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Beware of Gentle Horses, by Richard Winters

Tom Dorrance used to say, “Take the time it takes and it will take less time.”  I’ve also heard, “The longest distance between two points is a short- cut.” I can think of times when I got in a hurry with horses, yes even gentle horses, and it cost me time, money, or physical pain and injury to both me and the horse.

Generally the only thing salvageable from those misadventures was valuable lessons learned. Let me share a couple of those lessons with you…

A couple of years ago I stepped into the stall of a gentle horse who was facing away from me. Yes, I was in a hurry for no good reason. I stepped directly up to his hind legs, to undo the blanket straps, which I had done a thousand times before. However, this time my gentle horse was sleeping! No doubt he was dreaming about lush pasture where he was grazing on knee-high grass. Until, A mountain lion lunged at his flank and attempted to take him down. The problem was, of course, I was the mountain lion. That gentle horse kicked out with one hind leg, fortunately, I was very close to his rump or he might have killed me. He slammed me ten feet backwards against the stall wall where I lay in a daze asking, “What happened?” The lesson learned is: Slow down, pay attention and make sure that the horse knows you’re there. In all reality, I didn’t learn anything new. The fact is, I knew better. It was a careless mistake that could have cost more than my few bruises and crumpled straw hat.

My second example happened just a few weeks ago. And yes, with a gentle horse…

I was scheduled to give a horsemanship demonstration to some children at their school in a residential neighborhood. I parked my rig on a side street and decided to leave my horse in the slant load trailer until it was time for the demo. With nothing else to do I decided to step into the trailer and saddle my horse so that I would be ready to go. Remember, my horse is gentle, great to saddle, and has never been “cinchy”.  (Famous last words!)

About twenty minutes later I thought it was time to head over to the school yard. I stepped into the trailer, untied my horse, and started to back him out. One step, two steps, and when his left hind foot stepped off the back edge of the trailer, BOOM! It was like someone had shot my horse in the head with a gun. He fell out of the trailer, landing on his side, on the ground, with his front feet still inside the trailer. His head and neck were bent around like a pretzel. It was not a pretty sight. I wondered if he would get back up without leaving half of his hide on the gravel covered pavement.

I knew immediately what had happened. My horse had become cinch bound. This phenomenon generally happens when a horse is cinched too tight, too soon, without having the opportunity to untrack his feet. Although I had not cinched my horse very tight, the unfamiliar scenario of being saddled in the trailer and then being backed out, was just enough to trouble my horse and thus compromise his safety.

I immediately uncinched my saddle and let it fall to the side. I then did my best to help my horse get up without hurting himself. Fortunately he got up without an incident. It sure could have been a lot worse!  What was I trying to do? Save time? Take a shortcut? If so, I had accomplished neither. Needless to say, I’ll give more consideration to what kind of situations I put my “gentle” horse in next time.

These are two of my stories. Unfortunately I could share more. And no doubt, I have triggered your memory of a time when you tried to cut corners only to have ended up in big trouble with your horse. Let’s all be encouraged to not assume too much, or get careless, in everyday chores and procedures with our horse. Remember, consistant and proactive leadership is what all of our horses deserve.

[Written by Richard Winters & published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 5, Issue 12.]

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  1. Just a few nights past, heading in from a day on the road, I decided to stop and visit with a horse I have worked with but hadn’t seen in about a month. We, I believed, had a good level of trust. The first clue should have been her nibbling at my knuckles. I don’t particularly like the idea of hand feeding and in the back of my mind it should have registerd that others had been doing this deed. It didn’t register. I stepped into her stall to adjust her blanket and she was compliant with that. As I stroked her neck moving toward my exit. she more than lip-nibbled at my hand aiming to gulp down a non-existent treat. I didn’t respond, I reacted. I pulled my hand away quickly and ‘pinned my ears’ (used body language) to move her away. As she spun away in retreat she launched with both feet. I nearly read the manufacturers stamp on her shoes. I avoided the imprint as I was able to get clear quickly enough. I’m still in reaction mode when I began to mutter, chastizing her verbally but it wasn’t long before I realized that I had not assessed ‘her’ situation. This six year young fireball had been couped in her stall for over twenty-four hours. Yes, a couple feet of snow and low temperatures aer tough to deal with but far tougher for us than for horses. The well meaning, humanizing, treatment from the barn’s owner really wasn’t what she needed. Nor was hand feeding, again, not hert fault. But hindsight being what it is, I believe it was a combination of circumstance that brought her to where she was. And, I was complacent, forgetful and unwary…dangerous places to be. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here: I’ve learned more about people, and myself from horses than I’ll ever learn about horses from people. Another lesson learned.

  2. I have one of those gentle horses – this is a good reminder that anything can happen at any time. Thanks, Richard!

  3. i just know i would never saddle my horse in a trailer……i just dont think its safe to get into a trailer with my horse….not the true natural horsemanship way! safety first…

  4. I am hoping that your method may offer a solution to our problem of relating to Blaze. This is one smart horse. IF we can reach her and get her to accept us, she will be a very loyal horse. I can sense that. She must have been through something horrendous to harbor such fear and distrust against humans. I wish she could talk to us and let us know what happened. It would help us understand. As it is, we just judge by her body language when we ” stepped over the line” and entered her danger zone. She has NEVER attempted to hurt us or act aggressive toward us. She merely walks or trots away and will not allow us to mess with her.

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