Horse Riding and Handling: Expert Advice

Making a great sport safer aim of new campaign launched by UK and community partners

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Armed with the number of horseback riders seen annually in UK’s Emergency Department, a unique collaboration between the University of Kentucky and community partners was born. “Saddle Up Safely” is a five year educational and awareness campaign to educate horseback riders about horse handling safety, ultimately reducing the number and severity of rider injuries.

National statistics underscore the need. Millions of people ride horses each year, generating approximately 79,000 emergency room visits, with more than 13 percent of those admitted to the hospital. It is estimated that one in fi ve equestrians will be seriously injured during their riding careers. And novice riders, especially children and young adults, are eight times more likely to suffer a serious injury than professional equestrians. Many of those injuries are preventable.

The campaign, led by UK HealthCare in conjunction with the colleges of Agriculture and Public Health, includes informational brochures; an interactive Web site featuring safety tips; stories from injured riders; a horse rider safety blog; continuing medical education opportunities; education-based programs; and a volunteer-based speakers auxiliary.

Please check back here often, as the campaign will feature a regular column. In it you will find horseback riding and safety tips, safety information, exciting giveaways and new campaign features. For more information about the campaign, its partners or for a chance to win WEG tickets, please visit


Safety on the ground: Never forget who’s boss

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Horses are herd animals, and all herds have bosses. For maximum safety, always know which horse is boss. Horses establish a “pecking order,” or hierarchy, in the herd.

The pecking order can come into play when feeding as few as two horses, and disregarding it can have devastating consequences. A helpful family member on a small hobby farm once agreed to be the substitute feeder for the family’s two horses. Unaware that one horse reigned relentlessly over the other, she approached two hungry, loose horses with one bucket of grain. The herd boss, determined to get first dibs at the contents of the bucket, whirled around at high speed and kicked powerfully with both back feet. Aiming to run off his rival for the grain, he instead landed a kick squarely on the chin of the bucket-bearer, knocking out three teeth and leaving a scar for a lifetime. Remarkably, she remained conscious and got quickly to emergency treatment.

This incident could have been avoided with good safety practices. The dominant horse should be fed first, at a sufficient distance to minimize conflict. It may be necessary to separate the horses before approaching with feed. Understanding herd dynamics will help protect against injuries to people and horses.


Horses and Dogs

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Most horse lovers also love dogs. So we need to make the most of this relationship while keeping safe. Here are some tips:

  • Introduce your dog to your horse in a low-key environment. Pick up the dog and present it to the horse. It’s better to do this while the dog is a puppy so he/she won’t be aggressive toward the horse.
  • If your horse is scared of dogs, be very calm and assure both dog and horse that it’s a good thing to be friends. Don’t rush. It may take months before they are comfortable. If one does not accept the other, don’t force the issue.
  • Do not ride a horse in the presence of a dog that you are not familiar with or bring a dog around a horse that you’re not familiar with or a horse that does not like dogs.
  • Be responsible – teach your dog respect for livestock, to stay away from the horse’s heels, and that it’s a privilege your dog must earn to join you and your horse while riding.
  • Don’t put your pooch in a situation where he/she can get hurt by an aggressive horse.


Staying safe in an unexpected thunderstorm

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Most riders know to postpone a trail ride or outdoor schooling session if the forecast calls for thunderstorms. But how can you best keep yourself and your horse safe when a thunderstorm develops unexpectedly?

Remember that if you can hear the sound of thunder, even if it seems distant, you are in danger. Don’t wait for a storm to get right over your head before you seek shelter.

If you can’t get to shelter immediately, dismount. Lightning seeks high points and a mounted rider is a target. Seek safer terrain in lower elevations, away from open fields, water and tall isolated objects. Here’s where having trained your horse to tie well will be vital. Tie your horse to a sturdy low bush - never a tree - and move 40-50 feet away. Don’t lie down, but squat in what safety experts call the “lightning crouch,” with your heels together.

Wait 30 minutes after the last thunder clap before emerging. Watch for the after effects of sudden severe weather, such as wind damage and flash flooding. The more you know about your terrain, the safer you can be in bad weather. And if you are in doubt, stay home.


