Halters, Collars and a Quarter Ton

15 07 2014

It comes as no surprise to most horse people when I say horses are not like dogs. Beyond the fact one wears a halter and one wears a collar, there is often a quarter ton difference between the weight of a dog and the weight of a horse. That is quite a large weight disparity. And that is just where the differences begin – with the obvious physical differences we can see with the naked eye.
I know “horses are not like dogs” seems like a statement of the obvious, but I have had several cases where folks are deliberately or innocently or deliriously or naively, depending on the person and the situation, trying to equate the responsibilities of horse owners to protect themselves and others against the many risks inherent with owning, possessing or using a horse with the responsibilities of dog owners to protect themselves and others from the risks inherent with owning, possessing or using dogs. Can both horses and dogs be dangerous? Absolutely. Can they both seriously injure or kill humans? Absolutely. Generally speaking, on average, setting aside the specific temperament of a particularly gentle and slow moving horse and a particularly nasty, aggressive dog, is the risk of serious injury or death higher when we are in the company of horses than it is when we are in the company of dogs? Absolutely. There is just no getting around the fact that there is more risk of physical harm to people and things when they are interacting with the average horse than there is when they are interacting with the average dog.
While horse owners and dog owners can be equally protective and defensive about their beloved animals, it is much more troubling to me when a horse owner openly refuses to acknowledge that there are risks inherent in equine activities, risks that are present primarily because of the sheer size of the animals and the inherent nature of horses as prey animals with a herd mentality. There are hundreds of books written on the subject, from the esteemed natural horsemanship experts’ materials to Cherry Hill’s well known book “How to Think Like a Horse” which eloquently explains typical horse behaviors and the evolutionary reasons behind them. Much of what these writings say teaches us that we, as horse lovers, have to be respectful and patient with the fact that for thousands of years horses have evolved in a way so as to avoid being eaten by a predator. Hyper-vigilant senses of sight, hearing and smell are just some of the adaptations which enable horses to better survive in the wild. When we domesticate horses, these traits do not disappear. And these tendencies can be frustrating and scary to experience first hand, as most of us who have been with a horse when it becomes frightened can attest. While dogs certainly can act out when they are frightened, (a) we are as a society more accustomed to dealing with fearful dogs; (b) dogs are usually smaller than we are; and (c) it is easier to defend yourself against a dog should that become necessary. When a horse is frightened, you can quickly have over 1000 pounds hurtling towards (or away from) you at 25 miles per hour within a matter of seconds.
You get the point. Why do I bring up this issue? Because we horse folks need to always remember that there are many, many, many more dog people/cat people/bird people and other non-horse people than there are horse people in the world. Many people equate horses with other pets in their mind without really thinking about it and do not understand fully or appreciate fully the dangers of being around horses. So, it is incumbent upon us – the relatively few folks who understand these risks – to protect the uneducated and unaware public from harm when we reasonably can. For their benefit, but for our own benefit as well. And we have to do more than dog/cat/bird/guinea pig people have to do in order to protect and educate others about the risks of their animals. Why? Because the potential for disaster is so much greater with an animal of the size and mindset of a horse. I am not suggesting we horse folks need launch an educational campaign to educate non-horsey folks about all things horse-related, just that we think about providing, at a minimum, basic education to those who will share space with our horses in order to raise awareness of the risks inherent with being in the company of horses. Ideally, we also give people who are unfamiliar with horses some suggestions for cautions to follow and risky behaviors to avoid. In fact, if you read your equine liability insurance policy (which you should have if you own, lease or use horses in any way), chances are it requires you to take some basic precautions and provide some basic education and notice of certain risks to the general public who comes into contact with your horses.
Just as the owner of a vicious guard dog posts a “Beware of the Dog” sign as a reasonable precaution to protect the unwary, we too need to take precautions to protect the unwary from the risks associated with our horses, the vast majority of whom are the opposite of vicious. Although most horses are loving and gentle animals, they are hardwired to react quickly to ensure self-preservation and any time something that weighs 1,000 pounds (or 500 pounds or 1,500 pounds) moves quickly, it can cause significant damage to people and property and that is the crux of how horses really are not “just like dogs.”

If you get into a bind and need assistance or just want to ask some questions to avoid getting in a bind, feel free to email me at dburch@rl-law.com. I often will answer a short and simple question for free if you are in North Carolina and I have time and know the answer off the top of my head! Or often know good equine lawyers in other states if you need a referral. If you don’t hear back from me quickly, it’s not because I don’t love you or think you have a great question or because I don’t know the answer (usually), I’m probably just really busy and haven’t had a chance to email back. And you can always buy the first hour of my time for $250 (my usual hourly rate for 2014 is $350). Lots of folks will save up all their equine (and some corporate or real estate) legal questions and short documents and sit with me for an hour and we will do as much as we can during that hour and it’s only $250. You can check out my Twitter feed @nchorselawyer as well as our firm’s Equine Law Group web page at http://www.rl-law.com/equine if you’re interested, and yes, in addition to providing what I hope are interesting and informative stories, this blog and the Twitter feed referenced above are also (in one way or another, I guess) an advertisement for legal services.