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The Risk of Riding Horses

Thinking of signing up for riding lessons? Apprehensive about you or your child's safety? No better person to write an article on the topic of risk than an equine, personal injury attorney (if I say so myself; and I do). The goal of this article is to give potential riders a realistic appreciation of the risks involved, not to scare new riders away, but to allow them to make informed decisions. Let me start with the disclaimer: Horses are "Inherently Risky" animals, so much so that all but 4 states have a statute on the books which states that, if equine participants hurts himself while engaged in equine pursuits, they will be deemed to have assumed the risk of that injury and may not sue the equine sponsor. This is because horses are prey animals and creatures of instinct, as well as being smart enough to be trained, ridden, and to form a relationship with and be involved in sporting ventures as a co-equal partner with a human.

Spooked Horse Spooked Horse
Sometimes, no matter how much training a horse has, it will act according to its instinct to flee or panic, or act in a way that can hurt those around it. There is no way to tell when that might happen. So, with that concept firmly in hand, keep in mind that millions of people around the world interact with horses all the time and do so safely. It's just that there is no guarantee of safety, so if the prospect of this frightens you, then stick to the Walmart equine into which you can insert a couple of quarters and ride for several minutes without such problems.

Fortunately, there are things you can do to mitigate risk. Here, I'll quote myself from a response I wrote posted August 16, 2010:

The submitter's question asked: Could you offer some buying advice for a starter kit for horseback riding? I'm a new rider and don't know where to start. To make matters worse, I'm getting lots of suggestions, but they're all different.

    "Regarding a 'starter kit' for horseback riding, my suggestion is that you start by putting some effort into comparison shopping at a tack store near you, specifically, for helmets and boots. These are two items I would NOT buy online nor used, for the simple reason that good quality and good fit are the MOST important criteria for both of these safety items.

    For helmets, you want it to fit tightly enough on your head so that if you shake your head vigorously, there will be no movement of the helmet sliding around on your head. Also, helmets should bear a certification from the 'ASTM-SEI'. The American Society of Testing and Manufacturing (ASTM) is a hundred year old safety organization that develops standards for manufacturing, and the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) tracks whether manufacturers follow the ASTM's recommendations. If you're going to sow and compete, you should also comply with the aesthetic look demanded by your discipline (for example, velvet vs. the steel cage).

    For boots, make sure you have enough room in the toes so that you're comfortable, but not so much that your foot slides around in the boot, which could be dangerous. Also, a good quality boot will last a very long time if it's properly cleaned and maintained, so it's worth a bit of an investment to buy now, and in your time to maintain the pair during its life."

Next, make sure the barn you go to has an appropriately serious attitude about safety. For example, are their instructors certified under state law? (Ask about this.) Do they make you sign waivers? A barn that pays an attorney to create a waiver will likely pay for safety issues in other areas because they understand the risks. Is the equipment you're shown in good shape? Has the leather been cleaned recently and are the fences in good shape? Is there attention being paid to order and cleanliness in the barn? Keep in mind barns that takes shortcuts in some areas will take shortcuts in others as well. As with safety, organization and cleanliness have much to do with habit and how people see things. Sloppy barns usually mean sloppy management, sloppy maintenance, and sloppy approaches in general.

Finally, on the day of your first ride, do you have any concerns about the horse you've been given? If so, then get off right away. All horses can have an "off" day — don't stay on out of a concern that you're being "chicken" or some other nonsense. Communicate your fears and desires to the instructor and don't be afraid to share your concerns — insist if you have to. There will always be another day when you feel more comfortable.

If you pay attention to these small details, then your risk of getting hurt does recede, though it will never disappear. But, just to put this risk into perspective, according to the National Safety Council (NSC), you have a one in 272 chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident during your lifetime. Whereas the chance of dying by riding an animal is 30,476*. The chance of a sustaining an injury riding horses is somewhat higher, though still much lower than the chance of dying in a car. According to a 1985 study by Dr. J.L. Firth, the risk of going to the emergency room from a horse riding incident is 1 in 3,837.

So, horseback riding has some risk that you need to consider. As for me, there's no reason to live (without horses). You need to assess the risks and make your own decision just as you decide to get into a car or not. As my spouse says to me on occasion, you can get hit by a bus while crossing the road.

* The numbers will vary over time as the NSC periodically updates statistics with the latest information; these are the numbers listed on their site as of May 23, 2012 using data from 2006.

Kathleen A. Reagan, Esq. is an equine attorney practicing in Braintree, MA, available at www.kathleenreaganlaw.com, has developed a course in equine law at www.concordlawschool.com, and is co-founder and Vice President of QueryHorse, the largest horse information resource on the Internet.

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