Offer your kids riding lessons from a respected instructor.
- Get your child involved with an equestrian club or organization that emphasizes safety.
1. Use your voice to let the horse know where you are.
Horses have both binocular and monocular vision. When they use their monocular vision, they can see different objects with each eye at the same time, and look both forward and back. Their wide-set eyes create a wide field of view which helps protect horses from predators that approach. While horses have excellent peripheral vision, they also have blind spots both in front of, and directly behind them. These blind spots create the perfect places for kids to get lost or missed.
“Horses’ vision really isn’t all that great,” Campbell says. “And, especially out in the pasture, where they’re involved in grazing or sleeping. You can really surprise them if they don’t see you. A soothing voice also helps the horse understand that you’re not a threat.”
2. Organize your halter and lead before catching a horse.
Small children probably won’t need to catch a horse or pony by themselves, but they can help you. As they get older and more independent, they’ll need to learn how to safely catch a horse on their own.
“I always remind my kids to have their halter ready when they’re catching a horse,” Campbell says. “So, in other words, they’re not approaching a horse with the halter in a crumpled mess, and the horse turns away while the kids are trying to get organized.”
3. Always approach a horse at his shoulder, not head on.
Again, the horse’s front blind spot creates a dangerous place for children. Add to that the horse’s natural fight or flight instinct, and the equation could equal disaster. If a child, or anyone for that matter, stands in the front blind spot and the horse becomes startled or spooked, the horse is likely to trample the person in front of him. “Coming from the shoulder is a less threatening and more visible approach for the horse,” Campbell says.
Because of the horse’s limited vision, Campbell also teaches children to never duck under a horse’s neck.
4. Stay out of the stall or pasture during feeding time.
Horses relate to each other based on a complex pecking order. During mealtime, an aggressive horse can easily mistake a child for a herd-mate and attempt to protect his feed. A swift kick or gnashing teeth that would simply deter a fellow horse could easily kill a child.
Campbell’s kids help distribute grain during feeding time as part of their daily chores. However, the children are not allowed to enter the stalls. Instead, Kaitlin and Nicolas measure out rations and leave the feed pans outside of each stall door. Their parents follow and give the feed to the horses.
5. Don’t run from a horse. Instead, face the horse and back away.
Horses are naturally playful and inquisitive, and some are bred for sorting, so it’s not unusual to find a horse chasing a dog or teasing cattle in the pasture. Also, because of the horse’s own understanding of body language, walking away is an easy way to convince a reluctant horse to let you catch him.
For these reasons, it’s important to teach your children to never turn their backs on, or run away from, a horse. First, turning away from the horse takes the child’s eyes off the animal and puts the horse in the kid’s own blind spot. Secondly, a horse may misunderstand the child’s motives and think it’s time to play.
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4-H Horse Project
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6. Ears back means the horse is mad or upset.
Developmentally, children understand body language early in life, so the horse’s body language of pinning ears is pretty straightforward for kids.
“Use situations that arise to show kids and help them understand what the horse means,” Campbell suggests. “If a horse pins its ears, take the opportunity to show your kids.”
7. Turn the horse toward the closed gate before taking off the halter.
Many horses get excited when they’re turned loose in the pasture. If your children are developmentally mature enough to release a horse, show them how to do it safely.
“I teach my kids to turn and face the horse toward the gate or fence before taking the halter off,” Campbell says. “That way the horse isn’t looking out into the field and running to his friends when he’s released.”
1. Keep your hand on your horse when grooming him.
Campbell emphasizes keeping one hand on the horse at all times when grooming or moving around him. Not only does this method assure the horse of where the child is, “but the horse also telegraphs when it’s going to move,” Campbell says. “If you have one hand on the horse when you’re grooming, you can tell if the horse is going to move toward or away from you.”
2. Don’t wrap the lead rope around your hands or arms when leading or holding a horse, and always watch your fingers.
This is a basic 4-H horse project rule, and for good reason: A lead rope, longe line or reins wrapped around your fingers, hands, limbs or arms can result is a disastrous break or loss of limb or digit if the horse spooks and the rope or reins tighten. Instead, teach your kids to fold the lead or longe line and to grasp the bundle inside the palm rather than loop it around the hand.
“It’s so, so critical for kids to understand the danger of getting caught in the lead rope,” Campbell says.
Along the same line, Campbell reminds children and adults at Healing Reins to keep their fingers out of the halter and to never lead a horse without a lead rope.
“My husband learned this the hard way,” she says. “He was taking off a halter and didn’t realize his finger was caught. The horse jerked away, and he broke the tip of his finger.”
