Calculated (and Uncalculated) Risk

mecamilla_bvcOne of the stronger recent shocks to the horse community came when what had been viewed as a nuisance case in Connecticut was judged, not just once but again on appeal, against the horse owner and in favor of the plaintiff who wanted horses declared “inherently vicious.”

From the horse world’s perspective, here was a small child provoking a horse into biting it, and getting what he deserved (and the view on the parents is about what you would expect, as well). But from the outside, and from the law’s perspective, here is a large, dangerous animal that can and will harm a human if not properly restrained.

It’s long been standard in horse facilities for owners to post signs along the lines of “Ride At Own Risk” and “Do Not Feed the Horses,” and to discourage strangers or passersby from wandering in and getting into the horses’ stalls and paddocks. The size and strength of the animal, the hardness of hooves and the tearing power of teeth, do add up to definite safety concerns when civilians, especially very young or inattentive ones, intersect with the equines.

But then again, what really is safe? Driving to work can get you crashed into and killed, taking the bus likewise, you can trip while walking and break your neck, you can choke on your breakfast scone and suffocate–life is dangerous. Anything can kill you. Just ask horror writers who devote whole careers to finding the deadliness in ordinary things. (Blenders, gas stoves, garbage disposals…)

In the end it’s about what a person considers to be an acceptable risk–whether of necessity or by choice. When it comes to horses, as with any other sport or avocation, the risks are a given, and the sensible horse person takes measures to minimize them as much as possible.

This means always being quietly alert, always paying attention to where the horse is and what signals he’s sending with his body language and attitude, and always having an escape route in case the horse abruptly goes splooie. And when that isn’t possible, knowing what to do and how to keep from getting killed. (Pro-tip: If you’re trapped in a corner and the horse wants to kick, don’t pull back–move in close and if possible in between the hindlegs, and let the horse kick past you. Then pray you can get out before he flattens you against the wall.)

So yes, I was inattentive last Tuesday morning, I was half asleep, I was putting the really Big horse in a stall and Evil Gelding was next door and I didn’t watch for flying hooves and Ow. She got me in the thigh and didn’t break anything, but oh, the colors! And the sheer extent of them. I was in close, too, but when the hoof is a good six inches across…well. Ow.

But was this an inherently vicious animal? I vehemently beg to differ. She was making a statement to the snot next door, and forgot to consider tiny human in middle. From the horse perspective, it was a light tap. Too bad for me that I was off my game and not watching for the really quite natural interaction between that particular combination of personalities.

That’s not viciousness. That’s Stupid Human Tricks.

So today I was introducing a stallion to the mare we’re hoping to get bred this spring. Unlike the previous episode, which was unplanned and I got what I deserved, this was calculated. I rode him first, to establish calm and focus and to reinforce his respect for my authority. I had backup justincase–no going it alone, no. Then we set up the space, mapped out the exit routes, and chose equipment to control the testosterone bomb.

I’m told it was impressive. I was busy keeping myself out of the way but keeping the stallion from getting too aggressive with the young and inexperienced mare. Yes, he was on his hindlegs at times, and striking with his forelegs, and generally doing what came naturally. But these were expected things, planned for, and the weaknesses in the plan that became evident (not quite enough space after all–we’ll use a different paddock next time) were not fatal or even damaging. Seconds after being told that was enough, we were done for the day, he was back on all fours, calm and attentive, and happy to go and eat his lunch.

That’s worth the risk for the result. But it takes planning and foresight. Calculation, in short.  And not being fearful or timid or anxious, but definitely being aware.

Which is why random toddlers wandering in can get into trouble–just as they can with your sweet and gentle dog or your couch-potato cat or your lawn mower or your box of matches or, god help you, your swimming pool. It’s not that any of these things is inherently vicious or inevitably deadly, it’s that sometimes, in the right or wrong circumstances, things can go wrong.

