This week, I asked fellow writers to ask questions about what they want or need to know about handling and living with horses. Writer and artist M.C.A. Hogarth responded with a great question:
Can you tell us about common injuries sustained by people working with horses?
Oh, yes, I can.
Horses, as we’re all well aware, are quite large and generally inclined toward the flight end of the fight-or-flight spectrum. Humans, at a fraction the size and an even smaller fraction the strength, have to be very careful around them, because even when a horse doesn’t mean to, he can do real damage.
The vast majority of the time, of course, properly trained and domesticated horses are careful, and humans pay attention and don’t get all knotted up with terror, and the two species get along well. Riders ride, drivers drive, horses serve as companions and therapy animals. It’s a good deal for the human, and many times for the horse as well.
But even with that, there’s still the size disparity and the chance of accidents. I suspect most non-experts would think of riding accidents first. Falling off, getting thrown off. Horse falling and taking rider with it.
If the rider is both lucky and agile, she might land on her feet. Or she’ll manage to land with damage beyond a few bruises: tuck and roll, or find a soft spot to tumble into.
If she’s not lucky, things won’t go so well. There’s a reason why helmet propaganda is so pervasive in our bubble-wrap culture. Head injuries are common and can be serious or fatal. Not just rider landing on head, but rider tumbling off with no or minimal control and hitting her head during the fall. If the head doesn’t get hit, the spine might be injured or broken, as happened to the actor Christopher Reeve during a jumping competition.
Even a non-crippling or non-fatal fall will leave bruises and may result in damage. Bones can break. A torn rotator cuff is pretty common–rider may try to grab rein or saddle to keep from going off, or may land on arm and shoulder. Dislocated shoulder can happen, too.
The legend of the fall is that the rider will get up (if possible) and get right back on. And it happens, because that other legend is often true: If you don’t get right back on, you might not get back on at all. Also, it’s a good idea not to let the horse think he’s won a round, if the fall came about because the horse honestly wanted you off. You need to demonstrate that he might shed you once, but you’ll be back. And the session will go on, however abbreviated.
And then you tend him and put him away and limp off in search of the bag of frozen peas which all sensible horsepeople keep in their freezers.
Riding and driving accidents (which can come with bonus cart destruction and wipeouts–driving accidents can be quite bad) aren’t the only times that horses can damage humans. Handling them has its challenges as well.
Horses may flip out, shy wildly, bite or kick or pull away violently in response to various triggers. Trainers learn to wear gloves when working horses, especially young horses or rehabs, because rope burn is a distinct possibility.
Solid, closed shoes or boots are a must. Even the most careful horse and observant human can collide, and hooves are bloody hard–even more so if they’re shod. An accidental step or deliberate lean will bruise a toe or foot, even break it.
Being stepped on or being pulled away from can be accidental or unintentional. Bites, not so much. When a horse bites, he usually means it. His teeth are blunt but large and his jaws are strong. A bite will leave a mark–even break skin, draw blood, or worse. Which is why especially with stallions, early and assiduous education on both sides is essential, because stallions dominate with their teeth. They may kick or strike, too, but the first line of offense tends to be the mouth.
There can be unintentional bites, too: snapping at a fly, or at another horse, and forgetting or not realizing that there’s a human in the way. A horse may not think about how fragile humans are, either, and may nip at a human doing something a horse deems objectionable, such as taking a liberty or causing pain. A horse, similarly disciplined, might not take an excessive amount of damage, but a human’s thin skin and small size can make the injury much more serious.
Perhaps more common than bites are various forms of kicks. A human may be alert to the slashing teeth, but might not expect the flash of a heel–it can come apparently out of nowhere, and be completely unintentional on the horse’s part. Maybe he’s kicking at a fly and the human happens to be in the way. Or she’s making an editorial comment to another horse, and the human is passing by at just the wrong moment. Or the human has forgotten to announce her presence well in advance, and the horse, startled, lets fly.
Horse kicks are like being slammed with a sledgehammer even when the horse pulls back or isn’t trying very hard. I don’t know any horse person who hasn’t had at least one hoof-shaped bruise on their anatomy at some point. I even knew a man, long ago, who had a dent in the middle of his forehead. How he managed not to be lobotomized I don’t know, but he was fully functional and was still training horses. “She didn’t mean to,” was all he said of the mare who took out a portion of his skull.
My dent is in the thigh, from a very large mare who was aiming at another mare in the stall next to her while I was cleaning the stall. My fault for not paying close enough attention. She pulled back just a little too late, and it was still like being slammed in the leg with an anvil. I needed multiple bags of peas for that one. Even had to sacrifice some of the green beans. (Size 4 foot. Ow.)
Thing is, we expect some injuries as part of the job. We do our best not to have any, but we learn how to fall off a moving horse with minimal damage, and we also learn how to handle horses as safely as possible, while understanding what can happen if something goes wrong. We can’t let ourselves live in terror or we won’t be safe at all.
It’s still worth it. Horses are grand companions, and riding them, when it goes well, is amazing. So is driving them. And just being with them.
As long as we keep the frozen peas in stock. And work on staying alert and mindful whenever we’re around them.
I’m taking more questions, by the way–feel free to leave them in comments. After seven years of Horseblogs, I welcome suggestions, and will happily answer questions. Just ask!