It’s never too soon and it’s never too late to talk about farrier safety.
Bent over and working underneath a horse with one’s head at the same height as one’s backside is not the best place for the human body to pass its working days. And that’s when things are going well.
Staying safe in the job gets even more chancy in springtime when horses are full of good grass but not so good manners.
Especially in 2020 when the season is red hot right across Victoria and many horses are not being worked as much as usual because of the never ending virus lockdown.
Ah Spring! Glorious days….birds singing….grass growing….horses feral.
As most horse owners would attest, there aren’t too many things on which farriers agree with each other, but most of them would be quite happy to skip from Winter straight to Summer and give Spring a big miss.
So right now, with much nervous and rambunctious equine energy ready to burn or, better still, flatten farriers, it’s a great time to be talking about safety.
But how could a farrier possibly find spare time in the heady days of Spring, when the phone never stops, to luxuriate over the writing of an article? The only farriers who are quiet this time of the year are watching from the sidelines, somewhere between knocked about and kaput.
When a farrier does get injured in the line of duty, it can be quite cathartic to lay all the blame squarely at the hooves of one demonic outlaw horse in particular and then blacklist it to the whole world (if nothing else, a good embellishment always impresses the grandkids). The truth is, it’s unlikely that only one horse is to blame.
Leading up to most work-stopping injuries is the cumulative effect of too many horses being just bad enough to put extra strain on a body that is already enduring that unnatural working posture. Add to that the age old (but stoopid) farrier creed that to be a good soldier is to keep on working even when the body is loudly protesting.
A fit and strong farriery-built body can absorb a barrage of misplaced equine energy for a long time, but the damage is all the while quietly adding up; death from a thousand cuts.
And then one horse just subtly pulls or pushes or leans or drops at precisely the worst time and….Houston we’ve got a problem.
Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) in the farrier’s workplace can always do with a bit of fine tuning.
OHS needs to be holistic and needs to consider both the clear and present danger (the obvious big ticket stuff like not getting kicked in the head or having an ear bitten off) as well as the subtle ergonomics of farriery (long term wear and tear on the human body that arises as a consequence of a 75kg human versus a 500kg horse).
So, what can you – the horse owner – do to help keep life downunder horses as safe as possible?
Setting up an OHS savvy workplace
Horses are hard-wired to move very quickly away from danger (whether real or perceived); it’s a big part of their evolutionary survival strategy which has given them the ability to move before thinking, or move first and think second. Just in case that leaf blowing in through the stable door really is a drop bear.
If a horse is already in an anxious state, that’s when ridiculously small things can set it to flight; a leaf lying on the ground can be a trigger, just because it wasn’t there yesterday.
Horses are bottom of the food chain and have been for 60 million years – always expecting the unexpected – so they are naturally inclined to be scared of the unknown. This is why the safest possible workplace is the one that a horse is most familiar with.
The best place for hoof work is where you tie up for tacking, grooming, vetting, everything. It’s the place where your horse knows it is on the payroll and has to stand tied for lengthy periods.
Hopefully it’s a big airy space that conceals no demons.
Familiarity also means bringing in a paddock buddy and tying it up for the duration. Safety in numbers.
Holding a horse for farrier work
Farriers generally like to work independently and horse owners can usually find less tedious ways to pass their time, but some horses are simply better citizens when they are held for hoof work.
When attentively holding a horse, the holder provides security for a nervous horse, entertainment for a bored horse and can take the strength out of a braced horse by holding its head so that its neck is laterally curved.
But the horse holder must be attentive; not looking at a screen or imitating a horse by sleeping standing up.
Open space around both horse and farrier is vital just in case something does go wrong. When there is space around it, a frightened horse can choose to move away from the farrier rather than over the top and the farrier can likewise quickly scamper in the opposite direction.
Obviously such open space needs to be free from tripping hazards such as tools, hoof stands, feed buckets, kid’s bikes, sleeping Labradors etc.
Some equine critters just cannot waste a moment of their busy lives by standing still and peaceably dozing for the duration of a farrier appointment. Instead, they would rather make the most of their valuable time and investigate everything they can possibly reach with their mouth.
Invariably, something is going to be pulled off something and clatter on the floor. So of course it is going to get a fright and pull back. This is equine logic at its finest.
The moral here is to keep the workplace clutter free. Or at least keep clutter away from enquiring muzzles.
Windy weather tends to put most horses on edge and unfortunately there are plenty of windy days in Spring. The workplace needs to be out of direct wind and isolated from loose things blowing around or flapping or banging.
If your horse is normally unsettled on windy days, no matter how calm the workplace, maybe it’s worth trying to schedule farrier visits according to the weather forecast.
What about wet weather?
Actually, on second thoughts, good luck second guessing Spring weather in Victoria in order to plan for a farrier visit. In reality, your workplace will need to be able to accommodate the visitation of both the farrier and multiple seasons at the same time.
Shelter from rain is not an optional luxury. No one should be expected to work such a physically hard task as hoof work with a wet back, nor to use wet and slippery tools.
There’s nothing like a few warm days to bring out stable flies after their Winter hibernation.
Good luck expecting a horse to stand like a statue for the best part of an hour when these nasty little blood suckers are latching on.
An effective fly repellent should be used at first hint of a horse’s annoyance at insects.
Don’t take other horses away until the job is finished
Horses are most definitely herd critters and they perceive safety in numbers.
As convenient as it is to return horses back to their paddocks as soon as the farrier has finished with them and moved onto the next one, doing so can really upset those horses left behind.
Horses should begin receiving their hoof handling education when they are 4-6-8 week old foals.
Younger is always better than older.
It’s probably not a matter of who, but when the process is started, so able bodied foal owners can usually do a lot to help with the training process.
