Horses – handling
Schools that keep horses must have the use of suitably constructed yards and other handling equipment. These yards may be portable but must be solid in construction and erected in a way to be safe for both humans and horses.
Fences, gateways, gates and all facilities used to handle horses must be constructed and maintained to reduce the risk of injury.
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Horses should always be approached in a calm, quiet way and handled in a firm and non hesitant manner. Horses have a great ability to sense fear therefore handlers should be confident in their actions and always be aware of their ability so as not to take on a task too difficult that will result in a poor outcome. Schools should always choose horses with calm, placid temperaments that have had extensive handling. Horses in schools should be quiet enough for students to undertake all management tasks with minimum restraint.
As with all livestock, horses have a flight zone. This flight zone is the area around the animal, that if penetrated, the animal will attempt to move away. Each individual animal’s flight zone will influence how the animal can be handled and how they will react to a handler and groups of students. Horses in a school system should have a small flight zone, as a result of extensive handling. Most horses used in schools will be broken in, meaning they have been taught to be saddled, bridled and ridden. The only time a horse’s flight zone needs to be considered is with unbroken or unhandled horses, which are undesirable in a school environment.
Capture, handling and yarding of horses
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Within a school system where horses are kept it is unlikely that horses should need to be mustered, herded, yarded for catching and placed in a crush. Horses kept in schools should have had previous extensive handling and be easy and safe to catch, handle and perform routine husbandry procedures on. Horses that appear dangerous, unsettled, aggressive or pushy when being handled should not be handled by students and should be removed from the school. Professional trainers can be sought to handle any horse that becomes a potential risk to students and handlers.
All horses in schools will need to be handled for worming, vaccinations, shoeing/trimming, dentistry, rugging, grooming, hoof picking, and transport. In cases where students bring their own horses, various types of handling will be required depending on the discipline that the horse is used for.
The way that horses behave during handling is a result of:
- the amount of handling they have had
- the quality of that handling
- their genetics.
Animals, including horses have been found to have colour perception. This should be considered when students are handling horses or riding them as horses will often spook or baulk at brightly coloured objects or sudden changes in colour. When leading or riding horses it is important to be aware of particularly brightly coloured objects or sudden changes in colours and be prepared for the animal to look at it and sometimes take fright and shy away. More experienced horses and horses with a more docile temperament are less likely to shy away from brightly coloured objects. If you see something that you expect the horse to shy at, it is best to approach the object with the horse slowly and allow them time to look at the object.
Due to the horses’ strong flight instinct, their first reaction is usually to jump or run away from something they find frightening. The flight instinct should always be taken into account when handling and is therefore advisable to handle horses in an enclosed area so that if a horse is to get away from the handler, it cannot escape and come to any harm. Riding should always take place in an enclosed area or fully fenced paddock, where the gate is kept closed. Students should only handle and ride horses under teacher, trained staff or instructor supervision.
Tethering is not acceptable as a routine husbandry practice. The most common methods of restraint practiced on horses are tying from a headcollar or hobbling. Any animal which is restrained should be appropriately educated to do so to reduce stress and chance of injury.
When catching a horse in a paddock it is important to approach the horse slowly and ensure it is aware of your presence, this allows the horse to turn around and see the handler. If the handler suddenly appears close to the horse without warning the horse may take fright and run away, placing the handler at risk of being kicked as the horse runs off. The handler should approach slowly and hold a hand out to allow the horse to sniff it. If they horse is comfortable with this then the lead rope can be placed over its neck and the halter fitted to the horse's head. Horses should always be led on the right hand side and the handler should walk at the horse’s shoulder.
Horses in schools should be easy to catch, restrain and lead with a halter and lead rope. In the case where a horse becomes difficult to catch it is recommended to keep the horse in a smaller yard or paddock until the problem has been addressed. If a horse is difficult to catch while in a large paddock, a number of handlers can be used to calmly, slowly and patiently herd the horse into a sectioned off part of the paddock or through gate into a smaller yard. Once enclosed in a smaller yard the horse should be approached very slowly by the handler, allowing the animal time to become comfortable with the handler. If the horse becomes distressed or aggressive the handler should retreat and not get in the yard with the horse. Due to horses' strong flight instinct they can come very dangerous if they feel threatened or scared and may cause harm to the handler or injury to themselves. A food reward can be used to encourage the horse toward the handler. It is good practice when catching a horse that is difficult to catch, to reward (food or patting) and release the horse very soon after catching. This method ensures the horse does not associate being caught with pain or distress. Once the horse is comfortable with being caught, routine activities can occur.
In the case where a group of horses paddocked together become difficult to catch, routine feeding in the same spot each day can assist with encouraging the horses to approach handlers.
In the case where horses need to be yarded for catching, quarantine and handling, yards need to be of a suitable structure for horses. Horses are very strong, flighty animals and when captured in a small yard, they can easily injure themselves if they are frightened. Yards must be of solid construction using solid timber post and rail or smooth metal piping and steel posts. Wire fences should not be used in small yards. Gates should be constructed so as horses cannot place their foot through a gap and get it stuck. Gates need to have spaces in mesh or steel too small for a horses hoof to go through, or large enough that if it goes through it cannot get stuck. Fences should be well maintained and free from sharp protrusions, loose wire and barbed wire. Gates should have chains or latches that cannot be undone by the horses playing with them. Yard fencing needs to be high enough so that horses do not see jumping out as a possibility as this can result in serious injury. Recommended height for standard horse fencing is 1.45 metres however fencing for small yards or round yards should be 1.5-1.6 metres high.