Why, yes, I am Much more alert in the mornings these days. Also, much more careful of where I am in relation to the large and sometimes cranky animals who make me and others so happy so much of the time. I had a literal wake-up call–and it made me that much more conscious of safety when we worked with the stallion, too.

Thanks after all, Very Big Mare. I needed that. (Ow.)

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Calculated (and Uncalculated) Risk — 17 Comments

  1. Ow. Hope the rainbow colours vanish quickly.

    Three weeks ago, I did not pay attention while walking through a door. I broke two toes. I am not on a campaign to ban all doorframes as vicious and to abolish them from our homes, even though I swear it leapt out and assaulted me.

    Also, vetwrap rocks.

  2. A good deal of blame may be laid at the door of Walt Disney and his heirs. All those kid movies in which the deer cavort happily to your door, picking up the dirty laundry along the way! All those mice, helping to sew Cinderella’s ball gown! The raccoon sitting on Pocahontas’s shoulder! (A criminally deceiving movie — coons are vicious, and vectors for rabies.) Children are indoctrinated to believe animals are not only friendly, but cuddly — living stuffed toys.

    • A 3 yo child isn’t capable of a lot of rational behavior anyway–being still in the experimental/Darwinian stage of life. Its parents, on the other hand…

  3. O, ouch! That must hurt a lot. I hope the hurt recedes quickly. The bruising will take a lot longer to disappear.

    There’s another thing for strangers to keep in mind when the impulse to invade get very close to any animal, or even baby and child — this is their world, their space, and they don’t know you. Moreover, you might be carrying some infectious virus or something. Also, wanting to give these beings you don’t know and who don’t know you treats? How do you know what you want to give them won’t hurt them? You don’t know them!

    Also on your part that’s bad manners, rude, discourteous, etc.

    Love, C.

    • Last week there were a bunch of teenagers poking at the horses and throwing things at them. First time in all the years I’ve had horses here. I went out with dog on leash and as nicely as I could, instructed them in proper behavior around horses. At least one of the horses would have been happy to rip off a face or a hand.

      I don’t want to be the next test case for the vicious-horse movement, thankyouverymuch.

  4. Reminds me of an incident some years ago. I went with a friend who was taking care of someone else’s horses while he was in hospital. The horses were in their stalls. One paid no attention to me, but the other stuck his head waaay out and bared his teeth. Ears flat, eyes wide open. I knew I wasn’t good enough at reading horse language to tell if this wasn’t a genuine threat. But I also knew I was 100% responsible for whatever happened next if I didn’t take it seriously. The horse was telling me something, I just didn’t know for sure what. You better believe I stayed well out of reach!

    • Horses do put their ears back a little when they’re uncertain, and might nip (mostly at air) or wave a hindleg around without meaning to connect _yet_ (the next reaction depends on the human handling – sometimes you can defuse it, sometimes you can ignore it outright, sometimes you need to take it seriously like hell because the next step is getting nailed.

      The expression you describe is a horse being utterly serious, and if you *do* have a barrier between you and them, keep it there. Otherwise find one.

      (I’d be very hesitant even about a horse I knew well, and I’d try to get them out of that mood before moving into reach; a strange horse showing that expression is one I would not approach.)

  5. So much craziness. “Animals should not have free will! They should be controllable machines, and we shouldn’t have to have any responsibility for our choices to interact with them while ignorant!”

    Bah.

    I’m glad you were close to the Big One. And Ow. Virtual liniment!

    • Liniment much appreciated. Likewise, sentiments re. the ignorant and the animals. It’s amazing how many people do not understand the dangers of something as big as a horse, and how many are just plain unaware. They don’t pay attention at all–just plow along expecting the animals to get out of the way.

      Luckily I have yet to find a neighbor kid in the actual space with the horses. That would be heart-stopping.

  6. Yikes on your bruise and double so on the legal decision. Scary stuff as it has insurance repercussions–yet another excuse to raise rates or deny liability insurance to horse owners, or people who own dogs of the wrong breed.

    Were the teens receptive to your instruction?