Thursday, September 2, 2010

"Who's to blame for injuries": Part 1

The Horse Journal (Aug 2010) wrote on just this subject in Who's to blame for injuries? The author muses that when horses are injured,  blame can be placed on any number of people, or alternately " there is the 'accidents happen' excuse that lets everybody off the hook." 

Accidents happen??
Well, when we talk about Exxon, or BP, or Toyota accidents happen is not acceptable. In these instances we ask a lot of questions about risk management and investigate whether safety practices were followed. Is 'accidents happen' a sufficient explanation for a career- or life-ending injury to a horse?  To me the answer is no.

Okay -- some tragedies are unavoidable -- but so many more are the direct result of human indifference or arrogance. Catastrophic injuries are often the result of a cavalier attitude toward an animal's safety. Just a few examples from my own experience...
  • A barn worker breaks a barn rule and ties a horse to a rickety hitching post cemented into the ground. The horse spooks and  runs away with the cement encased base of the post banging on his legs with each stride. Career-ending injury.
  • A trainer leaves a client's horse in a trailer unattended while showing other clients' horses. The trailered horse gets his leg caught in a hay net and struggles violently. He is freed, unloaded, and initially seems to have escaped with a few lacerations. Within a few hours his condition deteriorates, and  he's dead from a head injury.
  • A barn worker is frustrated with a hard-to-catch mare--she brings in the rest of the horses but leaves the mare out. The mare starts tearing around the field in a panic, but the worker leaves her out -- wants to teach her a lesson. The mare runs through the fence, torn up all over but badly injuring her knee. Out of commission for months, never really right on that leg again. 
 Choose your caretaker with care
Horses are a tough business. Many caretakers have heavy workloads; they may be burnt out; or their ego may cloud  their judgement.    A caretaker may make the mistake, but he or she gets to walk away from it. We, the owners, are left with an emotional loss, big vet bills, and maybe even the challenge of caring for unrideable animals.

Do you ever say to yourself,   Oh, but  I've done this for a long time, nothing's ever happened.  Lucky you -- your luck may run out, and it better not be my horse you're handling when it happens. It's true we can't control everything but that does NOT let us off the hook for accidents. Our job as owners, trainers, and caretakers is to minimize avoidable risk.

It's funny that I'm picking on barn workers -- after all I am one. The point here is not to assign blame -- it's a plea to avoid risky practices. People who do dangerous things (like handling horses) daily can forget what can happen--until it does.

Coming up next: Do our efforts to keep our horses safe hurt our horses?


  1. Some people view me as a bit of a nut on the topic, but we emphasize safety first, human and horse. We have rules for everyone. Each individual, client and employee alike, has a copy, plus a signed copy in my files, and the rules are posted in the barn. Breaking rules have consequences from not being allowed to ride (for a student) to being banned from the barn or fired. And so our accidents are at a minimum. Apathy, carelessness, and overblown egos are not tolerated. Being tough helps me keep order, and order prevents accidents.

    So what if some call me the Nazi B**** behind my back!

  2. A very good post! I worked for more than 10 years at a boarding barn where the barn manager insisted on taking "short cuts" that he'd used for years, like leading horses by gripping the halter rather than using a leadrope. I insisted that he use a leadrope on my green mare, because she had a history (at that time) of pulling back. He said that he would use the rope, but didn't...and got a broken finger for his trouble. "My horse's fault" according to him, but since I'd written my instructions on the notice board by her stall for all to see, I wasn't blamed (except by him).

    I left that barn a year ago, and since then the manager has been hospitalized TWICE by different horses trampling him when he was leading them without a rope. Slow learner? And also: he's getting older and more beat-up--he can't "out-muscles" the squirrely horses like he could when he was 40.

  3. Your examples sound all too familiar. I have a couple - a very alpha pony mare attacked and injured (life threatening head injury) another horse in pasture. Worker had to catch the mare to get her away from the injured horse so it could be attended to, but didn't take the time to walk her back to the barn. She was left tied to a tree branch, unattended, and strangled herself with her halter.

