Vet Talk

Horse Housing Hazards

Horses make toddlers and teens look like masters of caution and self-preservation

Published: July 24, 2017
Graphic by Tamara Rees of VIN

Sooner or later, every horse owner wishes one item would appear on the shelves of tack stores everywhere: a full-body bubble wrap horse suit. Most horses make toddlers and teenagers look like masters of caution and self-preservation.

The phone calls to the veterinarian almost always start with “I have no idea how he did this, but…”

Some of the “buts....” in my horse-jigsaw repair experience have included:

  • an equine face split from nose to forelock in a completely smooth stall with no sharp edges or tufts of hair, skin, or blood to be found
  • to-the-bone gashes on horses in paddocks with pipe fences and nothing else
  • a two-foot tree branch buried about six inches deep into the muscles of a horse’s, well, butt…

The list goes on. Sometimes keeping horses from impaling, flaying, or attempting to dismember themselves makes the tasks of Hercules look like elementary school worksheets.

But, as they say with people, most horse accidents occur in or near the home. And while we can’t keep our equine buddies from doing peculiar things to themselves, we can limit their options for creative disaster.

Horse housing hazards include the obvious such as sharp edges, protruding points, and exposed wires. They also include some slightly less obvious things such as poor ventilation, innocuous-looking toxic weeds, and temperature extremes.

Remember, when you’re reviewing your horse’s surroundings, look at it from the perspective of a critter with a long neck, long legs, and that likes to roll – oh, and that tends toward claustrophobic panic. Look high; look low; look over, under, and between fence rails; look at the rails and posts; look around corners; look at the terrain; look where the food and water are; look around corners; look at the positioning of horses relative to each other; look in corners and at walls; look for proximity of scary things such as dogs, farm equipment, and vampires.

Types of Hazards

  • Sharp and Pointies – Unless your horse is training for armed combat or as a vampire slayer, you’ll want to do a complete scan of his enclosure for things that can slice, dice, or impale.

  • Ventilation Vortex – Badness traveling through air shafts and cracks in walls isn’t just an action movie trope. Fresh air matters for horses as well as for humans. Ammonia build-up from insufficiently cleaned stalls; dust from bedding, hay, or indoor arenas; and viruses from other horses can all damage equine lungs. Outward-facing stalls help provide fresh air. If that’s not an option, keeping barn aisles clean, choosing bedding with minimal dust, and watering the arena in the barn center can all help protect the air.

  • Shocking Details – It should go without saying that exposed wires and playful horses aren’t a good combo. But don’t forget to check outlets for security, cords to make sure they are out of reach of questing muzzles, and electric fences for voltage issues.

  • Flame Feeders – The barn fire is the stuff of nightmares. You can reduce risks by making sure your electricity is up to code, storing fuel (for horses, machines, and fires) such as hay, shavings, and diesel away from stalls and paddocks, and keeping strict rules about smoking and flames around the barn.

  • Ghastly Gallows – Strangulation isn’t usually the first thing most people think of when considering ways for horses to damage themselves, but believe it or not, it happens. Horses, when they decide they are stuck, rarely stand still and wait to be rescued. Instead, like good prey animals, they resort to the maxim “fight or flight” and try to flee the dangerous “snake.” Unfortunately, the so-called snake might be a rope, halter, or fence wire, and instead of releasing its coils, tightens on the horse. Many owners like to keep halters permanently on hard-to-catch horses. If the halter is made from vinyl or other fray/break resistant material, this can be a recipe for disaster. If you must leave a halter on your horse, use a light leather one, or one with a leather “breakaway” crown strap. As for ropes and horses? Without adult supervision, they’re about as good a mix as toddlers and plastic bags.

  • The Toxic Garden – Given that horses eat plants for a living, a surprising number of plants are anti-horse. Plants that can kill or sicken horses range from landscaping plants such as azaleas, oleander, and locust trees to innocent-looking weeds such as fiddleneck and groundsel.

  • Wily Weather – Horses are innately outdoor critters and deal far better than their humans with weather. But, just like with us, it takes them time to adjust to changes. Sometimes those changes can be sneaky and problematic. We all know that triple digit Fahrenheit days are risky, but did you know that the first warm days after a cool winter/spring can be even more dangerous? Similarly, ice and snow are obvious risks for slipping, frostbite, or getting stuck, but mud can be a real hazard, especially for older horses.

  • Water Follies – Fresh water is essential to horse health. Anything that keeps the horse from drinking counts as a hazard – algae overgrowth, frozen water, stray voltage causing “zaps” near the water trough, bully horses keeping a timid horse away, or uncertain footing such as mud that makes it hard for older or frail horses to reach the water.

  • The Wrong Sorts of Friends – Horses are social animals. They feel safer in numbers. But just like with kids, there can be bullying and ringleaders. Slowly introducing new horses to the herd, feeding at well-spread-out stations, and matching up horses of similar age and condition can help minimize horse-on-horse damage.

  • Size Matters – Warning, obvious statement. Horses are large, range animals. More room is better. Stall and paddock sizes can vary with the size and needs of the horse, but there are some general rules of thumb. The horse needs to be able to lie down, roll, and get back up without getting stuck. Ceilings should also be high enough not to cause head trauma if the horse rears. Most stalls are a minimum of 12 square feet. Outdoor fencing should take into account the size and athletic abilities of the horses to be contained. Foals can sneak between horizontal rails or wire strands, and adventurous jumpers might not think much of a 4-foot fence. In some areas, local ordinances require 6-foot fencing for stallion enclosures.

Until bubble-wrap horse suits become a thing, these tips can help you keep one step ahead of your equine trouble-maker.

1 Comment

KJ Gray
September 2, 2017

Watch out for split rail fences too. Ages ago, my silly gelding was playing with a horse buddy, and at the time, they were on opposite sides of a split rail fence.  We guessed, later, that he must have reared and slipped on the snow. However he did it, he got the tip of his near fore shoe caught in the wire that binds the split rails to the fence posts. The wire slid between the hoof wall and the shoe itself and caught there.  He was found hanging upside down by the near foreleg, beating himself to death on the fence, trying to get up. They had to cut the fence down and pull the shoe to release his hoof and after that, he just laid in the snow, in a soaking blanket and the shock was so bad, the vet thought he was going to die. Took the about an hour to get him back on his feet.  Not really sure how they got him to his stall, I wasn't there yet. There was no way to tell how much damage had been done, especially to the foreleg that had been holding his body off the ground for who knows how long. He also had extremely severe wounds, from the edge of the blanket to the tip of his nose - he'd pretty much flayed the hair and skin off the side of his face and his neck all the way to the withers, to the blanket's edge. Only the blanket saved his body from being flayed too. Nothing that could be sutured either; severe abrasions and the volume of drainage from that damaged skin was nothing short of incredible. We had to put ropes over the rafters so we could suspend a hay net right by his head, along with a small water bucket, because he would not move an inch for the first few days. We weren't sure he COULD walk at all, for the first week. For days, he stood in the exact same spot, head hung down most of the time. He looked like something from a horror film but all we could do was supportive care. He was on Bute for awhile and I dressed the wounds daily. Later I'd groom him gently, once the worst of the body bruising had eased a bit. I kept his legs wrapped as well and I think I prayed a lot. He recovered, 100%, but I think it took a few years off MY life because it was nearly six weeks of not knowing if he'd completely ruined himself as a riding horse. I had no way to know if he'd be able to carry a saddle or rider again, even if he could walk. But, was fully sound in two month's time, much to everyone's amazement. Very scary and of course, I'll never again have a split rail fences for horses, even if was a freakish, one-off accident.

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