Horseback Riding with a Medical Condition

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Riding horses even when you have a chronic medical condition can still be safe and fun if you take a few precautions. First, always ride with a buddy! Some advice for common conditions include:

  • Blood thinners: Wear that helmet! Someone on blood thinners like Coumadin or Plavix are at increased risk for severe bleeding in the brain due to a fall.
  • Allergies: Riders with severe type allergic reactions (anaphylactic) where breathing could be compromised need to carry with them Benadryl and an Epi-pen. Epi-pen must have an MD prescription but if the rider’s allergies are severe enough this can save someone’s life. Let your buddy know of your allergies, and that you have medication in your fanny pack.
  • Diabetes: Keep your blood sugar meter with you to check your blood sugar. Also keep snacks in a back pack for quick access; high sugar snacks and glucose pills or gel if needed for battling episodes of very low blood sugars. Also for high blood sugar the rider will want to carry with them insulin that they are required to take; especially if out riding during or around meal times or on an extended trail ride.


Picking out a good horse

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Before you purchase a horse, consider how you will be using that horse because different breeds have different personalities and purposes. To select the best horse for you:

  • Find a reputable trainer/instructor in your area and ask him/her about different breeds and their purposes.
  • If new to horses, spend as much time around them as you can so you can learn their behavior, handling and how you should behave around them.
  • When you are ready to purchase a horse, ask the trainer to help you find a horse that suits your horsemanship skills level.
  • Do not buy a horse sight unseen. Before you buy a horse, you and your trainer should ride him. Also, many people will let you take the horse home for 30 days before you make your decision.
  • Have a vet do a prepurchase exam to be sure you are getting a healthy horse.
  • If you are an inexperienced rider/horseman, you should not purchase a green horse (a horse that has not had a lot of training) or a young horse (anything between a foal to a 6-year-old horse.)


Dealing with and unruly horse

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Horses establish dominance by aggression. Because they relate to you as part of their herd, you will want to be higher in the hierarchy than your horse. If your horse doesn’t respect you it can be a very dangerous situation for you.

Signs of disrespect include turning their back to you, stepping on you, crowding you, slamming their body against you or hitting you with their head. Horses also give clear signs when they are mad, uncomfortable, stressed or unhappy before they kick or bite. Unsafe signs include pinned ears, baring teeth, switching tail or aggressive look in their eyes.

Not correcting bad behavior ultimately rewards your horse for being disrespectful.

What do you do if you already own an unruly horse and you are an inexperienced horse owner?

You can either sell your horse and find a more suitable one or find a reputable trainer or horse person in your area to train your horse and teach you how to develop the horse’s respect and your own horsemanship skills. There are established methods that a good trainer can use to help you and your horse.


Books: Another way to increase safety knowledge

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The best way to learn horse riding and handling safety is from an experienced instructor. However, horse riding safety books are another option to supplement your learning.

Many of the books can be found in libraries and all can be purchased inexpensively as used books in used bookstores or online. Some examples of good reading include:

Early Publications 

  • Kauffman’s Manual of Riding Safety, Sandra Kauffman, 1978
  • Walter Farley’s How to Stay Out of Trouble with Your Horse, Walter Farley, 1981
  • Riding and Stable Safety, Ann Brock, 1983

More Recent Publications 

  • The Horse, Safety and the Law, Vanessa Britton, 1994
  • 101 Trail Riding Tips, Dan Aadland, 2005
  • The Complete Equine Emergency Bible, Karen Coumbe & Karen Bush, 2007
  • Composite Horsemanship Manual, Certified Horsemanship Association, 2008

For Children 

  • Safe Horse Safe Rider: A Young Rider’s Guide to Responsible Horsekeeping, Jessie Haas, 1994
  • Safety, Toni Webber, 2004
  • Horse Safety, Elizabeth Moyer, 2008


Ready to Ride Again?

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HorseQuest, a national equine resource team founded by the UK College of Agriculture, reports that women over 40 are the most frequent visitors to its Web site.

Many adults now have time to resume a sport they loved as children. If this describes you, one thing for sure is that your muscles will recover more slowly than you remembered!

In addition to managing a creakier body, you should consider other ways to return to riding safely. Use modern, technologically improved safety equipment such as breakaway stirrups, better helmets and protective vests.

Also, if you are riding a friend’s horse, don’t assume it is “bomb-proof,” no matter what the owner says. Horses respond to individual riders in different ways, so always use caution.

It is advisable to take a few lessons from a responsible trainer, in addition to using modern safety equipment, to have the safest possible return to this wonderful sport. If you are returning to riding, whether you are male or female, you can share your tips with others on our  Saddle Up SAFELY Web site.

Help make a great sport safer, regardless of your age!


