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Horse handling

Horses pose a significant safety risk and can cause serious injury if not handled properly. Find out about the risks of horse handling and how you can keep yourself and others safe.

What is horse handling?

Horse handling refers to:

  • riding horses
  • caring for horses (such as stabling, leading, grooming, medicating and breeding)
  • moving horses (such as loading them into and out of trailers).

Many businesses involve activities where workers and others interact with horses, including farms, equestrian centres, horse-riding schools and horse racing.

What are the risks involved in horse handling?

Physical injury

Horses can be dangerous. They are strong and capable of acting independently and unpredictably. They can cause:

  • head and spinal injuries
  • bites and lacerations
  • fractures of arms and legs
  • death.

Head injuries are by far the leading cause of death in horse-related incidents.

Visitors, and new and inexperienced riders and workers are more at risk because they are less likely to understand horse behaviour. They might also be:

  • nervous
  • young
  • not understand directions or instructions
  • be unfamiliar with the workplace or environment.

Hazardous manual tasks and hazardous chemicals and medicines

Many risks of horse handling are common to all animal handling. These include hazardous manual tasks and hazardous chemicals and medicines.

Diseases from horses

You can catch some diseases from horses such as ringworm, leptospirosis, psittacosis, Japanese encephalitis virus, Hendra virus and gastrointestinal infections like salmonellosis. Skin infections may also occur from horse-related injuries such as bites and kicks, and from working in animal areas with uncovered cuts and abrasions.

Learn more about diseases you can catch from animals.

Learn more about Hendra virus.

How do I manage the risks?

Workers and management can work together to reduce the risks from hazards at work. A safe place of work benefits everyone. Read more about how you can create safe work.

For workers

As a worker, you have a responsibility under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 to take reasonable care for your own health and safety and for others who may be affected by what you do or don’t do. You must follow any reasonable health and safety instructions from your employer. Use equipment properly, follow safe work policies and procedures, and attend training.

For businesses

For employers or persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), it’s your duty to manage horse handling risks, as outlined in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011.

Following the four-step risk management process below will help your business meet its responsibilities under work health and safety (WHS) laws. You can also use the practical advice in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB).

Four steps to manage risk

The first step in the risk management process is to identify the hazards. This means finding all the relevant things and situations that may contribute to an incident. Think about what could go wrong and consider the consequences.

Inspect the workplace

Look at:

  • how tasks are done
  • how work is designed and managed
  • the tools, equipment and objects being used
  • the physical work environment.

Talk to workers

Talk to your workers about the possible hazards. You can do this individually, in a meeting or with a survey.

Review information already available

You can review information such as regulations, codes of practice and standards related to animal handling in general or for the species of animal you’re working with.

Look for trends in information already available, such as workplace records, inspection reports, sick leave, worker complaints and injury compensation claims.

Read information about possible risks from regulators, industry associations, unions and safety consultants, or designers, manufacturers, importers and suppliers.

Find more information on how to identify risks in How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB)

Once you identify possible risks, make a risk assessment and decide:

  • if there is a risk to you or others
  • whether any effective control measures are already in place
  • what actions you could take to control the risk
  • how urgently you should act.

You can use this risk assessment template (DOCX, 0.02 MB) to guide you and record your assessments.

Once you’ve identified possible risks, put control measures in place. The best way to control risk is to remove the hazard completely. If that’s not possible, you must reduce the risk as much as possible.

You can do this by:

  • substituting the hazard with something safer
  • physically separating people from the hazard (such as with fences or barriers)
  • using engineering controls or equipment (such as lifting devices).

Control measures

Along with the control measures common to all animal handling, these are some key control measures when handling horses:

Create a safe physical environment

  • Make sure stables and yards are well designed and maintained. Avoid sharp corners and tripping hazards. Manage lighting, ventilation and noise. Keep floors dry.
  • Limit access to stables and yards. Have strict rules for visitors and don’t allow them to interfere with horses or equipment.
  • Make sure instructors who teach riding are appropriately qualified and experienced.

