Danger, Danger, Danger!
“I thought Fangorn was dangerous. 'Dangerous!' cried Gandalf. 'And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous — not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless.”― J.R.R. Tolkien
Farming is a dangerous business. The National Safety Council lists agriculture as having one of the highest accidental death rates among major industries. Add to this, the unpredictability of working with a 1000lb+ bundle of nerves, bone, and muscle, and it’s not a matter of if accidents will happen, just when. In fact, assumption of risk is one of the first things every person who sets foot on a horse property must accept, and most barns require guests and clients to sign a liability release waiver.
To understand the risk associated with working with horses, you must understand the nature of the horse. Horses are prey animals with a highly developed fight or flight instinct. Their anatomy is designed in such a way that they are hyper aware of their environment and are constantly on the look out for danger. They have an enhanced sense of smell and touch, acute hearing and mobile ears, and (almost) 360-degree vision. I say almost, because horses do have two blind spots – just in front of their head and directly behind their tail.
But it is not just their physical anatomy which allows horses to sense danger. Because horses are herd animals (who rely on their herd mates to watch their backs), they have evolved to read subtle signals in body language and are highly sensitive to emotions. Studies show that the heart has a larger electromagnetic field than the brain. The electromagnetic field projected by the heart of a horse extends up to 15 meters (a human radiates an energy field of 2.4 - 3 meters). It is this electromagnetic field which picks up on our anger, frustration, anxiety, and fear – and triggers a response from our horses.
This sensitivity to body language and emotions is why accidents so often occur when inexperienced barn hands or students are working with horses. A perfectly docile horse can be triggered into fight or flight by timid handling and the nervous energy being transmitted by a novice (imagine someone constantly yelling danger, danger, danger at you!).
Familiarity can also lead to accidents among experienced hands and riders, as working day in and day out with horses often leads them to take short cuts. I tend to forgo putting on halters when turning the horses out, which usually works out just fine, until the day a horse decides to panic at some imagined predator hiding in the shadows and runs me over, trampling on my foot in his attempt to escape!
When panicked a horses first response will always be flight - they are not really designed to fight off predators, but their long legs allow them to travel at speed. They will often blindly run through objects in their desire to get away. It is only if they truly have nowhere else to go and are completely trapped that they will resort to their second option - fighting. Here their teeth and hooves are used to good effect as we have all experienced when introducing a new horse to an established herd.
On one particularly memorable occasion, I was leading a horse in from the field through another horse’s paddock (this time with a halter) when the other horse, who felt their territory was being invaded, decided to launch an attack from behind. I was in the process of closing the gate with my arm angled across the gate post when this happened. As mentioned earlier, when panicked, horse will literally leap blindly through anything in an effort to escape danger. In this case the horse blasted through my arm and the gate, snapping my arm in two in the process.
These risks multiply tenfold when working with young horse who haven’t yet learned to temper their response to perceived dangers.
I have been concussed and had my eardrum burst by a young horse rearing as it panicked when I applied more pressure than it could cope with. I have had my finger broken while lunging a horse that freaked out and ripped the lunge rope out of my hand. I have had my feet stomped on multiple times (thank the Lord for sturdy muck boots) and have been kicked clear across the paddock.
While there is no doubt that working on a farm or running a barn has its share of dangers, ask any farmer/horse owner and they will tell you that they wouldn’t trade this life for any other - however safe - in the city.