Healthy Fear?

As many of you know, I volunteer at a therapeutic riding facility and have done so (with different organizations) for upwards of twelve years now.

This organization serves many riders and is run by a network of volunteers as well as a small staff and executive board. As with any organization whose primary activities lend themselves to a younger crowd, we tend to have a lot of seasonal volunteers and volunteer turnover based on the school schedule. There are a nice crew of us who have been volunteering for a while and can be counted on year after year.

I am a stable manager at this facility on Thursday evenings, meaning that while lessons are going on it is my responsibility to ensure that: horses are correctly tacked for each lesson; horses are kept fed and watered; stalls are routinely picked; volunteers are completing the other barn chores; and to be readily available should an instructor or volunteer need anything. As the temps drop, so does our attendance, and because I am experienced with horses and with this program, I am often chosen to lead difficult or new horses in lessons.

Another one of my main responsibilities is to help train in new volunteers. I love this part but, sadly, when we are forced to run with a skeleton crew, this part gets neglected. Last night a typical situation arose that many of you fellow bloggers wouldn’t even bat an eye at, but that surely scared the bejeezus out of a number of wide-eyed greenhorns.

Lessons run back-to-back and so the grooming/tacking must be carefully orchestrated or we will make all of the lessons run behind. I’m unsure if my other stable manager had to leave for some sort of emergency, but for whatever reason, I ended up in the arena leading our easiest horse for a lesson. This happens a lot, and generally the rest of the work gets done like clockwork thanks to a pretty good group of workmanlike volunteers. Last night, some of the volunteers were tacking a horse named Splash (she’s been featured on this blog before) and she is well known for being a tough horse to lead. She has become a little dangerous on the ground if you don’t know what you are doing. She bites, and sometimes has mareish moods. We tack all of the therapy horses in their stalls clipped to a safety tie on the bars between their stalls. As I watched from the arena last night, Splash was being tacked and for whatever reason (like they need a reason, amirite?) she spooked and pulled back once, sound reverberating off of the bars. After she settled, I tried to telepathically yell “unclip her!” from my useless spot in the arena dragging around the ironically named “Spirit”. But alas, they didn’t hear me and didn’t come to the same conclusion- I understand, she bites, I’d rather her be tied too! Well, she spooked herself again in dramatic fashion and broke her halter trying to scuttle back from the resistance.

No humans or horses were injured in this production and the only loss was a leather halter and probably temporary bladder function of some volunteers.

I had mixed emotions over the whole thing. Half of me was mad that somehow I let myself get roped into leading, since a monkey could do it with this horse, meanwhile the presence of a senior stable manager was obviously needed in the aisle. And then the other half of me wishes I could bottle that experience and give it to all new volunteers.


I’m not 100% saying that had I been tacking Splash it wouldn’t have happened in the first place…but yes, yes I am.

Emma said it pretty well today in her post:

“When dealing with horses, it’s sometimes a stretch to say we’re inย controlย of the situation… but there are definitely steps we can take to keep things safe for everyone involved.”

Sometimes I feel like I am conducting basic horse care and groundwork lessons every week. I can’t quite think back far enough to remember how it was first impressed upon me that you simply MUST possess a healthy fear when you are working with horses. I feel like I always had that. I mean you just look at them- they’re huge and they don’t seem to know it- they are startled but what sometimes seems like the dumbest stuff, at the very least you could say they act completely unpredictably if you know nothing about horses.






Still, for some reason, we get teenagers in the barn alllllll the time that are in a big giant hurry to lead the most difficult horses in the barn because they’re VERY experienced, ya know, they’ve watched every episode of Heartland and rode horses at summer camp. I don’t mean to belittle that experience because that was more or less my entry into horses too- you have to start somewhere. But I had a healthy fear. I didn’t try to overstate my experience, I just wanted to be given the opportunity for more of it.

I don’t want to be complacent when teaching new volunteers about horses. Yes, they are therapy horses but they are still horses.



How do you prep overconfident newbies for those dramatic horse situations? Any advice?




3 thoughts on “Healthy Fear?

  1. i’ve had your same job at a few barns and LOVE your idea of ‘bottling’ that experience. yes it was scary – but nobody was hurt. therefore – a great learning experience.

    i always try to be very explicit with my helpers that those kinds of accidents are *not* their fault – horses are unpredictable and things happen. but that is why it’s so critical that they follow the rules. for the overconfident kiddos tho… it’s tough. in my experience – actually giving them more responsibilities (within reason) helps keep them listening and on the same page (sometimes lol. kids are kids…)

  2. I have volunteered at a therapeutic riding facility myself and I can relate. I think the most important thing is that there be guidelines in place and everyone lead by example. For example, at one facility I volunteered at, horses were not permitted to be hand fed, yet sometimes the “more experienced” volunteers would hand feed. Not only is it potentially dangerous (depends on your thoughts on the matter), but it sets a bad example for the other volunteers that some people are hand feeding and others aren’t. I always tried to follow the rules to the letter when I was there; not my horse, so not my decision! As for “bottling experience” I am right there with you. Sometimes I just wish my trainer could sprinkle me with some magic dust and we could just be done with this whole learning process! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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