Top 5 Barn Safety Tips With Hilda Donahue

Erin Lassere stands next to a bay horse wearing a black bridle

By Erin Lassere

Let’s face it: equestrians live a high-risk lifestyle. We spend countless hours around animals ten times larger than us. Accidents can occur with even the most schooled, laid-back lesson ponies and the most experienced handlers. 

The nature of equestrian sports ensures that we cannot prevent unexpected incidents. However, there are steps we can take to make ourselves and our horses as safe as possible.

Having spent decades around horses, upper level event rider and endurance rider Hilda Donahue has seen it all. In Episode 23 of Ride iQ’s Office Hours, Hilda offers her best barn safety tips.

1. Prepare for Everything

It is every equestrian’s nightmare to find themselves in an emergency situation without the proper tools or support present to resolve it. With horses, there is no such thing as being too prepared.

Some steps to take:

  • Post important phone numbers in the barn. This should include the numbers of the veterinarian, farrier, barn manager, barn owner, and owners of the horses.
  • Have an operational fire extinguisher, and have fire drills on a regular basis.
  • Keep a complete and up-to-date first aid kit readily available. Same goes for a well-stocked tool kit.
  • Keep a spare halter, lead rope, and lunge line on hand.
  • If your fencing has wire mesh, wire cutters should be kept near the paddocks in case a horse catches a leg in the mesh.

2. Practice Proper Leading

It is easy to take that one phone call while leading the quiet horse, or to leave that one halter unclipped because the paddock is close to the barn. However, leading horses can put us in extremely vulnerable situations, and it is important to always practice vigilance.

  • When you are leading a horse, make sure that you are directly by their shoulder. Do not let the horse fall behind you, and do not let him drag you either.
  • Avoid distractions–your attention should be totally on your horse and your surroundings.
  • You should always lead with two hands: one near the halter, and the other near the end of the rope.
  • When you are turning, always turn the horse away from you, like you would on the jog strip.
  • If you are turning on a hard surface such as asphalt or concrete, make very wide turns to avoid slipping.
  • When you turn your horse out, consider giving him a treat and making him stand. This way, his attention is on you instead of galloping away into his field.
  • Unless it is absolutely unavoidable, do not lead two horses at once. There are enough accidents that can happen while leading only one!

3. Haul Responsibly

If someone asked you to step into a small metal box headed to an unfamiliar destination, would you? We ask our horses to do this frequently, and it takes an immense amount of trust on their part. One unpleasant or unsafe trailering experience can diminish this trust.

You should always allow plenty of time for loading. If you are rushed or stressed about being late, your horse will be able to sense it. Be as patient as you can. 

“Being safe takes being thoughtful. Think ahead, and don’t rush.” 

  • It is a good idea to practice loading the day before you travel to make the experience as easy as possible.
  • Ensure that your horse is accustomed to his shipping wraps or boots before traveling.
  • Your horse should be wearing a leather halter, and you should be wearing gloves.
  • In case of emergencies, the person driving the trailer should be the one tying each horse. This way, each knot can be undone as fast as possible.
  • Air flow is extremely important while traveling, but never allow horses to stick their heads out of the trailer while the rig is in motion.
  • When you arrive at your destination and need to tie your horse to the trailer, make sure your rope is not too long or short. Three feet is a good length.
  • Always tie to baling twine or other breakaway material.
  • Someone should always be on watch in case a horse breaks away from the trailer. 

4. Safety First in the Barn

We should all strive to make our barns as safe and horse-friendly as possible. We can’t prevent every accident in the barn, but there are several ways to lower the chances of them.

  • The barn floors should not be slippery, and the grooming and tacking areas should have rubber mats that are in good condition.
  • Cross-ties should be thick cotton ropes, never nylon. They should be attached to baling twine or other breakaway material.
  • If you do not have access to cross-ties or need to tie your horse in the stall for another reason, make sure you tie to breakaway material.
  • Cross-ties should always have quick-release snaps.
  • Never tie your horse to the back wall of the stall, as this forces you to move near his hind end when you enter and exit the stall.
  • We all love our hooks for hanging various items, but they can be a hazard. Consider replacing all of your hooks with safer options, such as bars or shelves.
  • If you cannot avoid having hooks in the barn, put tennis balls on the ends of them. Another alternative is using rubber hooks that bend, such as Flex- Hooks.
  • Snaps should always be facing inwards and away from your horse.
  • The barn ceilings need to be high enough so that if your horse spooks and raises his head, he will not hit it.
  • The stall doors should be large and easy to open and close quickly.
  • A lunge line should always be easily accessible in case a horse gets cast in the stall. 

5. Ditch the Nylon

We love the fun colors and patterns that nylon halters come in (plus, they’re inexpensive!). However, the safety benefits of leather are worth the investment.

Even nylon halters with breakaway pieces are not ideal. The safest halters will always be completely leather. Make sure you keep your leather cleaned and conditioned to avoid cracking!

Nylon cross-ties should also be avoided if possible. If you are near them, and your horse spooks or makes a sudden movement, the nylon can give you a burn.

You should also replace your nylon hay nets with cotton hay nets. Cotton will have more give than nylon in the case of your horse getting a hoof caught in his hay net.

Following the theme, trailer ties should never be nylon. 

Hilda Donahue jumps a chestnut horse over a show jump wearing a black jacket

Want to learn more?

You can listen to the full conversation with Hilda on the Ride iQ mobile app. Download the app on iPhone or Android to sign up and start your two-week free trial! You will have unlimited access to all previous Office Hours recordings, exclusive podcasts, and hundreds of listen-while-you-ride audio lessons. 

What are Ride iQ Office Hours?

Office Hours are weekly, live virtual events with a guest expert who takes attendees on a deep dive of a timely and important equestrian topic. Past topics have included things like “Green Horses 101” with a Grand Prix dressage rider, “Ask-A-Vet” with a US team veterinarian, and “Conquering Nerves” with a sports psychology coach.

Every week, Ride iQ members are invited to tune-in live to join the conversation and ask questions. All Office Hours episodes are recorded and shared on the Ride iQ mobile app.

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