What, again? Of all the horses in the barn, yours is the one that’s managed to find the one stray piece of baling wire in a 5-acre turnout. So much for that competition next weekend. Oh, yes, and so much for that new bridle/jacket/small appliance/home decorating item you were about to buy. Junior’s vet bills will have to take priority—again.
Last month he was the one that got his hoof caught in the one hole nobody had noticed in the wall no horse ever stands by. Before that, he was the one that scraped the skin off his cannon bone on who-knows-what in a sand paddock. And since you’ve had him, he’s been the one horse in the barn that’s managed to smack his head on a sky-high door frame, get tangled in his own blanket, snag his lip on a gate latch, and roll onto the half-buried horse shoe your friend’s horse threw two weeks ago that no one had been able to find. The list goes on, and you ask yourself, why is it always my horse?
Sound familiar? Before you lock him in a padded stall, and before you start scolding him for not playing nicely like everyone else, remember this: You’re not alone. Even if it feels like it, your horse isn’t the only one who needs to be Bubble-Wrapped. There always seems to be one in every barn … and there are lots of barns out there. So that makes for plenty of horses finding trouble.
In this article we’ll speak with sources who have experience with accident-prone horses to get their take on how to manage these special characters. And we’ll place particular emphasis on best ways to avoid problems—for his health and your wallet—in the first place.
Oh, he’s a character all right. And his preponderance for getting into trouble might actually be related to his character. The accident-prone horse might be a naturally curious horse, says Léa Lansade, PhD, of the French Horse and Riding Institute and the National Institute for Agricultural Research’s behavior science department, in Tours. Essentially, if curiosity kills the cat, it might also be pretty good at injuring the horse.
“I can’t say exactly why, but it’s quite probable that the most curious horses are the ones most likely to get themselves in these situations where they’re always hurting themselves,” she says. “Since curiosity is a personality trait, then there’s certainly a link between these tendencies and personality.”
Christine Aurich, DVM, PhD, a veterinarian who owns a Bubble-Wrap-worthy horse, agrees. As head of the Graf Lehndorff Institute, in Neustadt, Germany, and professor of artificial insemination and embryo transfer at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, in Austria, she sees a lot of horses. But her very accident-prone chestnut gelding stands out both in personality and capacity for trouble.
“He’s curious, he’s funny, he’s intelligent, and he just gets bored very easily,” Aurich says of her 11-year-old homebred German Sport Horse, Stromboli. “He likes to play and find things to play with. But that means I end up having to treat injuries two to three times a year.”
Stromboli is also a very tall horse, standing 18 hands. And she believes his height could contribute to his risk. “Many owners I know with tall horses say they have to deal with a lot of accidents,” Aurich says. “Getting up and down is harder, and it’s a longer way to fall. They take up more room when they roll and have these long legs able to run into things. Their gaits are big and beautiful but swing more, cover more ground, and make them go faster, so they’re more susceptible to traumatic injury. In fact, everything with them just seems to be more … traumatic.”
Of course, some horses, like some people, might be naturally clumsy, regardless of height, she adds. They might also be more prone to injury if they’re overly playful or pastured with a horse that is.
Herd rank might play a role, as well, says Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, president and primary instructor at Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, in Macon, Georgia. A lower-ranking horse can injure himself trying to get out of the way of higher-ranking horses. In a sense, she says, these lowly horses are almost “forced” to be accident-prone—especially if they get stuck, for example, between fencing and a dominant horse.
A compounding factor could be coat color, says Aurich. Chestnuts, like Stromboli, have more sensitive skin and an increased risk of infection. So when they injure themselves, they might be more prone to developing wound infections.
Can You Provide Too Much Protection?
As tempting as safely tucking your horse away from all possible harm might be, it might just make things worse. In fact, overprotection might be at the root of the problem, says Gimenez. “I often wonder how many horses aren’t looking out for themselves because the owner tries to take over managing the horse’s every step,” she says. “Sometimes I think we make it so safe that it’s actually less safe.”
If you’re making your horse’s world extra safe by “taking out every rock and tree and low spot in the pasture,” she says, you could unintentionally be teaching him to be accident-prone. “Mine have access to the woods, the pond, the trees, and hills, and they have places to go that don’t have big holes to fall in but are interesting. They have to think about staying on the trail or watching where they put their feet.”
While it might seem smart to outfit them in boots and bandages during turnout or even in the stall, this too can backfire, Aurich says. “I had to stop the wraps because (Stromboli would) find ways to take them off and play with them,” she says. “It was funny, but of course it’s also dangerous.” However, she does keep Stromboli in bell boots during turnout to protect his front shoes and heels from his own large hooves.
Aurich believes it’s—ironically—best to just keep these horses free of protective equipment. “I understand that owners want to put them in Bubble Wrap,” she says. “But unfortunately, this just doesn’t help.”