Once a young horse has accepted a human holding onto its legs and is yielding to such pressure, then it is best to pick the hooves up and hold them in the various positions that farriers employ. Just for long enough to initially get a quick yield to pressure in the various positions, but then for increasing time so they also get a rough idea of that quaint concept of patience.
If you are doing the right thing and handling your foal’s legs, make sure you are doing it right. Letting go of hooves at precisely the wrong moment (usually just before the foal has yielded to pressure) can give it the idea that it is totally their decision when they will put their hoof down, setting up a lifetime of butting heads with farriers.
If you doubt your abilities, maybe it is best to get your young horse hoof trained by a professional handler who will be sure to get the timing right and will produce a grown up horse that is light of leg and yields to pressure and most importantly is respectful of its handlers. Definitely a good return on investment.
What about older young horses?
Yes, a farrier should be expected to be able to fine tune a young horse’s hoof handling education a little bit more each trimming session. Emphasis here is on fine tune. But it’s not a farrier’s responsibility to start such education from scratch on older young horses.
Unless you are hiring the farrier as a horse breaker.
It’s astounding the number of times a farrier is asked to do the first trim on an older young horse when it hasn’t ever had its legs picked up beforehand. A wise old farrier may ask the proud new owner of an older young horse for a demonstration of them picking up and holding both the front and back hooves. Up there for thinking, down there for dancing.
And it’s probably a good idea to trim a foal before it is a four year old monster that is ready to go to the breaker as soon as the farrier has trimmed its hooves.
No, we don’t need to exaggerate, these things happen. Don’t get an old farrier started on commercial breeders who can’t see far enough past the bottom line on the balance sheet to be concerned with optional luxuries like hoofcare.
One last thought about setting up a young horse so that hoof work is relatively pleasant for all parties, be sure to give them a leg handling reminder just prior to the farrier’s visit.
Sensitive equine hooves
More than anything else, hammering nails into hooves can set a horse and farrier on a collision course. A lot of horses have sensitive hooves. After all, that is probably why they are getting shod.
To nail a shoe on a sensitive hoof, the farrier needs to hold the hoof upturned and keep it steady by bracing against the flinching and jerking that accompanies every hammer blow. An ergonomic working posture is sacrificed rather than the farrier risking getting nailed to the horse.
What can a horse owner do about a horse that is sensitive to nailing? Unfortunately it is a difficult problem to train out of a horse.
Sensitivity often arises from inflammation due to sub-clinical laminitis, so the problem may be solved with changes to diet and lifestyle.
However, if hooves remain sensitive, then some form of mild sedation may be needed.
Sore equine bodies
Farriers are right on the front line of recognising body soreness. When they pick a leg up they are engaging all the joints and connective tissues from the ground floor to the top deck.
They get to know the normal feel of individual horses and can recognise subtle changes such as restrictions in limb movement, bracing, heaviness or even an increased reluctance to lift some legs off the ground. All the little things that are insidiously stressful to the farrier’s body.
If the farrier mentions any tightness or reluctance which is not normal for that particular horse, further investigation may be warranted.
Farriers should be encouraged to speak up about these things and not just groan and suck up the extra load.
Nowadays there are many great equine body therapists of many different modalities to enlist for help.
Mares in Springtime
If ever there are words in the English language that should not be put in the same sentence, then ‘mares in springtime’ and ‘farrier safety’ would surely qualify.
When hormones are coursing through a mare’s system in the balmy days of Spring, look out anyone who touches a forbidden zone. This may include the stomach, flank, rump, girth, neck, actually pretty much anywhere, depending on the day.
If you suspect your mare realises that it is indeed springtime when the farrier is scheduled, it is worth touching your mare in all those places that the farrier is likely to touch (usually with oblivion), especially the girth and belly where a farrier might brush his back. See what reaction is likely and then pre-warn the farrier so he can try extra hard not to cross the demilitarised zone.
The sweaty saddle cloth
There is a tried and tested cure all for the Springtime equine problem of too much energy going in the mouth.
Nothing calms the equine temperament quite like a sweaty saddle cloth.
One of the best things that you can do for OHS in the farrier’s workplace is to work the horse beforehand, if possible right up to just before the farrier arrives (if you can manage to keep abreast of the farrier’s progress).
It’s a good thing that horses are born with a sweet tooth. When all else appears to be failing, strategically timed bribery can be an incredible pacifier.
But, as with every other aspect of horsemanship, bribery needs to be well-timed. Only use it as a proactive attention shifter before a horse begins consciously drifting towards the dark side.
Don’t be reactive and reward bad behaviour with sweet feed otherwise you will simply create a monster.
Many years ago when this old farrier was a new chum, he managed to train a wise old donkey to absolute perfection with bribery.
The donkey was not partial to having its hooves handled and would lash out with uncanny accuracy, so sweet food was introduced to keep its mind occupied.
He was docile as a lamb when munching on sweet food until the very instant he finished his last mouthful when all hell would break loose and he would start lashing out with whatever hoof was closest to the retreating farrier. That is, until the feed bucket was topped up.
I found out at a young age that donkeys can smirk.
Experienced farriers (who usually have an even temperament otherwise they wouldn’t have lasted in the job) sort of just roll with the ebb and flow of the horse, belying the physical transactions taking place. They make the job look easier than it is. So much so, the physical conversation between farrier and horse can go largely unnoticed, with horse owners blissfully unaware that there is any argy bargy going on at all.
The best way for horse owners to develop an appreciation of the task – and maybe some ownership of OHS – is for them to pick up and hold each hoof in a working position long enough to give it a good clean out and then hold it for just a bit longer.
A comment often heard by a farrier from a horse owner after doing this is “I don’t know how you can possibly do that all day, every day”
Yes, it is hard work alright. Whatever you’re paying your farrier, it ain’t enough!