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Safe vs. Scared Mindset

woman and chestnut horse
mm
Written by Susanna Wright

Mentally Setting Yourself Up for (Safety) Success

Knowing the risks is the first step in learning how to mitigate them. We discussed equestrian risks and statistics in the article Why Safety Matters. Now, we will focus on how your mindset and behavior can be used to manage those risks.

Horse size, strength, and prey-animal behavior make them very different from other animals you might be around on a daily basis (e.g. cats and dogs).

The good news is that we have a lot of influence over our safety around horses by understanding how they think and react to stimuli—and how to respond accordingly (e.g. learning to tie a quick-release knot, wearing a helmet).

What is a safety mindset?

Learning about applicable risks and developing a safety mindset can help us to transform fear into proactive measures, which builds confidence. Confident handlers inspire calmness and confidence in our horses, allowing us to thrive together.

horse and human walking

Source: Canva

Developing a safety mindset is the foundation of equestrian safety and includes three main components:
  1. Assessing hazards
    • What is different today from the last time you were out at the barn or riding in a particular area? This could include weather, barn traffic, or equipment that has moved.
    • Humans are good at recognizing patterns—use this to mentally flag if something is out-of-the-ordinary that might worry your horse.
  2. Conducting routine safety inspections
    • Make it a habit to regularly inspect your horse’s environment and equipment. This could include checking its stall and turnout area for hazards, like a broken board, protruding nail, or sharp edge your horse could scrape against.
    • When was the last time you inspected your stirrup leathers for cracks or uneven wear? What about whether your bridle is wearing out at the buckles?
  3.  Participating in safety training
    • Make a point to learn new things that help keep yourself and your horse safer.
    • This could be something as simple as mastering a quick release knot, learning the emergency dismount, or figuring out how to correctly wrap your horse’s legs to protect them when trailering or jumping.

Creating Good Habits

Developing your safety mindset takes practice, and that means making safety a habit.

The key to developing habits is repetition—do things the same way, every time.

Both horses and humans thrive on routine, and safety should be no different.

girl wearing helmet riding palomino

Source: Canva

For example, put your helmet on every time you ride, whether you plan to jump a cross country course or mosey around the indoor bareback at a walk.

Close gates and latch the stall door every time, so you never have to second-guess and stress about a loose horse.

How often do you have to consciously think about putting your car seatbelt on? Probably not much, as you’ve made it a habit so reliable that you do it without thinking about it.

A key component to a safety mindset is being situationally aware.

Make it a habit to constantly be scanning your surroundings, looking for things that may be out of the ordinary.

  • Look: Scan your surroundings for anything out of the ordinary, including changes to your environment that could put you and/or your horse at risk.
  • Listen: Pay attention to sounds (e.g. wind, slamming doors, kids) and use that information to proactively keep your horse feeling safe and secure.
  • Feel: Make a habit to regularly check your horse for bumps, lumps, or swelling. Feel around your horse’s stall or paddock to inspect for sharp edges, too.
chestnut horse wearing bridle

Source: Canva

Another reason to develop your safety mindset is to ensure you feel comfortable and relaxed around your horse. Horses are incredibly sensitive to human emotions—they look to you as the leader.

If the “leader” is nervous, uncertain, or apprehensive, that tells the horse that there is danger.

As a flight animal, the horse is more likely to react to fear with a flight response that’s common to prey animals—which can be dangerous for all involved. By learning your horse’s typical responses to fear and stress, and understanding basic equine psychology, you can create a safer environment for your horse as well as yourself.

Equine Behavior 101

Horses are herd animals—they live together in groups (i.e. herds) and develop a hierarchy, or “pecking order.” As a result, some horses will be more dominant than others.

You should always be the “alpha” in the relationship you have with your horse.