Fitting Your Equestrian Helmet 

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A helmet that fits properly is one of most important pieces of safety equipment horse riders can use. To make sure you get a good fit:

  1. The front of your helmet should be a quarter-inch to a half-inch above your eyebrows.
  2. The helmet should fit snugly enough to leave a slight mark on your forehead.
  3. When you shake your head, the helmet should not slip up and down or side to side.
  4. The chin strap should be as snug as possible without making it difficult to breathe.
  5. If you are going to wear your hair up, be sure to put it more on the back of your head rather than on top, and compress it as flat as possible. Ideally, it is better to gather it in a hairnet at the base and sides of the helmet.
  6. If your helmet has a V-shape adjustment system for the straps, take the time needed to make sure the straps pull the helmet straight down.
  7. Check the fit of your helmet every three months: Straps stretch out, padding settles and the fit changes.
  8. Also check the fit if you cut your hair.


Safe riding in snow and ice

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Horse lovers like to ride even in the winter. So here are some tips to increase your safety.

Don't ride in the snow unless the area where you are going to ride is familiar to you and you know there are no holes. Snow can cover a hole and your horse can step in it. Depending on the depth of the hole, your horse can end up hurt and you may end up on the ground as well. Also, snow can hide hardware, scrap metal or wood boards with nails sticking up. If you know your surroundings, such as a paddock where you always ride, you and your horse should be fine.

Another consideration is that snow can pack up under a horse's hooves, which can form into a big snow ball, which can be very unsafe for you and your horse. This is less problematic in unshod horses but can happen if their hooves are untrimmed. To prevent that, use cooking spray, petroleum jelly or oil on the hooves before you go out to ride.

Never ride your horse on ice. They can fall and break their limbs, and you can also hurt yourself.


Psychological Consequences of Equine Injury

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Equestrians traumatized by an equine injury often experience some psychological distress. Some examples of the psychological consequences of trauma are nightmares and flashbacks of the injury, avoidance of horse-related activities, and sleep disturbances. When these last a long time they can result in considerable social, occupational and interpersonal difficulties.

Equestrians often avoid dealing with psychological trauma. Talking about the injury without adequate help can cause additional distress. Also, equestrians may erroneously think themselves weak or inadequate if they are unable to deal with their distress on their own. One other danger is that the fear and anxiety caused by the injury can negatively influence their riding skills and communications with their horse and may result in repeated riding accidents.

To recover from trauma related to equine injuries:

  • Seek support from family, friends.
  • When necessary, seek professional help.
  • Think of the injury as an opportunity to learn and grow both as a person and as an equestrian.
  • Consider working with an instructor or attending a clinic that addresses issues related to fear and recovery from equine injury.


Preventing Horse-Transmitted Diseases

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  • Consult your veterinarian to develop a comprehensive preventive medicine program, including vaccinations and biosecurity.
  • Have a veterinarian evaluate sick horses, especially those with behavioral changes, including aggression.
  • Isolate sick horses and take precautions by wearing protective clothing such as separate coveralls and disposable gloves and booties.
  • Always avoid hand-to-mouth or -nose contact when handling infectious horses.
  • Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling ill horses, especially those with diarrhea.
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer gels (≥62% ethyl alcohol) are effective in killing many bacteria and viruses when used on hands that are not visibly soiled.
  • If treating a horse with a potentially zoonotic disease, wear disposable gloves and thoroughly wash hands afterward. Consult a veterinarian for a diagnosis and recommendations.
  • Always consult your physician if you have suspected exposure to a zoonotic disease or have any questions regarding its symptoms, diagnosis or treatment. Tell your physician about any animals you may have been around.
  • Become educated on horse diseases, especially those common in your area.


Reducing Horse-Related Injuries to Children

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Nearly one in five emergency department visits for horse-related injuries involves a child under age 15. Tips for having a safe experience include:

  1. Children should possess the balance and coordination to ride independently. They should be able to follow directions and to interact properly with the instructors and other students. Typically 6-8 years of age.
  2. Most injuries to children 7 years of age and younger occur from being kicked or stepped on. Younger children need to be instructed on horse safety but also closely supervised by an adult at all times when around horses.
  3. Children's lessons should be given by an experienced, qualified instructor who has a history of safely teaching children. The  American Riding Instructors Association and  Certified Horsemanship Association offer a list of certified instructors.
  4. Lessons should take place in a safe, flat, uncluttered, fenced location away from traffic or external noises. The size of the horse should match the size of the child, and children should only ride on horses trained for beginners or novice riders.
  5. Children should always wear a helmet, hard-toed shoes and long pants. The saddle should fit the child and size of horse.