3. Walk in the barn-don’t run.
Running in the barn is less a danger to the child than it is to other people in the barn. A running child can startle horses and cause accidents. “It’s a very basic rule,” Campbell says. By enforcing a walk-only policy, you protect everyone in the barn.
4. Give treats out of the flat of your hand or in a feed bucket.
Kids always want to feed ponies and horses carrots or blades of grass through the fence. If you got involved with horses as a small child, you probably vividly remember this ritual of initiation into horsemanship as the horse lipped a carrot off the palm of your flat hand. “Fingers together and thumb in, and slightly arch the palm of the hand,” Campbell says.
A better choice than hand-feeding is to let children offer treats from a feed bucket or pan, Campbell adds. That way, the child’s hands are safely out of the way of nibbling lips and sharp teeth.
5. The hind end of a horse kicks.
A 2002 study of kick-related equestrian injuries in adults at the University of Bern in Switzerland found that: “[T]he equestrian community may underestimate the risk of severe injuries attributable to hoof kicks, especially while handling the horse.” Several of the subjects in this study were severely injured and required surgical treatment.
According to the study, a typical horse’s kick exerts more than 2,000 pounds of pressure. That’s enough to maim or kill an adult as well as a child. So, from the beginning, keep your children away from a horse’s hind legs.
“I teach the kids to never go behind a horse, whether it’s in the crossties or out in the field,” Campbell says. “Kids are small, and the horses don’t always know they’re behind them.”
6. Stay on your feet.
Kids have a tendency to kneel or sit, especially when they’re bored. They also often try crawling under a horse’s belly. “For some reason, children like to get down on the ground and get comfortable,” Campbell says with a laugh. She emphasizes the importance of standing so children can react quickly if they need to get away from a moving horse.
Staying on your feet also includes keeping hands off the ground. Children brushing horse legs will sometimes put one hand on the ground for balance, which leaves fingers vulnerable to getting stepped on and crushed by hooves.
Safety in the Saddle
1. Always ride in a saddle that fits.
The American Medical Equestrian Association recommends outfitting your child with a saddle that fits both the rider and the horse.
“Children need the same equipment grownups need,” Campbell says, “especially stirrups that come up to their correct length.”
Kids grow fast, so it’s tempting to justify the purchase of saddles they’ll grow into. You know the ones-too large a seat and stirrups that are so long that the kids have to reach for them with their tippy-toes.
Without stirrups, a child learning to ride can easily lose his or her balance and fall. When the stirrups are too large, there’s an enormous risk that a small foot can push through and get stuck. Too big of a seat means the child can slip and fall out of the saddle.
Instead, find a saddle with an appropriately sized seat, and stirrups that will shorten to a proper length. If necessary, replace stirrup leathers on an English saddle, or have a saddle maker add new, shorter fenders to a western saddle.
When fitting a saddle to a horse or pony for your child, make sure the tree fits the horse so the saddle won’t shift. Also, fit the saddle with a girth or cinch that will tighten snuggly around the horse or pony.
2. Riding double is asking for trouble.
The American Medical Equestrian Association recommends against adults riding double with children. Not only is riding double hard on a horse’s back and kidneys, but riding double also puts the riders at risk for falling. A small child behind the saddle has nothing to grab onto if she loses her balance, Campbell points out.
3. Wear an approved equestrian safety helmet.
According to the Oklahoma State Extension Service, head trauma is the most common cause of serious injury and death for equestrians, and the percentage of head injuries and death is higher in young riders.
The United States Pony Club, Inc., is a longtime advocate of approved equestrian helmets, and many states and counties require 4-H participants to wear approved headgear. USPC riders must wear ASTM/SEI helmets, which are designed and tested for equestrians by the federal government.
Make sure the helmet fits snuggly according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, and replace any damaged or aged helmet.
4. Even the must trustworthy horse isn’t 100% trustworthy.
This point applies on the ground as well as in the saddle. The most important thing about matching horse to rider is finding an animal that’s well-schooled and trustworthy.
“There’s nothing more important than finding that first horse you can trust with your kids,” Campbell says.
Parents call these horses “packers” and “babysitters,” but not even the best-mannered horse can replace adult supervision.
“I find that my kids, because they’re always around horses, need to be constantly reminded that horses are living animals and have a certain level of unpredictability,” Campbell says.
That same reminder applies to adults, too. Always, keep in mind that any horse of any age is still an animal and apt to make instinctual decisions that could put your child in harm’s way.
By choosing the right horse and reviewing these tips, you’ll help create a safe atmosphere for children in your barn. Safe kids equal happy kids and, over time, you’ll hopefully pass your love of horses to the next generation