Be sure to pay attention to your horse’s behavior and ensure they are yielding to and respecting you. Horses should be taught to respect personal space—this minimizes the chances of being injured while working with horses on the ground (e.g. being stepped on, bumped into, kicked, pinned, or run over).

horse riding lesson

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Understanding how your horse’s vision works also helps understand how they may react. Since their eyes are set on the sides of their head, instead of the front, horses have excellent peripheral vision.

Given their eye placement, horses have a blind spot directly in front and directly behind them.

Never sneak up on a horse—use your voice and touch to let them know you are approaching or moving around them at all times.

Horses are prey animals, so when presented with something scary, they are generally going to choose to run away. This can be dangerous—a loose horse could trample a human, injure themselves, or even run into a road and risk being hit by a car.

What spooks a horse can vary greatly (and even comically!) depending on the animal and the day.

Here are a few common stimuli to be aware of:

  • Loud and/or unfamiliar noises
  • Surprising or sudden movements
  • Nervous or misbehaving horses in proximity to yours
eventing horse in field

Source: Canva

What else might a horse spook at?

  • The wind
  • Coming around a corner (even if it is the same view as the last 27 times…)
  • Miniature horses or donkeys
  • People walking or on bikes in the distance
  • An object seen out of the left eye, which was not scary when viewed from the right eye
  • Plastic bags blowing in the wind
  • Ducks (aka “Paddle Tigers”)

A spooky horse is a danger to itself and others. By learning your particular horse’s quirks, you can be on the lookout, plan, and react. Your ability to handle a spooky situation will be more successful if you aren’t surprised.

For example, if a particular horse is known to spook on windy days, you may opt to make other plans on a windy day that don’t involve riding. Perhaps groundwork in the round pen is more appropriate.

Signs a Horse is About to Spook:

  • Whites of the eyes are showing
  • Head is up, ears are pricked
  • Loud exhales and/or a change in breathing
  • Jigging instead of rhythmic gaits

Developing a safety mindset takes time, practice, and repetition.

It may feel more difficult due to peer pressure, real or perceived. One example is around helmet usage, especially at horse shows where they might not be required (e.g. Western shows).

Don’t be afraid to set a positive example and stick to your values, even if you are the only one out there wearing a helmet!

You may be the nudge someone else needs to embrace wearing their helmet more frequently.

horses grooming each other

Source: Canva

Parting Thoughts

If you are just starting out, consider asking safety-related questions as you evaluate different horse stables. It is easier to learn safety from a barn that practices safety on a daily basis. There is nothing wrong with focusing on safety—you and your horse will be happier and healthier as a result.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: What is the safest way to ride a horse?

A: Know your limitations and be sure you’re getting a solid start! Find a reputable horse trainer that specializes in lessons for beginners. You should be outfitted in a riding helmet and riding boots with a heel. Beginning riders should be paired with an experienced, calm mount to safely learn the basics. Riding in an arena is safer as you learn the basics.

Q: What should you never do when working with horses?

A: This list could actually be quite long! However, the most common answer to this question is to never stand directly in front of or behind a horse. Because of their eye location on their head, horses have a blind spot directly in front of them and directly behind them.

You should also never go underneath your horse. Always go around, letting them know where you are at all times both with your voice and a gentle touch.

Q: How do you read a horse’s behavior?

A: Learning to read equine body language isn’t hard, it just takes some observation and experience.

Equine ears are a great indicator of where their attention is. If they are pricked forward, the horse is looking ahead at something. If they are both rotated back, they are likely listening to their rider or aware of something behind them.

If their ears are pinned flat back, move away! The horse and could bite, kick, or strike out.

horse with ears pinned back

Source: Canva

Want to read more about the basics of horse handling? Check out this article.

P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to: 

Sources:

Understanding Horse Behavior

Essential Safety Rules to Follow

Safety Around Horses

Equestrian Injury Statistics

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About the author

mm

I started riding horses in elementary school and never stopped. From my early days in 4-H to the college equestrian team, I've tried a little bit of everything. Riding Quarter Horses has been my sport of choice for the last two decades, including finishing in the Top Five at the Quarter Horse Congress along the way.