By Julie I. Fershtman, Attorney at Law
It was a routine day at the barn and after finishing with her lessons, Karen had some extra time to ride and enjoy one of her own horses, a solid, tried-and-true gelding. After a wonderful ride, Karen proceeded with her normal routine to untack and groom her horse and put him away.
After unbridling the horse, she put on the nylon halter and looking around for a lead shank to lead him back to the barn, all that Karen could find was a shank with a chain. The horse had just been ridden and was tired, so he certainly did not need the chain over his nose for control, but since it was the only lead handy, Karen decided to use it anyway. She ran the snap of the chain through the bottom ring of the halter and snapped it back on itself, doubling the chain, as most people do in order to shorten the chain and make it stronger when the chain is not needed over the horse’s nose or under its chin.
Enjoying the afternoon and savoring the excellent ride she just had on her gelding, Karen walked the horse slowly back toward his stall, deciding to offer him a treat and allow him to graze on the fresh green grass on the way back to the barn. Having used the chain lead shank in this manner dozens, if not hundreds of times before, Karen had no idea that she had created a noose for her horse and by letting him graze, she was setting the trap.
Within a moment of having his head down in the grass, Karen saw the gelding’s hoof in the loop of the chain. In a split second, before Karen could take any corrective action, he ripped his head up and reared; his leg was trapped in the chain and the horse began to struggle.
Tragically, the chain did not break, but the horse’s neck did. The horse could not untangle himself and in his struggle to get free, his neck broke and as he collapsed to the ground, he also broke his hip. Within an hour of their last ride together, Karen held her fine gelding’s head in her lap as he was euthanized.
Most of us have used chain lead shanks in this manner for years without incident and without thought. I think of how many times I have seen people snapping the end of the chain on the halter and corrected them, making them double the chain up, all the while thinking to myself, “What a geek!” Now I know better.
There are many lessons to be learned from this tragic accident and I am grateful to Karen for having the courage to share it with us so that we can re-assess the things we routinely do.
Obviously with the chain doubled, it is much stronger and when attached to a nylon halter without a breakaway, there is not much that could make either one break. If it is not safe to double the chain and it is not effective to leave it long, then the lesson is, use the right tool for the job. If the chain is not needed over the horse’s nose or under his chin for control, then a regular lead shank should be used.
Another lesson to be learned is that just because there is an accepted way of doing things and/or methods that we have been using for many years without incident, it doesn’t mean it is the best way or that an accident can’t happen. It pays to question everything that we do and consider all the possibilities, even if it seems like a remote chance. Horses have an incredible capacity to hurt themselves on seemingly benign objects.
With horses, it pays to always assume the worst case scenario. If it is possible, a horse will find a way to turn it into a wreck. Whether it seems likely or not, we should always operate based on the worst case scenario and take the necessary actions to prevent the wreck from happening, no matter how remote the chances are.
Breakaways are always a good idea with horses. Whether it is for cross ties, trailer ties, hay bags, reins, water buckets or anything that a horse could possibly get a foot hung up in, it is best if there is something that will break. Even just adding a loop of bailing twine to the object that will give way should a horse struggle is a great device.
A final lesson to be learned is from Karen and it is her selfless act of sharing this story, her courage in admitting her mistakes so that others can learn and her devotion to horses that will help ensure that this kind of tragedy doesn’t happen to another horse. Thank you Karen and I know I, for one, appreciate learning from you.
If you have a story to share that others can learn from that will help keep humans and horses safer, please contact Julie Goodnight at (800) 980-1410 or jgoodnight@CHA-ahse.org.
Editor’s Note: Normally this column includes true stories that have been fictionalized. This article is a true story written in the words of the victim, with editorial assistance from the author… Thank you for sharing stories that will prevent others from being hurt. If you have a story you would like to share, please email it to us at office@CHA-ahse.org