Are hoods and masks safe to use on a horse?
Horses are unpredictable and anything that can interfere with their vision has the potential to cause a horse to panic and trigger a fight or flight response. No two situations are the same every horse has a different personality, every paddock is different, the reason for using a hood is different and every owner's expectations and experience is different. Below are some things to consider when deciding to use a hood or mask on your horse:
This is probably the most important factor to consider. How does your horse react when it gets into a difficult situation? Is he calm, and level-headed or more nervous and panicked? While many horses are fine in hoods, there are some who because of their nature, you would simply never put in a hood because they are sure to get themselves into trouble. You need to consider your horse's temperament and how it interacts with its environment around it. If a hood dislodges and interferes with the horse's vision, some horses will simply take it in their stride and stand patiently while others will take a flight response and run.
The horse's environment
The surroundings your horse lives in also play a big part in your decision to use a hood or mask. There are certain situations where we would advise against using a hood or mask as they are not ideal and could increase the likelihood of issues:
- The horse is in a paddock with other horses. This, of course, depends on the temperament of the other horses and no two situations are the same. Horses do like to bite each other, show dominance or run as a herd. All factors that can lead to a hood shifting. We have all seen a horse at some point lean over a fence and grab the rug of his mate in the adjacent paddock.
- The paddock has a lot of obstacles, trees and scrub
- The larger the paddock the more obstacles and opportunities a horse has to dislodge a mask. It also makes it very hard to regularly check if your horse is safe or the find the missing item.
- A very common issue we see with hoods is damage from fences where the post or picket extends above the top wire. Many horses pace fence lines with their head over the fence. As they walk along the fence the hood catches on the extended post.
A better situation for using hoods or masks on a horse is if:
- The horse is in a paddock on their own.
- The paddock is free from dangerous obstacles that a horse may injure themselves on if a hood becomes dislodged.
- Has suitable fencing that will not snag a hood or mask easily.
- A paddock that is small enough that a horse can always be observed without being hidden from view.
Why are you using a hood or mask?
Generally, there are one of three reasons why you are using a hood on a horse.
- For warmth in cooler months and to reduce coat growth.
- To protect from the sun in the warmer months or most commonly for insect protection.
Horses will always scratch their heads which has the potential to cause a hood or mask to shift, but this problem is amplified if your horse is hot and sweaty and/or suffering from insect bites and is itchy. We suggest the safest option is to treat the itch or irritation via creams, ointment, fly repellents and diet management and then only introduce the hood or mask once the initial condition is under control.
Make sure you have the right size hood/mask
Sizing is everything when it comes to hoods and masks. Close enough is not good enough when considering the safety of your horse.
- Poll straps are attached to hoods and some masks and they go around the neck of the horse at the top of the neckline. They are designed to help reduce the likelihood of the hood or mask slipping up and over the horse’s head. A poll strap is not a fail-safe solution as even with a poll strap hoods can still be pulled over a horse’s head from scratching or getting their rug/hood caught. They will not stop a hood from swivelling or shifting, however, they go a long way in helping to keep the hood in place and reducing the likelihood of an incident. Keep in mind that poll straps are generally only effective at avoiding a hood slipping forward over the face when a horse has its head off the ground. A horse’s neck is longer when extended grazing and their head is tilted forward in a grazing position. You can see in the images below that a poll strap is significantly looser when a horse has their head down, compared to when they have their head up. In most cases when a horse has their head down grazing, the actual hood is close to full extension, so there is little risk of the hood slipping up over the horse’s head from scratching, but this may not be the case if the hood is too big for the horse.
- The poll strap needs to be initially adjusted with the horse standing with his head up off the ground. Follow these steps:
- Adjust the poll strap so that on the underside between the horse’s throat and poll strap you can insert 2 to 3 fingers vertically. (refer image)
- With this adjustment made and the horses head off the ground at normal height, you should find that if you try to push the hood forward at the point of the hood where the poll strap is sewn to the hood (just behind the ears) that the strap should be adjusted enough that the hood/poll strap cannot be pushed up past the horses ears easily.
- Next, check the poll strap when the horse has their head down grazing. (the poll strap should be significantly looser as described above) (refer image)
- When the horse has their head down grazing, ensure that the hood length is adequate. It should not be so tight that it is pulling the hood backwards and not so loose that there could be the potential for the hood to slip forward over the horse’s head.
These images demonstrate how a poll strap should be adjusted correctly when the horses head is up and how much slack will occur on the poll strap with the head down grazing. The fitting of the poll strap is the same on a hood as it is in the mask above.
What can go wrong when using a hood or mask?
