Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pet sitter safety with horses

The most recent issue of Pet Sitter's World, published by PSI, focused on horse care. I was a little disappointed when I read the articles, because they didn’t really focus on what pet sitters need to know. General horse care information is helpful, but I decided I would write a couple of posts of my own. This first one covers safety around horses.

If you have never spent time with horses, your first impression will be that they are HUGE. Although I used to own quarter horses, I have small Icelandics now, so everyone else’s horses still seem big to me. Yes, they are big and powerful animals that can hurt you if you don’t know what you are doing. So you need to learn how to safely handle them.

Wear solid shoes. This is not the place to wear flip flops. If a horse steps on your foot, even if you are wearing tennis shoes, it will hurt like hell, and you could end up with several broken bones. If the horse has shoes on, he’ll do even worse damage. So don't even think about wearing sandals.

How to approach a horse. Make sure he knows you are there. Approach from the side, and talk to him. If you startle him, he will run first and ask questions later. You don’t want to be in his path. His eyes are on the sides of his head, so he can’t see you well if you approach straight on.

Watch his ears. They move independently and if an ear turns towards you, he is aware of you and paying attention. You can always get a clue as to what a horse is paying attention to by watching the ears.

Handling a horse. Horses love to smell your breath. Take a few moments to get acquainted; stand by his nose and let him sniff your breath while he checks you over. Stroke his chest. If you reach for his head, a hand-shy horse may jerk away and accidentally slam his head into you. You’ll be left with no teeth.

As you walk around a horse, in his stall or out in the pasture, keep your hand firmly on his body so he knows where you are even if he can’t see you. Continue to talk, so he knows it is you and not the boogie man back there.

Don’t stand directly behind a horse. He can’t see you. You can do anything you need to do at his side.  Don’t crawl under his belly or under his neck. Keep your body where you can move away quickly if the horse spooks.

The horse owner. When you go to the home for your first consultation, be honest with the owner. Let them know if you do or don’t have any horse experience. Plan in advance to spend some time with the owner and the horse.

Blanketing, feeding, putting on a fly mask. If you are to blanket the horse at night, have the owner show you how she does it. Then you try it. There are lots of straps that wrap under the belly and through the legs.

Have her feed the horse, to see how he reacts when food is coming. Is he aggressive? What does she do about it? Does she allow you to hand-feed the horse a treat? Some horses are too pushy and it isn't safe.

In the summer, many horses wear a fly mask. Some wear them 24/7, others will have them removed at night. The mask is made of fine mesh that the horse can see through. Some masks have earpieces that also protect the horse’s ears from flies. Lots of people try to put fly masks on upside down, so don’t be embarrassed to ask the owner for a demonstration!

Will the horse be in the stall when you clean? Have the owner show you. If she can pick manure around his feet without him kicking or getting irritated, that’s a good sign.

Haltering and leading a horse safely. If you are to turn out the horse in an arena, have her show you how she puts on the halter, leads the horse, and how he reacts to all of it. He may get pretty worked up when he realizes he’s going out to play. Can you handle him?

Be careful how you carry a lead rope. Do NOT wrap it around your arm so he can’t pull it away from you. Carry the rope so you can drop it quickly if you have to. See the photos here for a clearer explanation.

Tying a horse. Tie high. You don’t want the rope down low where he can step over it and get tangled. Let him hold his head comfortably, not too high, not too low.

Calm an excited horse. A worried or excited horse will dance around and throw his head up in the air. The worst thing you can do is try to make him stand still. His next trick will be to explode and take off. Let him move a little, maybe in a tight circle around you. Face him toward something that scares him, but don’t make him get closer until he calms down. Watch his ears so you can identify the source of his discomfort.

The “flight or fight” response is deeply ingrained in a horse’s brain. He will react quickly, and if he can’t get away from something that scares him, he’ll strike out and fight. Let him work out his nerves by moving his feet until he calms down. Walk him away from the scary thing.

Have the owner show you how to work a quick-release snap on the lead rope. It’s better to let him get away than be injured. I’ll talk about how to catch a loose horse in my next post.

Is horse care right for you? If you decide all this is too much for you, say so. There are many calm, sweet horses that are easy to handle, and I hope you get to pet sit those! There are also flighty, spirited, “hot” horses that even the owner can barely deal with. You might want to pass on those assignments, unless you are just throwing hay in the stall. I’ve had horses for almost 20 years, and I’d still rather not care for a hard-to-handle horse.

Get a phone number of a local backup person to call if you need help, no matter how sweet and easy going your new equine client is.
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© 2010 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.

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