NEVER ENTER A CONFINED SPACE WITH A PANICKING HORSE…. EVER…if this is the only piece of advice you take from this blog, then I’ll be a happy camper. Read on, if you want to find out why.
What the story?
Some of you may have read earlier this week about the tragic accident in the UK where a 51-year old man was kicked to death after he entered the horsebox to calm his panicking horse. Here’s the link if you missed it. Some people have questioned if this was a preventable tragedy, or just a risk we take when working with such large flight animals. I happen to think it’s the former, based on a full awareness of the latter.
Why did it happen?
“It’s a horse, that’s what they do” …well, yes, but they have a really good reason for doing it, and we need to understand why, so we can take measures to prevent such accidents from happening to us, and those around us.
A horse is a large, grazing, herd animal. Grazing animals are prey species and fear motivates them to escape from perceived danger. While herd animals benefit from the safety and solace offered by their group members, when it comes to survival, ‘get-me-outta-here’ self preservation is the primary motivator. Cowardly and selfish it may seem to us, but taking risks and putting your mates first, does not get you 55 million+ years of unaided species survival!
Realize that for a horse to even entertain a trailer, particularly transported alone, is an amazing testament to their adaptability and willingness to live under our imposed human constraints. They are evolutionarily compelled to avoid dark, narrow and confined spaces, i.e. it is a hard-wired survival instinct. Transporting horses is a convenience we give little regard to in terms of equine health, behavior training, and safety. As a result, horrendous accidents, as we have seen this week, are all too common, and so often preventable.
We must understand that the horse lives in the moment and reacts to his immediate environment based primarily on instinctual behaviors, he cannot reason that help will soon come in the form of a human savior and all will be well. To waste time thinking through things would mean certain capture and death from a predator.
Like the horse, we too have instincts, but our brains are more complex. Unlike the horse, we think many steps ahead, we predict, analyse, reason and make a conscious decision, not always based on self-preservation. This is why we would quite happily rush in to save our panicking horse, or why people run into burning buildings to save people/animals/belongings etc…if the horse could speak he’d tell us we were crazy…while high-tailing it as fast as possible in the opposite direction!
Horses are flight animals and fear can manifest itself in a variety of ways, including avoidance (running away), active defense (threat, attack), or the inhibition of movement, expressed as tonic immobility, known as freezing. Although we don’t know the full details of this particular accident, it would be reasonable to assume this horse had experienced some form of aversive stimuli that initiated a pain/fear reaction.
When an acutely fearful response is encountered, both automatic neural and endocrine stress reactions occur. The nervous system goes into high alert and immediately prepares the body for flight or fight. The endocrine system triggers a cascade of events that immediately releases adrenalin and kick-starts the flight response. Once the horse is in this survival mode, his first and most preferred plan is to run and escape. When this cannot be met, he will be forced to threaten and attack, and he will see anyone approaching as a potential predator; a threat that he has to fight for his life against. Important to remember is that once this response has been initiated, other less-important stimuli are ignored (e.g. you!) which is why he will blindly plough through everything in his path in the quest to survive. This is a hard-wired, instinct that has not been diluted due to domestication; only understanding and good training can help to avoid it.
So what should you do?
There is mounting evidence that the horse can detect human cues and attentional states, they often respond well to the familiar sound of their owner’s voice. With this in mind, the very best course of action we can take in this situation is to approach the scene in a controlled and calm manner (remember you can make a conscious decision to override your fear and react this way, the horse cannot) but KEEP OUT of the trailer, do not even lower the ramp, or open a door while the horse is panicking. Ensure all loud noises, lights etc are eliminated and speak softly to the horse. It may seem like an eternity before the horse regains control, or even reaches a state of ‘freezing’, but the important thing is to KEEP OUT. Remember, even a state of tonic immobility (freezing) can be followed by an explosive and uncontrollable last ditch attempt for self preservation. To step into a confined space with a panicking horse, especially into his rear blind spot, not only puts YOU in extreme danger, but it may exacerbate HIS fear response and makes him panic further.
Specialist training and best practice guidelines are available to deal with this kind of emergency; all horse owners should be prepared for this kind of incident by knowing what to do. To go into this in detail here, would be another essay in itself, so i’ll hand you over to great blog by Dr Rebecca Gimenez, considered an international leading authority on large animal emergency rescue situations. While it pertains to an overturned trailer, it gives critical, life saving advice on dealing with similar incidents.
In the UK, we are fortunate to have all emergency responders trained to specifically deal with this kind of emergency; in the US and Australia, this is still a work in progress. Take responsibility for your own life and the safety of others by becoming educated to the dangers of dealing with large animals. Training is available to horse owners, across the US & Australia; more information can be found on their websites and Facebook pages, or you can contact us here at EQUIJAY and we’ll guide you in the right direction.
Take home message
BEING IN ANY CONFINED SPACE, AT ANYTIME WITH ANY HORSE, OR ANY LARGE GRAZING ANIMAL, IS ALWAYS A POTENTIAL DANGER ZONE. Pretty much every cell in their body is about flight or fight; this instinctual body makeup is designed to override anything or anyone that may be in their path if they interpret a potentially threatening situation.
Perhaps better preparation and training may have potentially averted this accident (and this is something many people do not take the time to work on), remaining outside the trailer would most certainly have, but a better understanding of horse behavior and how he interprets the world is one of the fundamental aspects of responsible horse ownership and safe handling. Unfortunately, this came too late for this family and tragically they learned the hard way.
Our thoughts and deepest condolences go out to the family for their loss; only through such tragic events can we hope to educate more people as to the potential risks of dealing with horses and other flight animals. The responsibility for self-preservation is in your hands; please don’t become another tragedy for us all to learn from.