This blog is intended as information for our HJU community to share with their non-horsey friends. We often forget that what we know about horses isn’t necessarily common knowledge…
I’m at a public barn, and there seems to be a lot of unknowns for the general public about how to behave around horses. So as an educational offering/memory-refresher, here are a few of the more commonly needed tips for how to be a good visitor at someone else’s barn:
The Barn is Our Home
For our horses, the barn is their home. You wouldn’t come into a human stranger’s house, and start roaming around, opening cabinets, and generally being invasive. So think of your behavior here as taking place in someone else’s house.
Wear Full Coverage Shoes
Lots of people come to visit the barn wearing flip-flops. But between the presence of copious amounts of horse manure, and the possibility of getting stepped on by a 1,000 pound horse, who is most likely wearing metal shoes, a full coverage shoe is highly recommended. Sneakers are fine. You don’t have to wear riding boots. But I wouldn’t wear anything super fancy because it’s likely to get pretty dirty, even if you’re just walking around. And if it does get dirty, those stains are pretty hard to get out.
Read the Rules
Our barn has gone to a great deal of effort to post some basic rules. Please read them, and follow them. If you have questions, our barn staff will be happy to answer them, so feel free to ask. If they make a request, follow their instructions. They are there for your safety.
Calm, Quiet Voices, Please!
You don’t have to talk like you’re in a library. But horses are especially sensitive to people’s voices and body language. They are constantly evaluating whether they should get away from whatever might be a threat to them.
So talk in a regular tone, without screaming. Walk, even walk deliberately, but don’t run. And don’t wave your arms, lest you spook someone.
Leave the Scary Stuff at Home
Horses, being prey animals, tend to think things are going to eat them. Among those things are strollers, balloons, big sticks (which young visitors to the park tend to pick up), and umbrellas. So leave those things at home. You don’t need balloons at a barn anyway. Plastic ponchos and baseball hats are more effective rain gear. And baby can go in a Baby Bjorn or other carrier that goes on mom or dad’s body.
We’ve also had people toss around footballs and baseballs at our barn. And we’ve had to ask them to stop. That kind of behavior can be very distressing for a high strung animal, and can precipitate a spook or other dangerous response.
Please Don’t Feed the Animals
There is a particular way to feed a horse so that he doesn’t confuse your fingers for carrots. Unless you’re around horses a fair bit, most people don’t realize this, and risk an injury.
Horses, especially competitive ones, or older ones, or ones with a medical condition, are on strict diets. So don’t blow their regimen by feeding something that may not be alright.
And like people, some horses are just grouchy. They will bite at any opportunity. Others are particularly spooky, and can be easily startled. But visitors typically don’t know which of the horses are like that.
So the short answer is to abstain from feeding the horses.
Ask Before You Pet a Horse
You wouldn’t walk up and just pick up a random person’s child, or start petting their head. Well, our horses are like our four-legged children. They may be in an off mood. They may be about to go to work, and need to maintain their focus. They may have just finished work and are hot, and need some room and air to cool down. Whatever the reason, please ask before you pet our horses. If it’s alright, we’ll say so. But sometimes the answer is “no.”
Ask Before You Pass
If you’re at a barn, and horses are in cross ties in the aisle, ask the person handling the horse if it is alright to pass the horse and continue down the aisle. They may be doing something with the horse at that moment, and it may be better for everyone if you wait until they finish before passing.
When you do pass, remember to go single file, walk, don’t run, and move beyond the range of the horse’s back legs before stopping. If you’re in a group, remember that everyone needs to clear those back legs — don’t leave anyone stranded.
It’s Equestrian Equipment, Not a Jungle Gym
I know the big mounting block is very tempting. Small children want to run up and down the ramp. But it’s not a toy! Neither are our riding rings, or the jumps we set up in them. And the footing isn’t a wide open space for digging or running. Please be respectful of our arenas and equipment.
Keep Your Dog On Leash On the Trail
Our barn is in the middle of a national park. The trails are bridle trails first, unless otherwise marked. So we often come across people walking their dogs. We thoroughly appreciate those of you who keep your dogs on their leashes. For those who think leashes are optional, consider the following:
Leashes are required by law. They are not optional. If a dog is off leash, and something goes awry, the dog owner is liable simply because the dog is off leash.
