Understanding Horses: Calculated (and Uncalculated) Risk

A few years ago, the horse community suffered a fairly strong shock. What had been viewed as a nuisance case in Connecticut was judged, not just once but again on appeal, against the horse owner and in favor of the plaintiff who wanted horses declared “inherently vicious.”

The facts of the case are complicated, and the ruling did not actually condemn all horses. The upshot of it all was that horses, if provoked, will bite (or kick or do other things that may damage a human), and held the horse owner responsible for what happens. There’s still strong feeling on both sides about this, and as a horse owner myself, I hope and pray that someone doesn’t wander into my horse turnout when I’m not there to stop them, and get kicked or stepped on (my lot are not biters as a rule).

Luckily I have sensible, horse-smart neighbors who know to stay outside the fence, and who check in with me before feeding anything. One good side effect of living in the American West, which has been horse country for a good long time.

It’s long been standard in horse facilities for owners to post signs along the lines of “Ride At Own Risk” and “Do Not Feed the Horses,” and to discourage strangers or passersby from wandering in and getting into the horses’ stalls and paddocks. The size and strength of the animal, the hardness of hooves and the tearing power of teeth, do add up to definite safety concerns when civilians, especially very young or inattentive ones, intersect with the equines.

But then again, what really is safe? Driving to work can get you crashed into and killed, taking the bus likewise; you can trip while walking and break your neck; you can choke on your breakfast scone and suffocate–life is dangerous. Right now, even going outside without a face mask can land you in the ICU (or the morgue) with a dangerous virus.

Anything can kill you. Just ask horror writers who devote whole careers to finding the deadliness in ordinary things. (Blenders, gas stoves, garbage disposals…)

In the end it’s about what a person considers to be an acceptable risk–whether of necessity or by choice. When it comes to horses, as with any other sport or avocation, the risks are a given, and the sensible horse person takes measures to minimize them as much as possible.

This means always being quietly alert, always paying attention to where the horse is and what signals they’re sending with their body language and attitude, and always having an escape route in case the horse abruptly goes splooie. And when that isn’t possible, knowing what to do and how to keep from getting killed. (Pro-tip: If you’re trapped in a corner and the horse wants to kick, don’t pull back—move in close and if possible in between the hindlegs, and let the horse kick past you. Then pray you can get out before they flatten you against the wall.)

One morning not long after the judgment appeared on the news, I wasn’t as attentive as I should have been. I was half asleep, I was putting the Really Big Mare in a stall and the Evil Gelding was next door making evil faces and I didn’t watch for flying hooves and Ow. She got me in the thigh.

Nothing broke, because she pulled her punch at the last instant. But oh, the colors! And the sheer extent of them. I was in close, too, but when the hoof is a good six inches across…well. Ow. I still, all these years later, have a slight dent where she pureed the muscle.

But was this an inherently vicious animal? She was not. What she was, was an animal that, with its size and strength, can be dangerous without meaning to. She was making a statement to the snot next door, and forgot to consider the tiny human in middle.

From the horse perspective, it was a light tap. Too bad for me that I was off my game and not watching for the quite natural interaction between that particular combination of personalities. That’s not viciousness. That’s Stupid Human Tricks.

Not long after that, I was introducing a stallion to the mare we were hoping to get bred that spring. Unlike the previous episode, which was unplanned and I got what I deserved, this was calculated. I rode him first, to establish calm and focus and to reinforce his respect for my authority. I had backup just in case—no going it alone, no. Then we set up the space, mapped out the exit routes, and chose equipment to control the testosterone bomb.

I’m told it was impressive. I was busy keeping myself out of the way but keeping the stallion from getting too aggressive with the young and inexperienced mare. Yes, he was on his hindlegs at times, and striking with his forelegs, and generally doing what came naturally. But these were expected things, planned for, and the weaknesses in the plan that became evident (not quite enough space after all—we used a different paddock the next time) were not fatal or even damaging. Seconds after being told that was enough, we were done for the day, he was back on all fours, calm and attentive, and happy to go and eat his lunch.

That was worth the risk for the result. But it took planning and foresight. Calculation, in short.  And not being fearful or timid or anxious, but definitely being aware.

Which is why random toddlers wandering in can get into trouble—just as they can with your sweet and gentle dog or your couch-potato cat or your lawn mower or your box of matches or, god help you, your swimming pool. It’s not that any of these things is inherently vicious or inevitably deadly, it’s that sometimes, in the right or wrong circumstances, things can go wrong.

After my encounter with the Very Big Mare, I was much more alert in the mornings. Also, much more careful of where I was in relation to the large and sometimes cranky animals who make me and others so happy so much of the time. I had a literal wake-up call—and it made me that much more conscious of safety when we worked with the stallion, and with any other horse thereafter, both on and off the farm.

Thank you in whatever Otherworld you inhabit now, Very Big Mare who lived to a very great age. I needed that. (Ow.)

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Since then she’s written novels and shorter works of historical fiction and historical fantasy and epic fantasy and space opera and contemporary fantasy, many of which have been reborn as ebooks. She has even written a primer for writers: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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