Restraint will depend on the activity being carried out but in general horses need to be tied up for most husbandry procedures, grooming, tacking up and transport.
If a horse becomes frightened or feels threatened, it will attempt to run away. Because of their large size and strength, they can easily injure themselves if they try to run away while tied up. To avoid injury the following precautions should be taken when tying up a horse:
- The horse should always be tied to a single loop of bailing twine or similar material so that if it takes fright, it can break away easily.
- Hitching rails and tying up areas need to be of solid construction so as not to break in the event of a horse pulling back.
- Horses should never be tied on slippery surfaces; rubber matting should be placed over slippery concrete.
- The area around a hitching rail or tie up area should be cleared of objects that a horse may injury itself on and there should be space to the sides and behind the horse.
- Horses should be tied using a quick release knot at all times so that it can be released quickly and safely by the handler.
- Never tie a horse directly to a solid object.
- Horses should never be tied up using a bridle, only a halter or neck collar.
- When performing a husbandry procedure that is likely to frighten the horse, untie the horse and have it held by another handler.
A cross tie involves tying the horse from both sides of its headstall and will minimize the ability of the horse to pivot around a central point when being handled. They need to be designed by an experienced person taking into consideration the height of the ties and a rail behind the horse to prevent injury and flipping if the horse does pull back.
Lifting up one leg of the horse will enable another person to more easily handle one of the other legs for clipping or application of surgical dressings. A crush with solid sides is preferable so that the horse cannot get its legs caught.
Twitching is a common procedure used to provide extra restraint for horses. It involves twisting a rope tightly around the end of their nose or ear and holding it tight to keep the horse still.
Twitching is painful for the horse and can cause severe injury if not carried out correctly. For this reason twitching is not allowed in schools, unless it is essential and carried out by a competent person. It must not be done as a teaching activity.
There is a high risk of injury to both horse and handler if twitching is performed incorrectly or without expertise. If a horse requires extra restraint, seek veterinary assistance. A vet can twitch the horse for you or sedate it if they see it as appropriate. An equine professional may also twitch a horse in the school situation but only where absolutely essential and not as a teaching activity.
Horses in schools should be trained and handled extensively before introducing them to a school system. This improves the experiences for both horse and students and reduces risk.
Watch this horse management video
Horse handling and training video series – Includes information and student activities downloads.
Training horses is important to improve handling outcomes in a variety of situations and for different purposes. These include:
- Handling, catching and yarding
- Showing and preparation
- Movement between paddocks and facilities
- Routine husbandry procedures
- Specific training for work e.g. mustering, pen riding
- Specific training for sporting disciplines, e.g. dressage, showjumping, eventing, campdrafting.
Routine is extremely important when training animals. Older, well-trained animals can be used to guide younger or newly acquired animals into good habits and help reduce the time taken in training.
Horses will usually come up for feeding when called or see something related to feeding time, especially once they are in a routine. Placing new or young horses with existing horses that are familiar with the routine will aid the familiarisation process.
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Students need to be given supervision and assistance when handling, riding and preparing horses for shows and competitions. Schools should provide qualified instruction to ensure that students learn techniques and develop skills appropriate to the discipline, e.g. showjumping, dressage.
Coat care and grooming
Time and effort should to be put into a horse’s appearance and coat health leading up to a competition.
Horses being shown need to be groomed regularly and washed just prior to the competition. When washing an animal, choose a shampoo which is designed for animal use, to avoid skin irritation. Care must be taken to ensure that shampoo does not get in the eyes and water does not go in the ears or nose. All shampoo must be thoroughly washed out as it can cause irritation and hair loss if left in the hair.
Coat condition can be improved by regular brushing, rugging, appropriate feeding and worming routines. Tails should be trimmed regularly to maintain thickness and a suitable length. Brushing the tail everyday can pull out a lot of hair, therefore reserve brushing for immediate show preparation, using a detangling product. Manes can be pulled or trimmed, however some horses may not allow their manes to be pulled. Hooves should be painted after picking out with suitable horse hoof oil on the walls, upper hoof, sole and frog.
Clipping is a common practise in performance, race and polo horses which are worked all year round at high intensity. The practise reduces overheating and increases cooling, ease of washing and drying and helps to prevent fungal skin conditions related to sweat build up particularly around the saddle area.
Clipping is not as easy as it looks, therefore it is recommended to employ a professional to ensure a quick, neat job. Some horses are very sensitive to the noise and feel of electric clippers and may become stressed and irritated when they are used. If a horse appears to need further restraint other than a headstall and lead rope, seek veterinarian assistance, for sedation. Calling in a veterinarian to sedate a horse will greatly reduce the risk of injury to both horse and handler and is recommended rather than trying to restrain and clip a frightened and stressed horse.
Clipped horses will require quite extensive rugging. As an alternative to clipping, horses can be kept under lights to mimic the summer daylight hours. Light receptors in the eye relay changes in daylight hours to the pineal gland, producing melatonin. As daylight hours decrease, melatonin synthesis increases and promotes hair growth.