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  • Writer's pictureSaskia Gerritsen

Does more experience with horses equal more safety?

About 1 month before the whole world pushed a big pause button, I still had the chance to attend a course on groundwork. This was a certification course by the German FN, that is a prerequisite to officially obtain a Groundwork Trainer license. Many of the participants were also on their way to becoming an instructor, so the course leader focused a lot on safety and teaching skills.

To me the skills taught over the 3 long days were not much new, nothing exciting and honestly kind of boring to horse and human. But on the second afternoon, watching other participants handling the gentle school horses, I did find a new and interesting way of looking at this "groundwork from a safety perspective"...

Have you ever taken a family member or friend to the barn to visit your horses? When they have no experience being around horses, most people have the utmost respect for these big animals. One of my best friends only recently got introduced to my horses and step by step she got used to them. During the first visit she was keeping her safe distance and only after a few more visits she trusted my judgement enough to try and ride.

Our human brain automatically recognizes the possible danger interacting with an unpredictable and strong animal. Interacting with horses is dangerous, especially handling them from the ground. So how come even little kids, the weakest kind of human sizes ;-) can be so attracted to horses? What makes us override the fear of danger and the need for self protection?

Danger comes mostly from the unknown, it is unpredictable to us and we cannot anticipate it. Horses in their nature can always react in unpredictable ways. The phrase "out of nowhere" is the most over-used (and always mis-used) phrase in the horse world: Horses have their hearing, sight and sense of smell developed so much better than we do. Moving things, noises and hints of smells in the air inform them in ranges way below and above our perception. So when you are chatting with your friend on a quite trail ride and suddenly the horses turn around and run for it: they have chosen safety based on the information about their surroundings, information that we simply don't have.

But as we start to understand horses and their behavior better, as we learn about horse psychology and physiology, our fear of the unknown can make way for fascination... We can imagine how a partnership with horses would enrich our lives in a special way. They have made men faster, richer and more powerful over the course of our long history together. Horses today are no longer the wild animals we observed from our prehistorical caves. They are much more a product of human selection, and I like to believe that somehow we have been selected by them too; Cooperation with humans has made them more valuable to man than livestock we only keep as a food source. We are "in" our horses' DNA, and horses are in ours too. It is no coincidence that more young humans romanticize horses instead of cows, we have evolved together!

To answer my main question:

As we gain more experience around horses, are we really being more safe?

Think about your new-to-horses friend: would they put their head under a horse to fasten the velcro boots nice and tidy? Would they stand behind the horse while mucking out the stall or brushing it's tail? Would they try and correct a horse while long-lining with a touch from behind? Or even stay in biting range with carrots in their pockets 😉

I remember reading a research paper a few year ago (tried finding it again on Google but no luck...) and the conclusion was that experienced horse people put themselves in more dangerous situations on a daily basis than newbies at the barn. Factors that come to my mind: we do more alone with the horse whereas new riders usually have a helper. We assume to know our horse, all the times it went well make us more careless. And of course we try to do more things and maybe also more difficult things with our horses...

One thing hasn't changed in thousands of years: horses are bigger and stronger than us. Even at the current level of domestication their reactions can bring us in danger, especially when we are both on the ground. Groundwork with horses, how valuable and fun it may be, is a dangerous sport. And as soon as I became thankful for the new reminders and safety checks we were learning during the course, I realized this will help my students stay safe.

It is the biggest service an instructor can give you: to preserve the ability to keep having fun with horses and enjoying working together, like it always worked out magically in our childhood dreams...

I promise to always help my students and their horses stay safe the best I can!

Keep an eye out for your barn mates and be extra careful today 😊

And all participants passed! Big thanks to Ulrich Schichta for getting us across the finish safely 👍🏻

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