Worried about keeping small children safe around the barn? Here’s a comprehensive set of safety rules for handling and riding horses, especially slanted for kids.
Safety on the Ground
Approaching, catching. Always speak to a horse to alert him of your presence before walking near; this avoids provoking his startle reflex. Approach from the side, to avoid his “blind” spots (directly in front of and behind him). Touch him first on the neck or shoulder, with a firm but gentle stroking motion.
Be especially careful when entering a pasture or paddock containing several horses (they can inadvertently jostle or step on you, or even kick). Also, don’t take grain or other food into a group of horses–this just entices them to crowd around you and could incite a “food fight,” with you caught in the middle.
Leading. Always use a lead rope attached to the horse’s halter, rather than grasping the halter itself, which provides no options if the horse were to startle. Don’t coil the end of the lead rope around your hand, where the loops could tighten; instead, fold it back and forth and grasp the middle of the folds. To avoid being pulled over and dragged, never wrap a lead rope or any other line attached to a horse around any part of your body.
Don’t allow the horse you’re leading to touch noses with an unfamiliar horse, as this can lead the “strangers” to suddenly bite or strike at one another. (This applies when you’re mounted, as well.)
Tying. Tie a horse “eye high and no longer than your arm,” meaning the tie knot should be at least as high as the horse’s eye, and the distance from the knot to the halter should be no more than the length of your arm. Tie only to a safe, solid object, using a quick-release knot or breakaway string (your child’s instructor will explain how). Keep your fingers out of the loops as you tie the knot. Tie only with a halter and lead, never with bridle reins.
Grooming/handling. Stand near the shoulder or next to the hindquarters rather than directly in front of or directly behind a horse when grooming his head or brushing or braiding his tail. To walk behind a horse, go either (1) close enough to brush against him (where a kick would have no real force), keeping one hand on his rump as you pass around; or (2) far enough away to be well out of kicking range. Avoid ducking under the tie rope; you might cause the horse to pull back, and you’d be extremely vulnerable to injury if he did.
Trailering. Never fight with a reluctant horse to get him into a trailer; seek professional help and retraining, if necessary. Once a horse is in the trailer, close the back door or ramp before you hitch him to the trailer tie. When unloading, untie the horse before opening the back of the trailer, so he doesn’t begin to back out on his own and hit the end of the rope, causing him to panic and pull back.
Turning loose. When turning out a horse or pony for exercise or returning him to his paddock or pasture, always turn his head back toward the gate and step through it yourself before slipping the halter off to avoid his heels in case he kicks them up in delight at freedom.
Feeding treats. Give carrot or apple chunks from the palm of a flattened hand to avoid being accidentally nipped. Better yet (especially in the case of greedy horses or ponies), put treats in a bucket before offering them.
Safety in the Saddle
Supervision. Until skills are well established, your child should ride only under supervision. This is especially crucial for younger children. Jumping should be supervised at all times.
Safety gear. Essentials include proper footwear (boots or shoes with hard toes and a heel) and, whenever mounted, a properly fitted helmet that meets current safety standards. [The Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) certifies helmets that meet or exceed the American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM) standard for equestrian headgear. Use only helmets with the ASTM/SEI mark.] Safety or breakaway stirrups (designed to release the foot easily in the event of a fall) are advisable, as is a safety vest for cross-country jumping.
Tacking up. A bit that pinches, ruffled hair under the saddle pad, a too-tight back cinch–any of these can cause a horse or pony to act up “unaccountably.” Make sure your child always follows her instructor’s rules for proper bridling and saddling. With your or her instructor’s help, she should also regularly inspect her equipment for signs of wear that could cause a rein, stirrup leather, or other essential part to break.
Preparing a fresh mount. A child’s horse or pony must always be evaluated for excess energy before the child mounts. Longeing by an experienced person will “take the edge” off a fresh horse and make it less likely he’ll act up when ridden. (Remember, excess energy results from overfeeding, lack of exercise, or both.)
Mounting. Your child should never mount where there are low overhead clearances or projections. She should follow proper technique (her instructor will show her how) and maintain contact with the reins as she swings aboard. Her horse or pony should stand still for mounting, or else be held by an adult until your child is securely in the saddle.
Paying attention. Staying calm, focused and alert in the saddle at all times is a key safeguard. Your child can have fun, but she mustn’t ever become careless or unmindful.
Trail riding. Don’t allow your child to ride out on the trail until her instructor deems she is ready, teaches her how, and assures that her mount is trail-safe. Your child shouldn’t ride out alone at any time.