I’m about to break one of my cardinal rules and relate some cautionary tales about working around horses. I had gotten out of the habit of doing this because of my work with equine-assisted psychotherapy clients, who are often already dealing with enough anxiety and trauma issues without being front-loaded with more horror stories. Another reason I don’t like to dwell on the macabre is that I grew up with a father who was continually placing newspaper clippings on the breakfast table, recounting all sorts of gruesome equestrian accidents. In his defense, he was simply trying to keep his three horse-crazy daughters alive, but it made for some tense meals and a quantity of indigestion. That’s why I usually reserve my negative stories for when I truly see things going south in a horsemanship lesson or a therapy session. That said, a couple of incidents have come to my attention this month that bear discussion.
No, I’m talking about stories of life-changing injury…
The first comes out of one of those seemingly mundane activities that equestrians engage in every day—loading and unloading horses. Before you assume the horse was the culprit, let me assure you that no horse behavior played a part in the injury. More like trailer behavior, or rather, windy conditions and an open trailer were to blame. There is a vast open plain of a valley near where I live that is home to a lot of horse activities. When the high desert wind blows out there, nothing can shield human, animal, or edifice from its power. I don’t know if she was coming or going, but “Candace”, a horsemanship instructor at the local college, put her head in harms way and SMACK!—went the trailer door. Suffering from massive head injury, she was airlifted to a major hospital that had trauma specialists. A few days later, she suffered a stroke, which further complicated her condition. At last report, Candace has been making progress in her physical therapy and is doing remarkably well, considering the extent of her head injury.
Even if we scrupulously strap on a helmet every time we get on a horse, I know of no one that wears one while loading and unloading their horses.
However, given poor Candace’s degree of injury, maybe we should consider doing so. In my case, I’ve taken to securing my big ol’ side-latching trailer door with a substantial cargo tie any, and every time it is open, regardless of whether I have people helping me load. I’ve felt the weight of that thing when there was nary a breeze and don’t want to have to pit my 127-pound frame against it once it really gets to slamming.
The next horror story is the case of “Alice”, a liberty horse trainer on the West Coast. An email I received stated that she had been kicked by her horse and had suffered trauma to her face, shoulder, and ribs, but luckily no cerebral damage. The reconstruction on her face was estimated at about $100,000 and would require around six months of surgeries. I don’t know the particulars of how the incident occurred, but having visited her website I can imagine a few scenarios. There, I found a few photos of her in close proximity to a rearing horse, evidently performing one of the liberty exercises she teaches. In one photo, the rearing horse’s forelegs were extended out toward her and, from the angle of the camera, even appeared to be making contact with her forehead. While I know that was an optical illusion, I can’t help but view it as prophetic and at the very least, a risky practice. Since then, I’ve been pulling up a number of rearing horse images on my computer and here is what I notice.
Roughly a third of the images feature horses that are not just rearing up, they are extending their forelegs at the same time.
This may be a horse’s natural way of balancing himself on two legs, but it is certainly a dangerous proposition for a human standing in front of him. I just don’t know that I would allow my students to encourage their horses to do this. Just seems like a risky thing to do…
I have eight therapy horses on my ranch, ranging from a 26-inch miniature named Elf to a 16 and a half hand draft cross named Paloma. I have what I consider good relationships with each of these animals and with the herd as a social entity. We’ve worked out our boundaries and our give-and-take of mutual respect. I honor their species, knowing that movement and play represent a huge part of their nature and factor greatly in their hierarchy of needs. I’ve even written about this in my book, “Herdmates to Heartmates: The Art of Bonding with a New Horse.”
That said, I don’t know why people encourage horses to exhibit such physical exuberance so close to them. My own spiny senses kick in when I see a horse in a full rear with his forelegs extended toward a human in a way that looks psychologically challenging and physically dangerous. Here is what is true: I don’t know the story behind the photos I saw of Alice interacting with the rearing horse. I can only honor the sensations in my gut when I view them. It is similar to when I’m called on to monitor potentially dangerous situations in my equine-assisted work and make a decision on whether to intervene or not.
