Horses are beautiful and intelligent, but sometimes unpredictable animals and a few tips can help to ensure you stay safe while in their company. Most are common sense, but understanding how a horse sees the world and what he’s trying to tell you will definitely help you get off on the right hoof.
Just like people, every horse has a different personality: some are jumpy or bad-tempered while others are friendly and calm. Similarly, a very young horse will be much more easily startled than an old retiree. As you get to know different horses, you’ll get used to their behaviour, but as a rule you should always follow some basic horse safety guidelines whenever you’re in equine company.
Dressing sensibly is a good start: your shoes or boots should be sturdy and protective of your toes — even the most well-meaning animal can step on your foot by accident. Jewellery is not advisable: anything that could get caught in a strap or a buckle is an especially bad idea. You might also want to wear gloves while leading a horse in case he gets a fright, because rope burn isn’t very pleasant. And always wear a riding helmet to protect your head.
You wouldn’t like it if you were sitting quietly at home and your friend leapt up from behind the sofa yelling, would you? So it’s a good idea to avoid the horsey equivalent of a ‘surprise’. With eyes on the side of their heads, horses have a blind spot directly in front of their forehead and under their nose, which means approaches are better done from the side.
You should also extend a friendly hand and talk softly as you get closer. They’ll probably want to give you a sniff by way of hello: sounds and smells are a crucial part of how horses perceive the world. Because they are prey animals, they are naturally flighty, so anything sudden, from a movement to a shout is inadvisable.
Your horse should always be tied up with a quick release knot so if he does get a fright he can pull back without hurting himself. You will learn all the proper ways to groom him so he doesn’t get any surprises. Never go underneath a horse and don’t stand directly behind him. While you’re walking around him, always stay close and keep a hand on his body at all times: it’s much nicer for them if they know where you are through touch and voice. And when leading your horse, never loop the rope around your hand or any part of your body.
Most horses are very good-natured and enjoy the company of people; many will turn their head around to watch you or give you a friendly nudge for a treat. This will be meant well but always keep a close eye on their expressions because you can tell a lot about what to expect from a horse’s body language: they are expert communicators.
The ears are the best indicator of a horse’s mood. Ears pricked forward and a head held high mean they’re very interested in what’s approaching (preferably breakfast); ears in a neutral position, and the head hanging down mean they’re relaxed (or sleeping); ears pinned back mean ‘beware’.
A horse with his ears back could begin to show his teeth, roll his eyes, snake his head around or swish his tail. Horses will do all these things as a warning if you’re annoying them and this could (not often) lead to a bite. For instance, some hate having their girth tightened, or being brushed in a certain place and as long as you finish quickly and calmly (and get your bottom out of the way of his teeth) he’ll be back to normal in a few seconds.
If you’re going to catch a horse in a field, call his name and walk confidently towards him, extending a hand as you get near. He’ll probably see you and walk towards you with his ears pricked — but if he’s coming at you fast with his ears back, looking unfriendly, or turns his backside towards you, do take care. Similarly, if you walk into a loose box and a horse turns his bottom to you, it’s probably worth taking abortive action until you know what’s wrong.