Monday, May 11, 2009

Beginner mistakes that can kill your horse...

As I've posted before, I didn't get a horse early into my riding career. I lived in the 'burbs and my mother steadfastly declared that no way was she going to that smelly barn on a daily basis. So horse ownership had to wait until I had a driver's license and as a result I was at least a mediocre owner, if not a good one, by the time I had something with four hooves to call my own. In the meantime, I took nine years of riding lessons. While my instructors were far from George Morris, I did acquire the basics and the ability to ride the "advanced" school horses - aka those given to frequent spooking, bolting, bucking and similar behaviors.

Still, I made a lot of dumb first-time owner mistakes. My horse lived in a tie stall for quite some time, something I feel guilty about to this day. I am lucky that the barn had a good farrier, because I wouldn't have known good from bad. I'd read
every horse book on earth, so that was somewhat helpful. Still, it is probably a very good thing I'd grown up in a barn full of adults all too happy to screech things like "pick up that lead rope, he's going to step on it!" at me when my teenage brain had wandered.

Sadly, not all horses are fortunate and every day, horses get sold to rank beginners - people whose knowledge base is limited to having ridden a friend's horse a few times or gone trail riding on vacation. They have a couple of acres, and their impression of a horse is that it is kind of like a big dog. It will mow the lawn and you can ride it.
An amazing number of horses survive this kind of ownership, but the fact is, some do not. Few beginners understand how easy it is to kill a horse. I see these people on message boards daily, asking questions that make me want to march the streets campaigning for ownership licensing and a test. Sometimes it is too late and they are already posting about the loss of their horses.

Since I know that a lot of beginners do read this blog, today we are going to talk about the mistakes that
really can kill your horse. Those of you who aren't beginners, please add to my list!

1. Turnout in a halter that will not break - i.e. nylon or rope. If any of you have a stack of Western Horseman magazines from the 1970s, I need a favor. Can you scan that ad showing the dead horse hung up on the fence? They don't use that ad anymore - I'm sure some parent sued for their child's emotional distress - but it's a damn shame because it got the message across. I am still, in 2009, reading message board posts from someone who turned out in a nylon or rope halter and came back to find a horse hung up with a broken neck. Even a horse who ties very well may panic when his head gets trapped unexpectedly. This can happen when he's scratching an itchy spot on a t-post or something like a piece of loose metal on the barn (of
course, that shouldn't be there either). Some horses will even catch a back foot in their halter as they scratch themselves, and you can imagine the injuries that result. The solution is simple - either turn out with no halter (this is always the safest and if you can't catch your horse, you have something to work on, don't you?) or turn out with a breakaway halter.

A related problem - tying too long. When your horse is tied, a loop of lead rope that hangs down to your horse's knee or further is absolutely too long. If the horse paws and hangs himself up, you're likely to see a panicky episode that will scare you to death and can very well result in a severe injury to both the horse and any human who tries to free him. Tie with no more than 2-3 feet of rope between the horse's nose and the tie rail or ring, tie with a quick release knot, and make sure you pull on the lead and check it before you walk off to ensure that the horse can't get a few more feet of slack free with the first tug. This is particularly important when tying to the side of the trailer at a trail ride or other event - I always see horses with so much slack in the lead that it scares me. Tie high and short and keep hay nets high and short as well - nothing at leg level. Not ever. Don't even get me started on "staking out" - yeah, I know there are .0005% of the horses in the world that someone has trained to do this and they're just fine, but most of the time, it is a train wreck waiting to happen. Don't do it.

2. Uncapped t-posts and other unsafe fencing. Your realtor is most likely NOT a horse expert. Every day, I see properties full of barbed wire and uncapped t-posts marketed as "turn-key horse farms." While there's a fairly easy and cheap fix - capping the posts and replacing the barbed wire with another form of fencing like electric rope or tape - beginners are often told "oh, it will be fine." Look, I could publish gory pictures all day showing that it may not be fine. And while it's true that horses hurt themselves on other kinds of fence, it's simply not as common and the injuries are rarely as severe as the injuries from barbs that dig in and tear the flash. With regard to capping t-posts, I once almost lost a horse myself because I failed to do that. A horse who tries to jump out can impale himself on the top of an uncapped t-post, and a horse who is scratching may cut himself. Mine cut herself on the underside of her face, right between the cheekbones and right into her jugular vein. T-post caps are cheap and they slip right on. Go pick some up if you haven't already.