I do feel that it is important to keep the more sensitive (those intrinsic to cognition and well-being) parts of my body safely out of harm’s way.
That’s why I don’t treat my horses like pets, no matter how bonded I am with them. For instance, my mini Appaloosa Elf has tried on more than one occasion to climb into my lap whenever I’m seated on the ground near him; his affection is apparent but so are his sharp, flinty hooves. Diminutive and cute, he has quite a fan base among the children that visit the ranch. However, he has also spontaneously grabbed the fingers of any child proffering treats, not to mention mauling faces for possibly tasty morsels like noses and earlobes. Unlike some, I completely discourage these breaches of space because it’s not in the best interest of Elf’s work as a therapy animal. I can’t be sure he won’t injure someone and I wouldn’t want to have to justify allowing such behavior on an insurance claim form.
Most of my horses are phenomenally laid back and gentle around people…until they aren’t. Until, as I like to say, “Godzilla comes over the mountain.”
Then all languidness is replaced by a sudden return to prey animal status. In such an event, I wouldn’t want to be stretched out alongside an animal that has hard objects at the ends of its legs. If I really need to cuddle that intimately with a furry creature, I’ll snuggle with a kitten…or a stuffed toy.
Speaking of putting one’s face in harm’s way, I’ll leave you with a final cautionary tale. Some years back, we were advertising a rental cottage on our ranch when Alexa contacted us. Newly divorced, she was looking for a “transition home” for her, her dog, and her horse. She said she expected to stay for at least a year, if not longer. She came for a visit to check out the area and I even took her on the scenic ride I reserve for special guests. She was a competent rider and we discussed stabling for her one trusty gelding, her other horse having gone to her ex-husband in the divorce. She signed a lease agreement, handed over a check for two months rent, and then headed up to Idaho to collect her animals and belongings. Several weeks passed before a friend of Alexa’s called us with this grisly story:
Concerned that her remaining horse would be lonely, Alexa had bought another gelding on impulse. She chose a brown and white half-Arab pinto who was remarkably similar in appearance to her Paint. However, rather than the steady mount she was used to, this new gelding proved quite flighty and temperamental. Within hours of the purchase, apparently, he had hung himself up on the wire fence at his new temporary digs, injuring his hind leg on the inside of the fetlock. Alexa had been planning to make the haul the next day, but now she was involved in a veterinary event that would delay the journey for up to a week. The wound on the pinto’s fetlock was ugly and gaping, requiring some stitches and regular doctoring.
The second day after the injury, as Alexa bent down close to apply medicine to his wounded leg, the gelding jerked the leg up reflexively and his hoof made contact with Alexa’s face. At the last minute, she had turned her head and that is how the blow came to shatter the left side of her lower jawbone, knocking out all of her bottom teeth on that side and breaking most of the upper molars. There was considerable trauma to the cheek skin on left side as well. When we would eventually see her, six weeks after the phone call, she looked quite different from the woman we’d first met. There had been several bone grafts to try and build a base for tooth implants, or at least allow her to wear dentures. Red scars traversed her left cheek and jawline, which she unconsciously held her hand against, as if to ward off more blows. Her speech was muffled due to missing teeth and a wired jaw. She had put her pride and joy—an Audi TT sports convertible—up for sale to help with doctor and dental bills.
To her credit, she hadn’t blamed the horse but instead had brought “Scooter” along with her to my place. I helped her get a handle on his exuberance, seeing nothing wrong with him that regular riding wouldn’t take care of, but she never did feel safe with him. Eventually she placed an ad on Craig’s List and sold him for a fraction of what he’d cost. To this day, I never lean over a horse’s back hoof without thinking of Alexa.
Do not put your face in harm’s way, I tell myself. Find a safer way to do what you’re doing, or if needed, get help to do it.
Never presume an injured horse’s cooperation… Pain or its anticipation can create estrangement in even the best horse-human relationship, let alone a new and untested one.