One Can Only Hope
Updated: Feb 1
“Oft hope is born when all is forlorn.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
It is a curious truth, that a horse, which is so large and robust to look at, can be one of the most fragile of animals. While there are horses who live their whole lives in deplorable conditions, surrounded by scrap metal and broken fences, and never sustain an injury or a days sickness their entire lives, there are many more (the more valuable, the more likely) who are masters at finding new and inventive ways to injure themselves no matter how carefully their owners cosset them.
If you run a barn, dealing with lameness and other injuries will be an ongoing part of your daily routine. I have had a horse scratch its eye on a bramble thorn resulting in surgery to remove the eye. I have had a horse kick another in just the wrong spot partially severing its tendon, and another have its face caved in. One pony managed to escape its stall and eat a small bag of treats (bag and all), resulting in a week spent recuperating from choke at the local animal hospital. The list goes on and on.
It is frustrating to have your training or riding time interrupted by injury, and vets bills are always a nasty shock, but there are a couple of things you can do to reduce the risks. Initially our property was fenced with cattle fencing, its squares the perfect size to fit a horse’s hoof through. We pulled it all down and replaced it with electric fencing, a fairly safe option for horses. But even electric fencing has its dangers. I have seen horses literally impale themselves on the t-posts if they are not properly capped.
We also had to remove a burn pile in one of the pastures that the previous owners had seen fit to burn wood with metal and nails attached to it. Believe me, when I say that horses will find a way to injure themselves, I mean it - If there is a nail on the ground they will step on it! So check every wooden post and gateway for nails and other protrusions and comb your paddocks for scrap metal.
One option that will prevent injuries from horses biting and kicking one another, is to keep them isolated. But while keeping them in separate paddocks will prevent them from injuring one other, this has to be balanced with the mental distress that this causes them. Horses are herd animals and gain pleasure and relaxation from grooming one another and playing together, they also keep the flies off each other, and stand watch so they feel safe enough to sleep.
Instead, we have chosen to take the risk of turning our horses out as a herd. However, we are very careful how we introduce new members, and we keep a close eye on herd dynamics. You will find that your horses will quickly settle into a social hierarchy, and you want to make sure no one is being picked on - or weed out any bullies. Sadly, I have had to ask people to leave the barn because their horse did not fit with my herd. This is always a tough situation, but the well being of the entire herd has to take precedence over an individual, no matter how much you may like them.
Aside from preventive measures, you will need to have some infrastructure set up to deal with sick or lame horses. We have small sacrifice paddocks close to the barn where horses can be isolated or kept fairly quiet while they recover from an injury or illness. I also make sure that every owner has a basic emergency supply kit in their trunk so that I can deal with minor injuries immediately. And, of course, always have your vets phone number on hand in case of emergencies.
There is no doubt that caring for sick or lame horses is time consuming and many injuries can involve months of treatment. Don't sell yourself short, your time is valuable, and hosing and bandaging legs, or applying medication three or four times a day will quickly add up. In my barn boarders are welcome to come out and care for their own horses, but if the time it requires is too much of an inconvenience for them then I am happy to do it – for a small fee.
At the end of the day you can only hope that you have done all you can to ensure the safety of the horses on your property. As I said, the question is not if a horse will injure itself, it is only a question of when. As barn owners all we can do is make sure that we are covered in case tragedy strikes (I have a barn policy that protects me should a horse (or rider) injure themselves on the property), and be vigilant and prepared to treat the various emergencies as they arise.