It is important for horse handlers and facilitators to understand basic horse behavior and to be aware of early warning signs of a fight-or-flight response so we can allow participants and horses to focus on the equine-guided activities. As well, you need to brief participants on the basics of horse behavior and safety. Module 6, First Steps in Facilitating, includes material and a basic outline for this safety orientation. It is built on these general horse safety tips.
Approaching a horse.Enter a horse’s personal space with respect and make sure the horse knows you are there and that you are approaching. Most horse experts say that horses have at least a 6-foot personal space zone. Horses don’t like to be surprised! Approach a horse from the side and with no sudden movements or loud voices. Horses have good peripheral vison, but don’t see you when you approach directly from the rear or straight in front of them. Just as a horse reacts when a person enters his personal space, he will react when another horse enters that space. This is why we ensure that horses are well spaced from each other during Workshop activities.
Petting a horse. Horses can’t see a hand coming straight at them, so it is better to pet a horse on the neck or approach the horse from the side to pet his head. In on-site training, you will learn how to teach participants to approach a horse by making a nose. The participant makes a loose fist and places it 3-6 inches from the horse’s nostril to see if the horse responds. This keeps fingers safely tucked in and allows the horse to “nuzzle” with the participant’s softly closed hand. We do not encourage hand feeding.
Being next to a horse.Walking behind or under any part of a horse is not safe. If a horse is at liberty, only enter his space when the horse accepts your advances. Always give yourself space to move away from a horse. For example, never position yourself between a fence/rail and a horse. We encourage participants to stand close to the horse to protect themselves if a horse tries to kick out. To brush the tail, we demonstrate how to stand at the side of the horse, close to the hindquarters, running a hand down the horse side or back and lightly pulling the tail to the side.
The head of the horse. As tempting as it is to lay head to head with a horse, we discourage this activity because a horse can swing its head quickly if responding to an external distraction. A horse’s head is powerful and can cause harm.
The feet of a horse. While standing close to a horse can diminish injury if a horse kicks out, you need to watch where your feet are in relation to the horse’s hooves. Staff and participants should always wear closed-toed shoes and be aware where their feet and all four hooves are. When cleaning a hoof, it is best to keep your feet at the side so if the horse has to put its hoof down suddenly it doesn’t land on your foot.
The Stop, Drop and Move Technique can help you when you feel that something you are facilitating is moving towards being unsafe.
“Stop, Drop and Move” doesn’t have to be a dramatic stop. For example, if you see a participant leading a horse into an area of the arena that could put the participant too close to the inside rail and the horse, the conversation could go something like this.
Facilitator: Let’s stop walking for a minute. I started to notice that you were walking towards the inside of the rail. What do you think might happen?
Participant: I was trying to move the horse over because I didn’t want to get stuck but I couldn’t figure it out. I kept walking towards the gate even though I was nervous and uncomfortable.
Facilitator: Ok, it looks like what you were doing wasn’t quite working for you. What else could you try?
Participant: Maybe I can walk the horse in a circle and turn the horse around so I am facing the inside of the arena.
Facilitator: Ok, do you want to try that now?
Often times when these situations are debriefed, participants comment how nice it was to realize that they could stop and try something else if a situation wasn’t working for them or the horse. It is when we get so focused on an outcome that the energy shifts to succeeding at a task that the process and sometimes the safety can be compromised.