Trail riding etiquette is based on safe behavior

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Good trail riding etiquette keeps you, your horse and other riders safer. In addition, it ensures that you are respectful of trails and land areas from the time you arrive until you leave. While you're riding, keep these points for practicing good trail riding etiquette in mind:

  • Park only in designated areas.
  • Tie only to your trailer or designated tie areas, or use a safe high tie (do not tie directly to trees).
  • Keep your horse moving while he or she passes manure on the trail.
  • Take out everything that you bring in (pack it in, pack it out).
  • Stay on the trail – do not go off the trail to pass around certain areas; abide by all voluntary trail closures.
  • Only enter waterways at designated crossings.
  • Avoid muddy trails; if you have to pass through mud, ride your horse at a walk.
  • Obey all signage – do not ride in areas not designated for horses.
  • Collect muck and scattered hay from your tie site and dispose of it at home or in a designated area.
  • Fill in any uneven areas created by you or your horse.


Tell us about your horse-related injury 

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Horse riding and handling injuries are more common than most people think. While novice riders and children are more likely to be injured, even instructor-level riders have nearly a 40 percent chance of being seriously injured in their lifetime.

To reduce the number and severity of horse-related injuries, a coalition of more than 30 medical and equine organizations led by UK HealthCare and the UK College of Agriculture Equine Initiative have embarked on a campaign to educate the riding community about horse safety. The Saddle Up SAFELY campaign is inspired by studies that show 40 to 60 percent of injured riders say their injuries were preventable and due to rider error.

If you have been injured riding or handling a horse, tell us about the experience. Visit to share how you were hurt and include any advice you may have on how to prevent similar injuries. Share your safety tips by Wednesday, June 30, and you will be eligible to win one of several exciting prizes including four tickets to the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games!


Tips for working with a green horse


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  • Never work by yourself. Even if you're just doing ground work or grooming, your horse can become easily startled if he's still green.
  • Make sure your environment is safe. That means no protruding nails or boards in any area you plan to take your horse. If you're working a large horse in a round pen, make sure the walls are stable and tall enough to ensure the horse is not likely to jump out.
  • Always wear a helmet, even when you are doing ground work.
  • Walk or lunge your horse under tack to let him get used to feeling the equipment on his back and face.
  • Never wrap a lunge line or lead rope around your hand or fingers, even if your horse is quiet. One good jerk from your spooky steed and you'll be caught. Loop it into large coils and grasp the line around the center.
  • Be patient. Remember horses are prey animals and their instinct is often to flee from frightening or unfamiliar situations. Accepting a rider can be counterintuitive and scary for your horse. If he becomes overwhelmed during training, take a break or start again the next day.

Teach your horse to tie

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Horses need to learn to be tied and stand quiet so they can be safely handled, saddled and taken care of by vets and farriers.

  • One technique to teach your horse to tie is to connect the horse by its halter to a cotton cinch around a donkey's neck. Donkeys are stronger and more determined than horses. So the horse gets to be a donkey buddy for two weeks. That donkey will teach the horse to stand patiently, to yield to pressure and to do what the donkey (and later on, you) wants it to do. If the donkey wants to eat hay, he pulls the horse to the hay manger and they both eat. And that goes for everything: drinking, coming to the gate, etc.
  • Pretty soon the horse will figure out that it had better safely follow whoever is leading its halter.
  • The good news is you don't have to teach a donkey to teach your horse; they do it instinctively.

Taking your horse on a trip? Use this checklist to have a safer trip.

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  • Wheel bearings serviced? (Service bearings every 12 months/12,000 miles and carry a spare bearing.)
  • Tires in good condition? (Look for dry rot and replace every three to five years regardless of mileage.)
  • Check tire pressure (including spares and inside tires on dual wheels).
  • Is the hitch locked on the ball? Is the ball the correct size?
  • Are safety cables/chains connected?
  • Plug and secure electrical connection.
  • Connect emergency breakaway system.
  • Make sure the emergency breakaway battery is fully charged.
  • Test trailer lighting (turn signals, running, perimeter) and brakes.
  • Test brake controller.
  • Check trailer flooring for cracks, rot, rust or damage, especially under mats.
  • Prior to loading horse(s), check the trailer for hazards such as sharp edges, loose metal or wood, or insect nests.
  • Place leg wraps and head bumper on the horse(s). 
  • If tying horse to trailer, include a breakaway link on trailer end (i.e., bailing twine). • Secure and lock all trailer doors. (Use snap or carabiner to prevent accidental opening).
  • When driving, keep headlights on for greater safety even in daylight.
Page last updated: 3/7/2017 3:51:58 PM