Horses will continue to amaze us all with the predicaments they can get themselves into. The number of possibilities and combinations are endless based on the horse, the environment, the fit, involvement of other horses and the list goes on.
Hoods coming over the horse’s head or swivelling. This is probably the most likely incident horse owners have with their hoods and something a poll strap helps to reduce. When a horse panics it can be a real danger to its self and others. It can happen in any number of ways but most commonly from:
- Incorrect fit for the horse. As shown in the images above, when the poll strap is done up correctly it is only effective when the horse has its head up. When the horse is grazing the poll strap loosens significantly and if a hood is too big can potentially pull forward.
- The hood gets caught. Hoods have buckles and clips and there is always the possibility these may catch on a fence line or similar (often when a horse has its head over a fence), the horse pulls back, and the hood can be pulled over the horses head.
- Excessive scratching. An itchy horse will scratch and if there is no suitable object nearby (such as a tree or post) they will scratch their heads between their front legs.
Can a horse be strangled from a poll strap?
It would have to be an extremely rare chain of events for this to occur. Consider the following facts:
- At Caribu all our poll straps use plastic clip lock fittings. Should a horse become snagged because an object like a tree branch or similar gets caught under the poll strap during scratching or rubbing, the amount of pressure the horse can apply will break the fitting, releasing the strap. This is the very reason why we do not use buckles on our poll straps. While it is inconvenient that the plastic fittings do break from time to time and need to be replaced, it is a much safer option. Most people would rather replace or repair a clip on a rug than injure a horse.
- Our clip lock fittings use a sliding keeper for adjustment and it is not possible for the poll strap to adjust any tighter if it comes under pressure.
- The amount of pressure that is applied by the poll strap varies depending on the position of the horse. The poll strap is a tighter fit when the horse has their head up but becomes significantly looser when the horse has their head down grazing. So much so that even if a horse owner disregarded our fitting instructions and tightened the strap up tightly, when the hood drops their head to graze, the strap loosens considerably. (refer images above)
- Unlike humans, horses have a separate trachea and oesophagus, which means a horse can be suffering from choking but still breathe normally. The amount of pressure and restriction that would need to be applied to a horse to block the oesophagus and cause suffocation would have to be very extreme.
Occasionally you can have an ear become dislodged from a hood or mask and be folded over under a hood or mask or under the poll strap. Depending on the circumstances, it is certainly going to be uncomfortable for the horse but unlikely to cause any lasting issues from reduced circulation as long as the situation is not left uncorrected for an extended period. This is another reason for regularly checking your horse if using hoods and masks.
Attached hood verses separate hood
Certainly, in our opinion, an attached hood (i.e. hood sewn to a rug) is a safer option than a separate rug and hood set. With an attached hood, the hood is certainly held in place more securely and is less likely to get caught on objects. Also, you are not having to deal with elastics that attach the hood to the rug which come with their set of own issues.
Considerations when using a Fly Bonnet.
The poll strap adjustment and fitting of a fly bonnet is the same as mentioned above. However generally Fly Masks and Bonnets can be more of a problem to keep in place than a hood. Simply because fly masks and bonnets are more intrusive and generally horses who use masks are suffering from insects and itch, so they tend to scratch themselves more often and dislodge their fly masks. There is no fly mask or bonnet that is guaranteed to stay in place. They will always get pulled off or dislodged at some point. Making sure the mask fits well is the number one priority. If a mask does not fit well, do not use it.
Eye cover construction.
At Caribu only offers bubble eye covers as they sit out well away from the eyes. Eye covers come in all sorts of variants from nylon mesh, fibreglass and aluminium. Caribu uses ballistic nylon mesh which is very similar in weave to your window fly screen, but significantly stronger. It holds its shape (away from the eye) very well and is extremely hard to tear. Ballistic mesh does not retain heat if left in the sun. The mesh is fine and has a large surface area in contact with the air in comparison to its volume, so it can’t build up and hold heat.
Caribu uses black lightweight ballistic mesh. Some masks on the market use light colours mesh which reflects excessive light into the eye of the horse and apart from being uncomfortable has the potential to cause eye damage in the long term. Black does not reflect the light and is very easy to see through. A traditional eye hole on a hood is around 12 to 14cm in diameter. In our fly bonnets, we use very large diameter bubble eye covers – approximately 24cm in diameter. This is done for a number of reasons. The eye covers are less intrusive and allow the horse better-uninterrupted vision, but also if the mask swivels it needs to move about 30 degrees before any vision is lost and if the mask moves past this point, the large diameter will ensure the horse generally has vision in at least one eye in most circumstances.
This image demonstrates the large circumference of the bubble eye in comparison to the horse's eye.
This image demonstrates what can happen if a horse dislodges their mask