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 of riding
- A hat or coat falling from a horse in front and spooking the ones behind
- 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.
Bayard Fox and his wife, Mel, own the Bitterroot Dude Ranch and Bayard is the owner and founder of Equitours Worldwide horseback riding vacations.
© Copyright 2005 Bayard Fox and Equitours, Ltd.
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