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Barn Safety

Let's start with fire safety. Equestrian lore is rife with horror stories of barn fires where entire stables of horses have been lost. Don't let this happen to your string. Fires can start in many different ways. The first and most obvious is through smoking. Remember that barns are literally filled with timber for fire. Flammable material occupies almost every corner of every barn. Take feed and bedding material. It's not only hay and straw that can ignite, but sawdust and shavings can catch fire, too. So post "No Smoking" signs in the barn and ban smoking. Also, check with your insurance agent because some policies require that these signs be posted. Chemicals such as fly spray and the gasoline in the blower used to clear aisles are also dangerous. Cobwebs, which most people think of as just unsightly, are also flammable, trapping dust and chaff as they do. If you turn on a light and smell a singed odor, it is past time to get the broom and cloths out. The smell may be from the dust and cobwebs on the fixture. Electrical fires also post a threat. Inspect the wiring throughout the stable and tack room periodically for signs of distress. Both horses and rodents have been known to chew through wires. In the case of horses, no wiring should be accessible to a bored animal standing in a stall. If, however, this is beyond your control (in a rented stable, for example), then the wiring should be encased in a metal cover or at the very least shielded with wire mesh. Rats and mice may also gnaw on wiring insulation, so inspect for signs of damage periodically, particularly in feed rooms, which are rodent magnets. Plastic feed containers are light and convenient but not always rodent-proof. If you find that you have a rodent problem you may want to switch to metal containers. You'll save feed and protect your barn at the same time.

Another cause for concern is an overloaded circuit. Think about what is plugged in and running on each circuit. If refrigerators and tack room air conditioners, fans in stalls, horse vacuums, clippers, blowers and radios are all going at the same time on too few circuits, you may experience an overload. If something electric isn't being used, unplug it. Then make sure that you know where your circuit break box is, that it is properly labeled and that you can get to it in a hurry.

Take care to use light bulbs of the proper wattage, the least amount necessary for the area, and keep flammable materials away from light fixtures. Another good idea is to use plastic-coated safety bulbs or wire cages in any fixture that is at risk of being struck by an animal. Improper equipment storage can also result in tragedy. Lawn mowers, mechanized weed clippers, tractors and all-terrain vehicles should be stored in separate buildings. Fuel is flammable, as are the fumes it produces. Fumes can also cause respiratory problems in both your ponies and your workers.

Fire extinguishers are a must. A good rule to follow is to keep one extinguisher at every entrance to the barn and one in the tack room. Check them periodically. If you have a big enough establishment, you may want to consider hiring a professional service that leases and monitors extinguishers. Make sure that everyone knows when and how to use them. This knowledge is crucial. Again, check with your insurance agent as many policies require that extinguishers be present in barns. A hose at each end of the barn with quick couplers, besides being convenient, is also an important safety feature. Don't forget to turn off the water at the source. A bored horse or dog can pull a hose off a pump connection. If this happens, at the least you'll have a flooded barn. At the worst you can burn out a well pump, which would force you to haul buckets from another source to water your horses or in the case of an emergency.

OK, now that you've eliminated as much as possible the threat of fire, there are other steps to take to ensure that your horses and handlers are not hurt.

Concrete flooring is cool, easy to clean, and it looks nice. It is also slippery and pretty unforgiving when you or your horse fall on it. If you don't have a concrete floor with a bit of roughness to it to offer better footing, then you may want to consider rubber mats, especially in wash stalls. Also, keep aisles clear. Tack and grooming equipment left lying around, besides being at risk for breakage, can cause someone to trip and fall. Keep in mind that horses are unpredictable creatures, and even the quietest animal may give you cause to get out of its way in a hurry. Storage considerations should be given some thought when moving into a barn. Common sense should tell you that chemical products should be kept away from feed and water, but don't forget to keep them away from your tack as well. Some chemical products can, over time, weaken stitching and leather and corrode metal, creating potential disaster for anyone in the saddle when a girth, leather or bridle breaks. Ideally, chemical products should be stored in the containers they were originally packed in. If you must use a substitute container, make sure it is properly labeled so you don't fly spray the weeds and Roundup the horses. Keep medicines in a cabinet separate from other chemical products. The old adage of "a place for everything and everything in its place" is particularly true for items such as pitchforks and rakes. Left in a stall or in the aisle, they are a disaster waiting to happen. Do a quick inventory when you've finished working and put them away.

Storing hay properly is another way of ensuring safety in your barn. If you have a closed loft that runs above your stalls, make sure that it is properly ventilated, especially after newly baled hay is placed there. Windows and vents at both ends should be open. There really is such a thing as spontaneous combustion. Storing bales on their sides allows for better curing.

Worker safety shouldn't be ignored in the loft, either. If your loft has trap doors, keep the floor area around them clear of chaff so there is less chance of someone slipping and falling from the loft. Good lighting is important, but remember to turn it off when you finish working. If you have an open loft, make sure that it has a safety rail, and check the rail periodically for sturdiness. It's also important to check the security of the ladder. And when throwing down bales, make sure the aisle is clear. People can answer when "Heads up!" is called down, but horses, dogs and the barn cat can't!

If you have a downstairs storage area, it's a good idea to use wooden pallets to keep the hay off the ground. Check these from time to time for signs of rot. Usually the first sign of rotten wood is someone's foot going through the pallet. Legume hay such as alfalfa molds very easily and is expensive, so you will also save on feed with less spoilage.Another point to consider is the security of your hay and/or feed room. Cans should have clamps or tie downs, and the room should have a locked door or grille. Merely fastening a chain or shank across the doorway in no way guarantees security, as anyone who has walked into the barn to find Dobbin's head in the sweet feed bin will attest.

These are major safety concerns, but there are myriad smaller ones that can have serious consequences if they're not taken into consideration. If you don't have to use a nail to hang something, don't. They are a prime source of cuts and other types of injuries to horses. Check your paddocks and stalls occasionally for nails that have worked loose, and get all the nails that the farrier may leave behind, too. And while checking the paddock, look for broken boards, which are not only escape hazards but which can also cause injury.

If you bed with sawdust, sift it as you bed looking for the sticks and large wood slivers that are sometimes a byproduct of the milling process. They can cause puncture wounds. When you break open a bale, make sure that the twine is accounted for so it doesn't wind up in the hay rack and eventually inside your horse. By the same token, throw it in the trash, not the manure pile where it could foul machinery when the manure is spread. If you use hay nets, make sure they are hung high enough to prevent a horse from getting a foot caught in one if it paws or rolls. Hay racks and waterers should be high enough that they don't interfere with an animal as it gets to its feet. Try to bank bedding against the sides of the stall. This will help prevent a horse from casting.

Remember that a horse's head is a lot higher than yours. Look for such hazards as hooks, nails, etc., at his eye level. Don't ignore your own safety, either. Crosstie chains are good and sturdy, but if one pulls loose and is whipping about your head, look out. Rope or nylon shanks may be the way to go. Make sure that you have room to move if for some reason an animal starts flinging itself about. Use common sense. Don't ride a horse into the barn. Even if the ceiling is high enough to permit it, an animal can rear up at any time.

Most of this information is matter of fact to a good horseman, but too often we get complacent, or we're rushed and take shortcuts. In the end, though, it's usually not worth the risk of an emergency call to the vet or 911. Whether you are building a new barn, moving into one or getting ready to spruce up your old one, take some time to give it a good once-over. It could save you from a bad headache.

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