Fines for off leash dogs in national parks are stiff — up to $300 per incident.
Experience tells us as riders that while dog owners think their dogs are well trained, once a horse enters the picture, the dog’s training typically goes out the window.
Dogs are hunters, and in the absence of anything else to hunt, they will go after a horse. I’ve seen it. Horses are prey animals that will kick a dog out of fear, sometimes with fatal results for the dog. When dogs attack horses, the results can be disastrous. One friend was thrown into a tree because her horse was spooked by an off leash dog whose owner was not even within sight. It cost her a concussion and multiple broken ribs. It could have been a lot worse.
So when we ask you politely to keep your dog on a leash, don’t disregard our value as human beings by being rude, blowing us off, and leaving your dog off leash.
After some input from others with public barn experience, here are a few additional things to keep in mind:
Learn to Speak Horse a Little Bit
Being prey animals, and being non-verbal, horses “speak” a little differently. Their assessment of danger is constant. They’re a “run first, ask questions later” kind of animal. So think about all those episodes of Wild Kingdom you used to watch, and understand that your body language, voice, and attitude convey a lot to a horse. Think about that tiny little lizard that puts up a big collar around his neck, and spits, and hisses, and charges at you. He’s posturing to make himself seem ferocious so you won’t eat him.
Horses are the opposite end of the spectrum. They would rather run away than confront you. If you want to interact with them positively and safely, then you need to attract them to you. Chasing won’t work so well. Think about what your body language says to them. For example, looking a horse in the eye with your body tall and your chest puffed (either figuratively or literally) is an aggressive posture, like that lizard. To be more conciliatory, look down, keep your arms by your side, don’t make wild gestures, and breathe slowly. If you are nervous, then the horse will be too. If you are calm and self-assured, then the horse will respond in kind, and will likely want to follow you.
Make Yourself Seen and Heard
Horses don’t like surprises. When you approach from behind, the horse can’t see you. And with modern running shoes, your approach can be pretty stealth, which isn’t a good thing to a horse. So please whistle, or sing, or just call out (like “runner behind”), and let the horses and riders know you’re there. Watch the rider for a signal as to whether it would be better if you broke stride and just walked past the horses. Some of them are nervous, and think that if you’re running then they should be too. We know this is a workout for you. We’d just rather your workout didn’t involve our horse spooking.
If you’re hiking, and step to one side to let a horse pass, stay where they can see you. Please don’t hide behind a tree.
When you’re out running, it’s tempting to get into the zone and tune out the rest of the world. Believe me, I understand the need to unplug. But headphones can cause two things to happen: 1) you get consumed by the music and forget to make yourself known when you see a horse coming, and 2) you don’t hear horses coming upon you so you get startled, which in turn can startle the horse. Remember, the first ingredient in an equine interaction is to NOT be a surprise. So crank back the volume, and pay attention to your surroundings.
Not All Riders Are Equally Capable on Horseback
We have a lot of therapeutic riders who use the park. Some of them have emotional issues. Others have physical limitations. Some are Wounded Warriors with a variety of challenges to contend with. Still others are public trail riders who have never been on a horse before. The point here is that you can’t tell by looking at them, especially from a distance, if they’re as comfortable on horseback as you think. Some of our riders are not so stable in the saddle. In fact, for our therapeutic students, it’s the point of the ride for some of them just to stay upright, working muscles that don’t usually cooperate so easily, or working on mental skills like focus. So err on the side of caution, and assume that the horse/rider you’re coming upon needs a more gentle approach.
It’s Hard Because We’re Humans
Humans are predators. We just don’t think like a prey animal, and horses are prey. The expect everything to be a threat, and react accordingly. For them it’s a matter of survival. It’s in their DNA, and it’s not something you can “control” or train out of them. Given a choice between fight and flight, they would rather flee. The problem arises because these reactions are most often sudden and dramatic — like from sleeping to bolting in a nanosecond. And a 1,000 pound, scared equine is quite a dangerous thing.
These horses are four-legged children to us. They are beloved members of our family. We spend a lot of time with them, and know what triggers certain behaviors. We have usually come by this knowledge the hard way, and have developed strategies to manage those likely behaviors.
We realize this isn’t common knowledge for people who don’t get to spend as much time at the barn as we do. But we truly appreciate people who make an effort.