Farming Magazine - May, 2010


Working Horses: Risk Reduction for Your Horse and Barnyard

By Vicki Schmidt
Make sure gates and barriers at the ends of hallways will not invite danger. Bones and flesh break before most chains.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

Reducing risk is a concept most horse owners rarely pay much attention to. As with most negative issues, we tend to think, “My horse would never do that” or “That would never happen to me.” We have a hundred excuses for not being proactive: we don’t have time, can’t afford it or figure we’re more careful and immune from accidents.

Then, there are those of us who tend to imagine all that can go wrong. We border on the edge of paranoid and read about something happening to someone else and immediately ask ourselves, “Could that happen to me?”

Risk reduction and loss prevention activities increase the safety of yourself and your horses, as well as visitors to your farm. Not only that, but they can make it easier for responders to quickly mitigate an incident, should one occur.

The first step to reducing risk and preventing loss on your farm is to take a critical look at your property. If you feel you do not have the skills to do this, enlist the help of a specialist. Your insurance company may have recommendations, and your local fire department may also be a good place to start. Veteran responders have often “seen it all” when it comes to farming and equine-related accidents, and tend to have a keen sense of pending trouble spots on your farm.

We all know how winter winds and spring rains take a toll on pastures, barns, gates and fencings. Hours of time are spent firming up fence lines loosened by the seasonal frost and mud. The time spent each year on secure fencing pays off with increased livestock security and reduced loss and injury to your animals, especially horses.

Old trees and large weak branches can cause blunt trauma or implement-type injuries to livestock. Better to feed these trees to the woodstove than keep them in your pastures.

One of the best risk-reduction activities a farm can implement is perimeter pathways and fencing. This is especially important where livestock could travel onto roadways or into deep ravines, manure pits or waterways should they escape from their pastures or barnyard. The added benefit of perimeter fencing is that it also keeps other wayward livestock, as well as moose and bear, from entering your animal enclosures. Perimeter pathways serve a vital purpose as they will often provide moose a convenient travel lane. Giving moose this space will keep them from crashing your fencing, especially as they exit the woods. The pathways also make nice areas for resting your working horses in the shade during the summer, and handy sleigh ride areas in the winter.

Another strategy for reducing risk for your livestock is to establish safe places that tend to “invite” livestock if they happen to get loose. This is much easier for horses, and especially for owners who handle their horses on a daily basis. Most livestock enjoy the comforts of “food, forage and a friend.” Simple things such as keeping a door to your hay barn open might just be the invitation your horse needs that prevents him from venturing onto the road. A horse getting loose and getting into the hay barn is much easier to deal with than a horse getting loose and going into the road. Or worse yet, your horse getting loose, going into the road and getting hit by a car.

Additional hazards near pastures and barns that are just waiting for the opportune time to inflict death or injury on your horses are loose metal roofing, dead or dying trees and other unsuspecting dangers. Winds can send construction materials or debris blowing around the farm. Horses and other livestock are not immune to these dangers, and will often panic and run if the items are unidentifiable. Pay attention to building maintenance issues and secure items that could fly loose, as well as dead branches or trees that could be affected by severe weather.

Securing areas that are uninviting and dangerous to livestock will help reduce the possibility of disabling injuries, especially for horses.
Make sure buildings are kept in good repair and items that can blow around are secure. Loose metal, construction debris and other materials can cause damage to livestock during storms and high winds.
Perimeter fencing and activities that work to keep your livestock in and other animals out is probably the best risk-reduction investment farm owners can make to their property.

While critiquing your farm for safety issues, consider your machinery and animal pathways. As a general rule, animal flesh and machinery metals don’t mix very well, so it’s a good idea to keep them as separate as possible. Never park machinery in livestock pastures, especially ones habited by horses. And, ideally, never park machinery in pathways or areas where livestock travel on a routine basis.

Establishing a policy that keeps the inside of your barn free from pathway hazards is as important as keeping hazards out of your barnyard and pastures. Remember, horses’ eyes don’t adjust to dramatic light changes from outside to inside nearly as quickly as human eyes do. I worked for a veterinarian for 10 years and within the first month the greatest lesson learned was that horse’s legs do not extricate easily from wheelbarrows, garden carts, buckets or bicycle tires. In addition, the cost you save in smaller items that aren’t broken due to animals stepping on them will more than pay for the time and effort to provide for their safe location. If you keep anything in your barn aisle, make sure it’s as soft as a bale of hay, as that’s about the only thing a horse can bounce into without much risk of injury.

A few other risk-reduction and loss prevention activities include bans on smoking and electrical heating devices. These items that have no place on a farm wanting to reduce the possibility of an accident or injury to its livestock, especially horses. In 2007, over 800,000 farm animals died in barn and livestock facility fires. Four of the 203 reported fires were arson or determined “suspicious.” The vast majority of the remaining 199 fires were attributed to smoking and electrical appliances, meaning most were preventable, had owners been paying attention to preventive policies (

Another restriction with risk reduction and loss prevention benefits is not allowing customers to bring dogs onto your property, and especially not let them run loose. Mares with foals and cows with calves are no match for most dogs, but even one slight bite on a youngster’s leg, even if the dog is only playing, could mean death or permanent injury.

There are a host of other activities horse and farm owners can implement to keep their farm and property more safe and enjoyable. The best vet bill is the one you never have to pay because preventive measures kept an incident from ever happening. Do yourself and your livestock a favor and get to work today on proactive, risk reduction and loss prevention activities.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manger of Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The farm harvests an average of 86 tons of hay a year. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.