Wear suitable clothing and personal protective equipment

  • Use protective equipment when caring for your horse if you might come into contact with fluids that could transmit disease.
  • Wear comfortable clothing, including long trousers and a shirt that covers your arms and shoulders, leather-soled riding boots, riding gloves and a safety-approved riding helmet. Secure loose clothing and don’t wear jewellery.
  • For riders and handlers: Wear a correctly adjusted and fitted helmet which meets AS/NZS 3838 Helmets for horse riding and horse related activities. If a helmet is damaged or dropped, have it checked by a competent person. Replace helmets according to the manufacturer's recommendations.

Manage equipment

  • Choose the right equipment or tack, make sure it fits the rider or the horse, and keep it well maintained. Damaged or incorrectly fitted riding equipment or tack can compromise rider safety. Horse sweat can rot stitching and leather, so keep all tack clean and supple. Choose strong stirrup irons and make sure they are the right size for your foot. You should be able to slip your foot in and out freely, but not be able to force it completely through.
  • Make sure bridles, bits, saddles, girth straps, leathers and surcingles fit the horse comfortably and are well maintained. Keep them well-oiled and check them regularly. Keep saddle cloths free from burrs and other foreign material.
  • Horses should also use personal protective equipment when needed. Horses vary in conformation, temperament, ability and levels of training. They may need breastplates and cruppers in steep country, or running rings, nosebands or headchecks to keep their head and neck in a position where you can control them easily.

Match the horse to the task and the person

You should make sure the horse is suitable and safe for the person riding, and suitable for the task:

  • Have a suitably qualified person assess riders and their level.
  • Consider the age, temperament and training, breed, workload and condition of the horse.
  • Be familiar with your horses and how they react in various situations.
  • Choose a horse that suits the rider’s size, experience, riding ability and any known disability or limitation.

Follow safe riding practices

  • Wear a safety approved, properly fitted riding helmet. Wear leather-soled riding boots, jeans, jodhpurs or long trousers and a shirt that gives sun protection.
  • Only adjust equipment from the ground. Mount in a safe, enclosed area that is level, has a non-slip surface and has no obstructions. While you are mounted, stay alert and in control.
  • Be careful when galloping close to a beast. Allowing a horse to touch a beast behind the point of the shoulder is extremely dangerous. The horse can fall if it touches the beast’s hind legs or from the beast turning completely under the horse's neck.
  • Be careful riding under gate caps in stock yards. Some are too low for horse and rider to pass under safely.
  • Take extra care when riding in slippery or boggy conditions. Don’t ride through flood waters.
  • If a horse slips and falls, stay calm. Let the horse find its feet. Check that the horse is uninjured. Remount on non-slippery ground.
  • Only tolerate a bucking or bolting horse during the breaking-in and early stages of training. If a horse is likely to buck, saddle and exercise it in an enclosed area before you mount. You can do this by lunging or leading it from another horse. If a horse bolts in an open area, apply pressure to one reign. Gradually circle the horse until it comes under control.

Take extra care riding on the road

  • Be careful when you are crossing or riding on a road. Horses can be easily frightened by vehicles. Only take horses that have been trained in traffic on the road, especially if the rider is inexperienced.
  • Before riding on the road, check all riders and horses with practice exercises in an enclosed area. They should know how to queue and wait while a gate is opened or closed, how to cross a road, what to do if someone needs to dismount, and how to respond to the hand or voice signals given by the ride controller or others.
  • Ride on quiet roads where possible. Avoid riding on busy main roads. If you cross a road, do so at a suitable speed. Don’t ‘trickle’ over a major crossing. Give clear and accurate signals and remember other road users.
  • Ride in good light. Avoid riding in failing light or in darkness. Wear reflective gear. Fit leg bands above the fetlock joints of the horse if you are riding in poor light.
  • When riding in a group, keep the group small (no more than five or six) and never ride more than two abreast. Put the least experienced riders on the quietest horses. Keep the riders with the least experience in the middle of the group. Put young or nervous horses on the inside of an older, more experienced horse. Put experienced riders at the front and rear of the ride.

Risk management is an ongoing process. You should check regularly to make sure the control measures are working. If you find problems, go through the steps again, review the information and decide whether you need new controls.

Under the work health and safety laws you must review controls:

  • when you become aware that a control measure is not working effectively
  • before a change that might create a new risk
  • when you find a new hazard or risk
  • when your workers tell you that a review is needed
  • after a health and safety representative requests a review.

You can find a list to help you identify any issues in the How to manage work health and safety risks code of practice 2021 (PDF, 0.65 MB)