Equestrian Safety for first time and experienced Riders
How can horseback riding accidents be minimized?
There is a great deal more to safety in horseback riding than
just wearing a hard hat though that is certainly basic. After
70 years of riding and 35 years of leading and organizing
riding trips I have formed some strong ideas about the leading
causes of riding accidents. They often aren’t what people
think. In my experience it is rare that speed alone is the
cause of an accident. I have found that the following avoidable
risks account for the vast majority of serious accidents.
* Not wearing a hard hat
* Failure to match horse and rider
* Going too fast on dangerous terrain
* Failure to recheck cinches a second time after a few minutes
* A hat or coat falling from a horse in front and spooking the
* A kick from a horse
* Being on foot in the corral
* Riding when overweight and out of shape
* Lagging behind to catch up by speeding forward
* Prematurely “bailing out” to get off a runaway
* Unqualified ride leaders
Wearing a hard hat – If you are enjoying your life, it makes no
sense to ride without a hard hat. They are not that onerous to
wear and can often prevent or attenuate head injuries in falls.
A head injury is usually far worse than a broken bone and those
who have them often do not completely recover. About ten years
ago a lovely young woman signed a special release not to wear a
hard hat before riding with me. An hour later she fell, hitting
her head on a rock and went into seizures. She will never be
the same; nor will I ever forgive myself for allowing her to
ride without protection. I don’t intend to make that mistake
again. Since making hard hats mandatory at our ranch ten years
ago we have had one or two hats a year damaged when people took
falls and I am convinced that we have avoided several
concussions as a result.
Matching horse and rider – I think proper matching of horse and
rider is the most important factor in avoiding accidents. A
spirited, athletic horse can scare the daylights out of a
novice and a tired old plug can bore an experienced rider. An
actual evaluation by a qualified instructor of a person’s
riding skills is the best way to judge since many people do not
really know how well they ride according to the standards of the
place where they are riding. If it is a matter of a riding tour,
it is vital that riders should be experienced and fit enough to
do the trip as it was intended to be done and the difficulty
should be clearly spelled out. Riders with insufficient skills
can ruin the ride for riders who are qualified and be a danger
to themselves and the other riders.
Too fast on dangerous terrain – I must have taken over a
hundred falls in my time and rarely been hurt, but the
accidents I think most likely to cause injury are when the
horse falls, especially if you are under him. Three of the four
accidents which caused me trouble for more than a few days were
when the horse went down. Twice it was slippery mud and once it
was an aardvark hole in Kenya when we galloped too fast through
grass tall enough to disguise holes.
Failure to recheck cinches – Some horses definitely blow up
when a cinch is first tightened. It pays to check them again
after five minutes or so. I was an expert witness in a riding
accident case where this should have been done.
Falling object from horse in front – I have seen many falls as
a result of a horse making a sudden turn when the rider in
front lost a hat or a raincoat tied on the saddle came loose. I
rate this high as a cause of easily avoidable accidents.
Kicking – Any horse can kick and one should always be aware of
this. Many have broken legs as a result. Do not approach the
horse in front of you too closely whether it is a known kicker
or not. Take extra care with horses which do kick.
On foot in the corral - Some riding establishments keep guests
away from the corrals or saddling areas because many accidents
can occur there. A tied horse can spook and pull back,
sometimes breaking a lead rope or hitching pole which can cause
pandemonium. Horses can be more nervous around people on the
ground whom they do not know. When you move behind a horse, you
are safer either very close or out of range.
Overweight and out of shape – Riding is an athletic sport which
demands good muscles and a trim body for the best results. Those
who feel that it should be like sitting on a motor cycle should
stick to motor cycles. A rider who is overweight cannot perform
as well because he puts more stress on the same muscles if he is
20 lbs. overweight. If he falls, an injury is more likely
because the greater weight puts more stress on the same bones.
It goes without saying that extra lbs. make a huge difference
to the horse. Look how jockeys struggle over a pound and what a
little extra weight does to the speed of a race horse.
Lagging behind – I have seen several serious accidents occur
because someone in the riding group felt the pace to be too
slow and held a horse back so they could gallop up to join the
others. This often makes the horse held back frantic so that it
gallops up at speed and crashes into the rest of the group,
getting the other horses very excited and out of control.
“Bailing out” – I have known people to throw themselves off a
runaway horse because they were terrified and wanted the terror
to end. I believe this is usually a big mistake. Horses are not
often suicidal and when they tire they will slow down. Usually
one can ride it out. I did correctly bail out once when a rock
gave way under my horse’s leg on a narrow trail and he went
over a cliff, but those situations are rare. Another time when
I was leading a ride on a very spirited horse the metal bit
broke near the middle and I was left with no control as we were
starting a canter. The horse leapt forward like a rocket when he
felt the pressure on his mouth give way and I was badly scared.
The thought of bailing out did cross my mind, but fortunately I
rode it out and a mile or so later he came to a stop of his own
accord. The riders behind me thought I had gone crazy.
Unqualified ride leaders – Ride leaders need to be not only
good riders themselves, but they need to pay careful attention
to the others in the group. Great Britain and France require
commercial ride leaders to take courses and pass exams before
they can be licensed, but nothing of the kind exists in the
United States which means that totally unqualified people often
lead rides and ignore basic safety rules.
As in any sport, no matter what precautions are taken,
accidents can occur. It is therefore important to have plans in
place to get quick and effective help incase of need. When
riding in remote places a cell phone or radio can save critical
time and if someone in the group has first aid knowledge it can
make a great difference. In our experience horseback riding
need not be a dangerous activity when compared to a sport like
down hill skiing.
Copyright 2005 Bayard Fox and Equitours, Ltd.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
About The Author: Bayard Fox has been riding for 70 years on
six continents and has ridden enough miles to circle the globe
several times. He is owner and founder of Equitours Worldwide
Horseback Riding Vacations http://www.ridingtours.com. He and
his wife also own the Bitterroot Dude Ranch
where they raise horses.