Maybe it’s You
While you don’t want to be overprotective, you certainly don’t want to be underprotective, either. Gimenez says horses sometimes injure themselves repeatedly simply because their owners put them in dangerous situations repeatedly—without necessarily realizing it.
“I don’t want anyone to take this the wrong way, but I’ve noticed that the accident-prone horse often has an accident-prone owner,” she says. That could include people who are naturally risk-takers themselves—such as the owner Gimenez knows who’s always dealing with injuries in both her horse and herself. But it can also include people who don’t recognize the dangers waiting in their own structures.
“I don’t have any scientific proof of this, but the people I know who are more careful also tend to have their pastures and barns more cleaned up,” she says.
Sometimes there are things we don’t see as hazards because we’re used to them or even thought they were a good idea. One example, Gimenez says, is a farm she visited in Atlanta that has a very practical pasture system. Several large pastures lead to a central access area, with each pasture funneling toward the gate.
“That sounds great in theory, but wow is that dangerous when you’ve got more than one horse in (each pasture),” she says. “Someone always gets trapped in a corner.”
This farm also had gate latches sticking out past fence posts and tractor implements lying outside the barn door. “These are major hazards,” she says. “But people were walking past them every day and never noticing them.”
To avoid a similar scenario, have someone else walk your property and look for dangers. “It’s always good to have another perspective,” she says.
If an accident-prone horse calls your farm home, you’re probably not going to be able to prevent all incidents. But you can try.
First and foremost, get him out on pasture, say our sources. “Put him on the biggest pasture you can afford,” Gimenez says. “It’s all about flight distance. If he sees a truck go down the road with a flying tarp, he might run 50 yards and stop and look at it. If he’s only got 10 yards, he can’t do that.”
As for fencing, she suggests making sure it’s both electric—so he’ll stop at it—and wood, preferably painted white—so he can see it.
Always make sure he has a buddy at pasture—ideally, a calm one who’s going to help your horse stay out of trouble. “An old, quiet gelding can be great,” Gimenez says. “They show easily excited horses that there’s nothing to get excited about.” While that works best when a horse is younger, it’s never too late in life to give him a mentor-type buddy.
Avoid putting too many horses in the field with him, though, says Aurich. Multiple horses multiply the risk. “One stable companion is probably best,” she says.
If he has to be stalled sometimes, at least make sure he’s getting out in a large field regularly—ideally two or three times or several hours a day, says Aurich. “He needs to be able to run freely frequently enough that he doesn’t have time to get excited about it,” she says. And while he’s in the stall, give him plenty of safe things to do. “I keep Stromboli on straw so he can chew on it all day long,” she says, something you can try with your own horse (just make sure it’s not rye straw, because of possible mold, sharp seed heads, and the threat of ergot toxicity). Some horses might do well with stall toys such as balls, but other objects—such as those that dangle from the ceiling—could simply create more opportunities for horses to hurt themselves.
Preparing for the Inevitable
Of course, no matter what you do, it’s going to happen: He’s going to hurt himself again. So when he does, make sure you’re prepared.
Stock your cabinet with bandaging equipment and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, Aurich says. Make sure you’ve got access to cool water you can keep running on an injury to reduce swelling and infection risk. Keep a thermometer handy to check for fevers caused by subcutaneous (just under the skin) wound infections. “These infections can come up fast and get really bad,” she says.
Ask your veterinarian to teach you basic first-aid techniques, such as how to bandage and what to do about gashes, lacerations, and punctures, says Gimenez. Establish a good working relationship with your vet, so you can call and even send photos when injuries happen. Train your horse to trailer-load easily, and ask your veterinarian or a reliable trainer how to calm an injured horse so he doesn’t add more injuries because he’s stressed. Make sure you have a trailer accessible at all times—“one that’s cleaned out and has pumped-up tires,” Gimenez adds.
And, of course, plan for this sort of thing to happen at the worst time, because that’s when an injury inevitably happens. “It’s like he knows I’m about to leave for a conference,” Aurich says. “One time I had to go bandage him and give him antibiotic injections on my way to a funeral. He really knows how to find the day to do these things.”
Get a plan in place so veterinarians and other caretakers know what to do when you’re unavailable, and make the plan clear for everyone involved.
So life has landed you a Bubble-Wrap-worthy horse. Take heart: There are always ways to reduce the risks and plan for the accidents, which will happen from time to time despite your best efforts. You might also need to budget for added expenses with your special equid, recognizing his hazard-finding tendencies are just part of who he is—for better or for worse.
“He’s so talented as a dressage horse and so easy to ride,” says Aurich of Stromboli. “But more than that, he’s just highly intelligent and always trying to talk to me. He follows me around like a dog; he comes when I call him; and he’s always asking me, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He’s a lot of work, but he’s so worth it.”