3. Pasture obstacles. Horses are not, no matter what anybody tells you, "smart enough" to stay away from tractors, old cars, playground equipment, loose sheet metal, sinkholes and other pasture hazards. If there is a means of self-destruction in their turnout area, they are likely to find and use it. It is important to go out and physically walk your pastures looking for hazards before you ever put a horse out there. I've seen old farms where coils of old, rusty barbed wire hid in the weeds. A few years ago, there was a much-publicized case where a beautiful warmblood stallion fell into an old well on a property and broke his neck. You can read several cases on Netposse where the horse was found on the owner's property stuck in a sinkhole or something similar. I've also seen cases where erosion has taken back the edge of a ditch to where the horse can fall in without ever getting outside of the fence.

I've seen horses kill themselves on things like a rough piece of sheet metal coming off the back of a shed, a support cable for a telephone post, farm equipment that was parked in the pasture for just a day, and the list goes on. If you can't immediately remove a hazard, shield it from the horses using a few corral panels. These are a quick way to build a barrier around something like an old well, a collapsed building, or some metal pipe to nowhere sticking up out of the ground.

4. Grass can kill your horse. To make a long explanation short, the sunny and warm days of spring raise the sugar content of grass pasture. This can render grass dangerous to eat - the sugars upset the normal balance in the horse's digestive tract, resulting in toxins which lead to founder, aka laminitis. Founder is without a doubt one of the worst things that can happen to your horse. In its most severe form, the hooves are so badly affected that the horse must be euthanized. Even in milder forms, it is a management issue and the horse may require a lengthy rehab period, expensive special shoeing, and to be "dry lotted" - kept in a dirt field with no grass - the rest of his life. The classic situation is a beginner who purchases a horse from a boarding barn where it has only gone out in dirt paddocks, brings it home to the idyllic farm they just purchased and puts it out on lush green pasture. The horse looks happy - heck, the horse looks ecstatic - but days later it can hardly walk and by the end of the week, it is dead. Rule number one: Horses do not know what is good for them. They can also founder after getting into the grain - your grain should be kept in a locked room or a spare stall where a loose horse at 3 AM cannot get to it. If you purchase a horse who hasn't been out on grass, introduce him to it slowly. Start with 15 minutes of grazing and then back into the stall/dirt paddock he goes. Work up by increasing the time a little bit daily until the horse it out 24/7 if that's what you desire. He won't like coming back in - but you'll save yourself a four-figure vet bill and a lot of heartbreak. Another option is a grazing muzzle, which allows the horse to be turned out with the herd and drink but keeps his grass consumption to a minimum. If you've purchased a previously foundered horse (your vet can tell you), fencing in a dirt paddock is probably your safest bet.

FYI, grass clippings from the lawn are never safe for horses. They start to ferment almost immediately in a bag or pile. Hand-picking grass for your paddock kept horse is fine, but the leftover from the mower belongs in the trash heap.

5. Other horses can kill your horse. Some boarding barns are just not very smart about turnout. While a certain amount of roughhousing, nipping and the occasional kick is normal in a herd of horses, you will occasionally see a horse who is truly aggressive. He continually runs at other horses, ears pinned, teeth bared. He will start chasing another horse and it won't end after three strides (that's normal herd behavior - the chase ends when the submissive horse runs away) - he will chase that horse for laps around the pasture. This horse can kill your horse. This is how horses get so panicked that they do try to jump out of the fence. They can get cornered in a run-in shed or fence corner by a horse like this and kicked so severely they have to be euthanized. Absolutely do not allow your horse to be turned out with a horse like this, even if he does not seem to be the focus of the horse's aggression. It's much better that your horse go out in a small paddock by himself.

No, you don't want to be the overprotective horse parent who has hysterics over a tiny nip mark, but if you've ever seen a truly aggressive horse like this in action, you know what I mean. You are the paying customer at a boarding barn, and you do have the right to demand your horse be kept as safe as possible - please don't back down because someone scoffs at you and tries to make you feel like a stupid beginner. If you are going to make mistakes, erring on the side of caution is always best!

So, what else would you add to the discussion? What do you think are the most important things for first time owners to know - the things that absolutely CAN kill their horse if they don't know them? I'm not talking about all of the fine points of tack fit - I'm talking about things that can result in life-threatening conditions.