Working with horses can be rewarding and enjoyable, but barn chores can take a toll on your body over time. These essential barn safety strategies will help you protect yourself.
From the riding school I grew up at, to A-circuit show barns, Standardbred yearling sales, and even a trail-riding stable in Ireland, I’ve spent my fair share of time scooping poop and taking care of horses. Not much can take the place of all the learning you experience when you spend that much time around horses. But between the physical demands of the work, and the wear and tear of riding or other horse-related activities, it’s essential to make barn safety a priority for you as well as your horses.
Proper ergonomics are key to avoiding repetitive strain injuries related to daily barn chores. Barn work is physically demanding, so it’s important to avoid making it harder on your body than it needs to be.
Lifting and carrying
When heavy lifting is required, always lift from your legs, not your back. For example, if you are lifting a full muck bucket to dump in a manure spreader, squat down to pick it up, then lift with a neutral spine. Bending over with a curved spine and extending your back to lift something heavy is a recipe for herniated discs – definitely to be avoided!
If you are carrying heavy objects, like water buckets, be sure to load your spine symmetrically by carrying two at a time (one in each hand). A full five-gallon water bucket can weigh in excess of 40 pounds, so carrying two half-full buckets is often a wiser strategy for protecting your back. If you are not used to carrying heavy loads, make sure you build up to it over time so your muscles and ligaments have time to strengthen and adapt. While making a few extra trips to complete a task may mean it takes a little longer, you’ll save your body in the long term. You only have one body, so it’s important to take care of it.
Mucking stalls and sweeping require a stooped body posture in which you are bent forward and down from your waist, while maintaining the position with relatively straight legs. For some folks, this can cause pain in the sacroiliac (SI) joint, particularly when maintained for extended periods of time. Using pitchforks, brooms and other tools that are of an appropriate length is important to avoid stooping further than is necessary or comfortable. Straw brooms that wear down over time should be replaced regularly, not only because they become less effective (requiring more time and effort to get the job done), but also because they become shorter, contributing to greater strain on the back.
Some pitchforks and rakes are designed with a bend in the shaft, allowing the user to maintain a more upright body position. Personally, I find regularly-shaped pitchforks easier to work with as they offer better leverage, but for those with SI pain, these modified tools may help reduce strain on the back. In the winter, working with gloves that offer a good grip is also important; without them, you’ll find you have to hold the pitchfork tighter, putting extra stress on muscles and connective tissues in your forearms.
Safely handling medications
Appropriately storing and handling medications is also important for barn safety. Medications for the care and treatment of horses should always be handled with caution, using veterinary instruction. Accidental exposure through inhalation, ingestion or absorption through the skin can put you at risk of adverse health impacts. Always pay attention to product details and precautions.
Some medications, such as prostaglandins and other hormonal therapies like Regu-Mate, used to regulate or modify the estrous cycle in mares, can significantly affect a woman’s reproductive system if she’s exposed to them. Pregnant women and those with asthma or bronchial disease should not handle prostaglandins (e.g. Estrumate or Lutalyse) at all. Regu-Mate contains altrenogest, a synthetic progesterone that can be absorbed through the skin and can penetrate porous gloves. Non-porous gloves should be worn when handling the product, along with caution to avoid any skin contact. Exposure in women can alter menstrual cycles and result in hormonal imbalances. Pregnant women, those with coronary disease or reproductive system-related cancers should avoid handling Regu-Mate.
DMSO is an anti-inflammatory containing dimethyl sulphoxide, and is applied topically to reduce swelling. To protect your own health, DMSO should be applied using non-porous gloves, and in a well-ventilated area. Human exposure results in garlic-like breath, and may cause headaches, skin irritation and nausea. Pregnant women are advised to avoid any contact.
Washing your hands thoroughly after using any type of medication can help reduce your risk of accidental exposure through any residue remaining on your skin.
Stables are notoriously dusty environments. From bedding and hay to arena footing, dried mud and muck, there are many potential sources of dust when you’re working with horses. Not only can dust pose risks to a horse’s health, but excessive exposure is not good for people either, especially over the long term. Ideally, low-dust bedding, hay and arena footing should be used for the health of everyone, horse and human alike. Arena footing can be oiled, or calcium-containing products may be applied, while hay and bedding should be chosen selectively.
Good barn ventilation is also essential, and keeping barn doors and windows open – weather permitting – can help with airflow, particularly when mucking stalls and sweeping. Using absorbent (and sufficient) bedding, and cleaning stalls thoroughly and regularly are also important for managing the potential build-up of noxious ammonia fumes.
When it comes time to sweep the barn, using a watering can to sprinkle the aisles with water first will significantly reduce the number of dust particles that become airborne. It’s important to recognize that it’s not just the dust you can see that is problematic – it’s the tiny particles that cannot be detected by the human eye that pose the biggest threat.
If you find yourself working in a situation where dust remains an issue, wearing a protective face mask during dust-producing tasks (e.g. mucking, bedding and stacking hay) is better than jeopardizing the long-term health of your lungs.
When spending the better part of your day on your feet, well-fitting supportive footwear is key. Certainly, open-toed shoes and horses are never a good mix, but it’s also important to consider the soles of your footwear. Check for uneven wear, which often occurs on the heels over time. This uneven wear undermines balanced support, and can place undue strain on your knees, hips and back. Investing in a new pair of boots at this stage is worth it — your joints will thank you!
Healthy humans, healthy horses
Prioritizing barn safety is important not only for horses, but also for the people who dedicate their time to caring for them. Being proactive and taking steps to avoid potential health hazards before they present a problem will go a long way to ensuring that you, or those working in your barn, can stay in it for the long haul.