    I'm also thinking of Theodore O'Conner. Freak accident? Maybe... but then again maybe if there weren't sharp protruding metal edges on things, runaway horses wouldn't be able to kill themselves on them. Proving that these things happen at the highest level.

  4. Horses can get into a amazing amount of trouble. When we put them into artificial conditions--barns, fences, halters, tie ropes, etc. we just increase the number of ways they can get into trouble.

  5. Since I don't even own a home let alone acreage -- I pay for full care at boarding facilities for caretakers who are knowledgeable and PATIENT.

    Anyone who works with horses should ask, "What's the dumbest, most dangerous thing a horse could do in this situation?" And then prevent it.

    And everyone else, I trust my horse to behave when I shouldn't. So far I've been lucky.

    Kudos to the current crew where I board my horse for immediately acting on his apparent case of cellulitis. Swift and complete recovery.

  6. I find caring for horses is a bit like caring for a ward full of people with suicidal tendencies... you have to think like you're suicidal in order to prevent self-inflicted injury.

    We had a gelding come in from what we thought was the safest turnout in the world with a sizable gash on his hindquarters. We combed the fields and found only one culprit... there was an itty bitty piece of plastic bent and poking out like an eighth of an inch from the edge of the Rubbermaid water trough. Said gelding tries to put his feet in the trough (which is like four feet tall but still a favorite pastime of his despite our best efforts at preventing him from attempting to drown himself), scrapes the edge with his shoe upon exiting, scares himself, and gashes open his butt on the resulting tag of plastic.

    I have to say, Equine medicine is the career to have, lol. If treating the numerous injuries of accident-prone horses isn't job security, I don't know what is!

  7. @ Amanda: I love your comment about suicidal tendencies. I swear my (now retired) gelding went through a suicidal phase. First, he got a hind shoe caught in a "horse-proof" diamond-mesh fence, then thrashed enough to pop the cap off a t-post, then slammed the uncapped t-post into his neck. Fortunately, he missed his jugular by about 1/2 inch. A few months later, he somehow managed to get his face against a bois d'arc tree (they are covered in long thorns) that was 3 feet on the OTHER side of the pasture fence. Stitching that back together was way more fun than my vet wanted on a Friday night.

    So, while I agree that you should do everything you can to mitigate the possible ways they can get hurt, nothing with horses is fool-proof. No matter how careful you are, or how safe your pasture is, some of them will just find ways to hurt themselves.

  8. Can't wait for the next part of your series. The bubble-wrapping of horses--limited to zero turnout, wraps/boots and blankets when the the horse DOES get out, supplements and injections that may not be needed...the list goes on.

    I know a horse who died from panicking after being tangled in a turnout blanket. A horse who got a career ending infection in a joint after an injection. Not to mention the early-onset arthritis and soft tissue injuries that afflict horses who are only permitted to move about an hour or so a day, under tack.

    Look forward to hearing your take!

  9. This might also be seen as an excellent reminder for owners to train their horses. I know they can't do absolutely everything, but if they never bother to correct or work with their horse, then it's far more likely an injury will happen that will be blamed on whoever was handling a the moment instead of the person who let the horse get away with that behavior over and over and over again.

    Just a bitter barn worker, I guess. I haven't actually had an accident, but that's probably because I'm pretty much a safety nazi...

  10. "A barn worker is frustrated with a hard-to-catch mare--she brings in the rest of the horses but leaves the mare out. The mare starts tearing around the field in a panic, but the worker leaves her out -- wants to teach her a lesson."

    I have seen situations like this one far too many times, and even when you ask about it the response from the worker is generally, "She will come in when I say she can come in." or something along those lines.

    Another one I heard about was a young foal left with a tied mare in a trailer at a show. The foal tied itself up in the mare's rope and died just because no one was being attentive.

    We could all use more caution and care.


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