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When Safety Really Matters: Turning Horses Out to a Pasture or Paddock

Every horse herd has a hierarchy. | Photo courtesy of Horse Journal

Horse Journal Performance Editor John Strassburger has decades of experience handling and training horses under a variety of circumstances. With a strong Pony Club background as a child, John emphasizes safety in his barn every day.  Here he shares with us important thoughts about turning out horses with other horses in the pasture or paddock:

Safety is critically important whenever we’re around horses, and turning horses out in a paddock or pasture is, in my experience, potentially a rather dangerous time. But I so often see people lead their horses into a paddock as if they’re walking into the embrace of their mother’s arms. So this week I’m going to offer three safety tips for any time you’re turning horses out into, or bringing horses in from, a paddock or pasture.

People often suffer serious injuries turning horses out because they don’t understand their own horse’s reactions to being turned loose or they’re unaware of the herd dynamics of horses. They don’t understand that every group of horses has a herd hierarchy, which sometimes is much more stable than at other times. One or two horses are on the top, and everyone else is below them. But the hierarchy isn’t always stable, and the less stable that hierarchy is, the more potentially dangerous the situation could be. You could be walking into a power struggle and not realize it.


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I’m not all suggesting that horses are vicious creatures looking to nail you. They’re not. But they are big and strong, and as they interact with other horses or release their own frustration, they can easily forget that you’re standing just a few feet away from them. That’s how you get run over or get a foot to the chest or head.

These thoughts occurred to me as I was thinking about horse-related injuries the other day and then as I watched a new working student of ours turn a horse out. Watching her, it was obvious she was blissfully unaware of the potential dangers lurking around her, so I gave her a “lesson of the day” when she’d succeeded in putting the horse in his field.

I told her that there were three rules to remember when turning horses out, and here they are:

No. 1: Be very aware of the other horses in the paddock or in any paddock you have to walk a horse through. Try not to turn your back on them, so they don’t surprise or corner you.

No. 2: Don’t be reticent about being too “mean” or “rough” to move horses away from the gate and, thus, away from you. Be assertive. Yell. Swing a lead rope or wave a whip at them. Do whatever you have to do to get their attention, to make them notice you, and, above all, to make them respect you and your space. Do not let them crowd you and the horse you’re leading. And read their body language to determine if they’re about to move away, wheel to kick out, or charge at the horse you’re leading.

No. 3:  Once you lead the horse into the paddock, walk well into it, away from gate and away from the fence, so you have room to move. You want to avoid getting pinned against the fence with nowhere to go, either by the exuberance of the horse you’re leading or by other horses crowding him. You need to be able to get out of the way. Yes, 99.9 percent of the time, they don’t mean to hurt you. You just happen to be in the way that .01 percent of the time, and the results can be really painful, or worse.

Two of my more memorable horse-related injuries were pasture incidents. One happened while I was walking a horse across a pasture toward the gate, bringing him in for his dinner. Another horse galloped up behind him, frightening him, and he bolted. I held on to the lead rope, because he was a hard horse to catch, and he pulled me over. My right elbow hit a sharp-edged rock and caused a three-inch laceration on my elbow that required a trip to the emergency room for about half a dozen stitches.

What made that injury so memorable was that our county had just opened a new emergency room that was severely under-staffed, and I sat, uncomfortably and increasingly irritably, in the waiting room for at least two hours before being seen at all, causing the wound to swell and become considerably more painful.

The second incident involved trying to chase away a horse new to our farm as I was crossing through his paddock with another horse. The new horse was socially retarded, we learned, and I turned to chase him away but didn’t accurately gauge his sluggishness and practically walked into one of his hind feet. I turned at the last moment to try to evade his kick, and he caught me basically point-blank in the right lower back. That bruising and stiffness lasted for weeks.

I’ve described these injuries, and offered these tips, as a reminder of how powerful and, at times, unpredictable horses can be. These recollections show why we have to approach our horses with confidence but with respect for, and wariness, of their strength.

Categories: Rider Education.

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