You’ve walked the pasture looking for dangerous holes, damaged fencing, and poisonous plants. Your fencing is safe. Your passageways are nonslip and clutter-free. Your feed is secured. You have the veterinarian’s telephone number posted clearly.
However, there’s more to ensuring your barn is safe than you might think, said Rebecca Husted, PhD, an international expert in managing equine emergencies and president and primary instructor at Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, in Macon, Georgia.
“There are lots of things people just never think about, but they can make a huge difference in the safety of their horses, as well as themselves and other people,” she said.
To make sure your farm meets expert safety requirements—including the less obvious ones—we’ve created this list of horse farm safety tips.
1. Make Your Farm Entrance Accessible and Easy to Find, Even in the Dark.
Timing is critical, and poorly marked entrances can slow emergency responses considerably, said Husted. Fire trucks and ambulances have difficulty turning around to go back to a missed entrance. “We sometimes spend more time looking for people’s places than we do actually helping them,” she said.
Some farms are in remote areas with no clear road names and poor GPS service; others are in popular horse regions with many farms in proximity, which can make it tricky to identify the correct entrance.
Owners should have their address numbers visible close to the road, where they can be seen from either direction from a vehicle traveling 40 miles per hour, Husted said. Numbers should be at least 2 inches tall and made of reflective material that’s visible at night. They should not be blocked by bushes, flowers, decorative items, trash bins, or clutter.
Entrance gates should be easy for emergency personnel to open, Husted continued. Owners should share the code or be able to open or remove a gate quickly during an emergency. Passages should be wide and tall enough for vehicles to pass through easily. Make sure paths aren’t blocked with cars or trailers and overhanging tree branches are kept trimmed.
2. Invest in Great Gates, Doors, and Latches
Difficult-to-open or cumbersome gates and doors are safety hazards, said Husted. Stuck and dragging gates and doors create more wasted time during an emergency and put both horses and humans at risk.
Tricky gates can be particularly hazardous when horses are hurried or spooking. “If the gate doesn’t move fast enough, they can catch their stifle or get hung on it,” Husted said. “The litany of injuries that can happen when a horse can’t get through a gate is endless.” Handlers can get hurt as well, she added—even in less extreme situations, because they’re paying more attention to trying to open the gate or door than to the horse. “Invest in the right hardware to hang your gates right and the post you need to actually support their weight, or hire a professional to do it for you,” she said.
Latches must be quick for people to open and difficult for horses to figure out. “You can go from a latch problem to a loose horse problem, which can be really dangerous, especially if the horse gets on the road,” she said. Latches should be inaccessible to horses—such as in a groove inside the stable door itself—or require hand movements horses can’t mimic with their mouths. They should be painted in reflective paint that makes them easy to find in the dark and shouldn’t have protruding parts horses could hook a body part on.
3. Block off Entrapment Corners Near Gates
Ideally, gates should be placed far away from corners of fenced-in fields, Husted said. Horses can get trapped in a corner by other horses or when handlers open the gate. Trapped horses can panic, get crushed or attacked by higher-ranking horses, and try to jump the fence. If your gate is in a corner, you can move it toward the center of the fence line or cut off the corner with sturdy boards, creating a blocked-off triangle that eliminates the entrapment area.
The blocked-off corner itself can be a safety hazard, however, if the horse jumps it and gets trapped inside the triangle, Husted added. So it’s important to place the boards high and space them a safe distance apart to avoid trapping legs, feet, or heads. Painting the boards can ensure the horses see the area—especially if it’s a new addition to a pasture they already know. Do not use wire fencing to close off corners, as horses can easily get trapped in the wire, leading to potentially serious injuries.
4. Use Secure Secondary Fencing Along Roadways
Where roads and horse farms meet, hazard risk is high, Husted said. Unfortunately, too many people underestimate that risk, trusting their fence and gate to provide enough protection. Fences and gates can break, or trees fall on them and create passageways. Particularly motivated horses might even jump fences.
A secondary fence that lines the farm on the roadway side provides a safety barrier. While some farms do have secondary fences, many still have a hole: the driveway.
A secondary fence needs a gate to close off the driveway, Husted said. If it isn’t practical to always have a closed gate across the driveway, leave it open on the condition you can close it quickly, such as with a remote control, within seconds of a horse getting loose.
Every farm should have a clear emergency plan in the event of a horse escaping to prevent panic and get the horse back to safety quickly. Plan who helps catch the horse, who gets the truck, who calls 911 to alert them horses could be on the road (to protect both horses and drivers). Depending on the road, people can plan to bring cones, reflective triangles, and flashers to help stop traffic.
5. Fence Off Natural Water Sources During Freezes and Droughts
Having natural water sources, such as lakes, ponds, and rivers, in your pastures offers horses a constant water source. But at certain times of the year, these bodies of water can become treacherous, said Husted.
When temperatures reach below freezing, deep waterways can become ice traps for horses trying to drink, she said. “They don’t know any better, so they end up on that ice, and then they either drown or have to get rescued from that situation.”
On the flip side, high temperatures and poor rainfall can lead to droughts that drop the surface height, leading to abundant, deep, sticky mud around the water’s edge. “Next thing you know, horses are going out into mud that they’ve never had exposure to,” said Husted. “They get entrapped and need to be rescued.”
In these extreme weather situations, offer your horses water on higher ground, and block off access to the natural water sources.
Drowning and mud entrapment are common accidents for horses, but they don’t have to be, said Husted. “These tragedies are some of the most preventable things that could ever be done.”
Taking precautions can lead to fewer preventable accidents and more efficient management—which greatly increases horses’ chances of survival—when inevitable mishaps do occur.