By: Larissa Cox, M.Sc. Applied Equine Science
Someone once said that a childhood spent with horses is a childhood spent learning responsibility. When children start spending time with horses, they start on the path of learning, and the wonderful adventure is that this learning is a lifelong pursuit. I remember my mother telling me that bonding with horses is much more than barn chores and riding lessons. It is a time when a trusting partnership between person and horse develops. A horse, just as a child, if there is no trust and respect, he will not listen. We all know that it is impossible to eliminate all the risks when dealing with horses, but education on horse safety will greatly reduce the possibility of an accident and injury.
A horse cannot see directly in front of or behind him, so when approaching a horse, speak to him to let him know that you are coming. This lets the horse that you are coming closer and will prevent him from being startled. Children should always approach the horse at his side, touching his neck or shoulder first. Do not come up to the horse from the back as he may kick you – hard! Teach children to stay calm, focused and alert to the horse. Children can have fun, but cannot be careless or irresponsible around these animals.
This may be strange, but leading a horse does require a lead rope! Children should never learn to lead a horse by simply using the halter. If the horse should spook, holding onto the halter provides absolutely no options and can cause injuries. The lead rope attaches to the horse’s halter and is held folded in the hand. Teach children never to wrap a lead rope around their hand, or any part of their body. Walk beside the horse when you’re leading him, not ahead or behind. Never sit on the ground next to the horse.
Feeding carrots, apples or treats can be so much fun, but there are safe ways for children to feed treats to horses. Feed carrots or apple chunks from the palm of your flattened hand to prevent any finger biting. Better yet and especially in the case of greedy horses, teach children to feed the horse by putting treats inside a bucket. Teach children to avoid the horse’s mouth (no kisses).
One of the most important safety lessons a child needs to learn is how to tie a horse securely. The knot should be at least as high as the horse’s eye and the distance from the knot to halter should be no longer than the length of an adult’s arm. Teach a child the quick-release, or breakaway knot method of typing their horse. I remember using the kitchen chair while my Mom showed me how to tie the quick-release knot.
Have children stand near the shoulder or next to the hindquarters rather than directly in front or directly behind a horse when grooming his head or brushing his tail. Don’t duck under the tie rope when wanting to get to the other side as this may cause the horse to pull back and again put the child at risk for injury. Have children be mindful of the horse’s feet as horses are often careless about where they step. Funny as this may seem, but remind children that when they release the horse’s foot after cleaning, make sure their foot isn’t in the spot where the hoof will hit the ground. Please ask children that when they groom the horse’s lower leg, never to kneel or sit on the ground but to remain squatting so that they can jump away if needed.
When blanketing the horse, always have children fasten the chest straps first, then the girth, then the hind-leg straps. When they remove the blanket, unfasten in reverse order. This makes it impossible for the blanket to slip and become tangled with the horse’s legs.
A child should never mount their horse under low overhead clearance or projections. They should follow proper techniques and maintain contact with the reins as they swing aboard. The horse should stand still for mounting or be held by an adult until the child is securely and comfortably in the saddle.
Children should ride with adult supervision until their skills are well established. Riding instruction is highly recommended. Safety includes proper boots and a proper fitting approved helmet (ASTM/SEI). I remember that the first number of years I rode with breakaway stirrups as well as a safety vest in case of a fall. Actually, I wasn’t able to ride my horse unless I wore the proper clothes with my shirt tucked in, proper boots, helmet and my vest! Mom’s rules! And, I remember my mother always telling me “don’t goof off in the saddle!” Staying calm, focused and alert in the saddle at all times is a key safeguard. Children can have fun, but shouldn’t become careless or unmindful!
Don’t allow your child to ride out on the trail until their instructor deems that they are ready and teaches them how ensuring that the horse is trail safe. Your child shouldn’t ride out alone at any time.