One 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.)