By Julie Goodnight
A family reunion is an excellent time to share your life with those dearest to you, get caught up on all the news, see how much the kids have grown and kick-back with your family and friends. It is not a good time for a life-threatening injury.
The weekend was perfect with clear, sunny days and crisp, starry nights. Kay was so happy to have her family around her, especially the grandchildren. She loved to spoil the babies and she eagerly waited for the day her first grandson would be old enough to ride. She could teach the grandkids to ride on her push-button, mature gelding, Prince. It was arguable who was more spoiled, the grandchildren or Prince.
The afternoon was perfect for a BBQ and while the coals simmered, the guys played football out in the field, and Kay decided to take Prince for a ride. As she groomed and tacked the gelding, Kay’s daughter-in-law and her grandson wondered up to watch the process. Little Bobby squealed with delight to be close to the horse and clamored to reach the horse’s alluring muzzle, giggling wildly at the feel of the horse’s warm, sweet breath on his face.
The gelding and the grandson were so enchanted with each other that Kay ran back to the house for her camera. After posing for a few shots holding the baby up close to the horse, Kay got the great idea to get a shot of the baby up on the horse, since Prince was already saddled.
Kay was very safety conscious and had done her research on when the grandchildren would be old enough to ride. She knew that the child needed to have the strength to pull a horse’s head up, the coordination to balance and the cognizance to control the horse. She was smart enough to know she could not put the 18-month-old up on the horse by himself since a fall from 8′ off the ground might kill an adult, let alone a toddler. She knew that even though he might be big enough to hold onto the horn and be propped up on the horse, that he wasn’t old enough to be properly fitted in a ASTM approved equestrian helmet; therefore he was too young to ride. Kay also was smart enough to know that it is not safe to ride double with a small child, since in the event of a fall, the chances of you falling on the child and crushing him were unacceptably high.
The baby was just too young to ride and she knew she would have to wait until he was six, but since she already had Prince saddled and he wasn’t going anywhere tied to the rail, it would be easy enough for her to step up on the horse and hold the baby for a quick shot that would be a family memento for generations to come. Baby’s first ride.
With only the baby’s mother to shoot the picture and no one to hold the horse, Kay decided to leave the gelding tied up to the hitching rail where he had been standing for the last hour, while she hopped on for a quick snap of the shutter.
Kay sat with her young grandson cradled in both arms and as she sucked in her stomach and put on her best smile for the camera, the horse bowed his back in two and started bucking like a bronc and squealing like a stuck pig, while tied up to the hitching rail.
Kay was propelled form the horse with the second kick of the heels and flew off at a great velocity, thrown even higher into the air, with a death grip on her grandson. The gods were with them that day because Kay was able to cushion the fall for the baby who was totally unhurt; suffering only from the indignity of having his first ride also be his first buck-off.
For Kay, it was a different story. The fall broke her back; two vertebrae broke clear in two. Again, the guardian angels were watching that day and Kay suffered no spinal cord impairment. She was properly treated at the scene, not moved and stabilized until the paramedics arrived to put her on a back-board. Xrays revealed her fate and she would spend the next three months flat on her back in a body cast. Thankfully, she had full movement and feeling in all extremities.
This incident involves some cardinal safety issues:
Never mount a tied horse
Never mount a horse without the means to control him
Never ride double with small children
Riding is not a safe or appropriate activity for very young children
It is never safe to mount a tied horse. We have all seen what happens when horses are startled and pull back in a panic attack. Every tied horse is capable of this behavior. Anything could spook the horse or trigger a panic attack and whether the halter breaks, the post breaks or the horse remains tied; you would be at extreme risk of injury or death to be mounted on a horse fighting the tie. The chances of the horse falling on you or slamming you into a wall, fence or tree are huge.
It is not safe to do anything unusual to a horse when he is tied, for the fear of causing the panic attack that ensues when a horse feels the need to flee and suddenly discovers that flight is not an option. The pullback episode is dangerous enough to people on the ground around the horse; being on the horse’s back would be a nightmare. The risk of injury to the horse in any pull-back episode is equally high.
We will never know what caused Prince to pitch a bucking fit at that moment; perhaps it was something about the saddle or perhaps he was sick and tired of standing there. The point is, horses are unpredictable, so you have to plan for the worst-case scenario and always keep yourself in a safe position.
For similar reasons, it is never safe to get on a horse without the means to control him. You need the reins or a mecate in hand to deal with any situation that may occur such as spooking, to running off or bucking. Even if someone is holding the horse for you, it is foolish to get on a horse with no means to control him. There is no one I trust enough to hold a horse for me while I mount without reins.
Considering the possibility that at any moment my horse could spontaneously combust, I’ll take reins every time. And while I may not need the reins at every moment I am on the horse, I’ll still keep one hand on the reins all the time, just in case I might suddenly need them. By the time I have grasped and fumbled to pick up the reins, my ride could be over.
As mentioned in the story, riding double with small children could be a death trap for the child. Even if the fall does not hurt him, the weight of the adult rider could crush him or ram him into a solid object, like the ground. Also, a rider needs his or her hands to communicate with and control the horse; holding onto a child seriously impairs the rider’s ability to influence the horse. The point is, at any moment a horse can trip and fall down, spook, bolt or become difficult to control. It is not worth the risk to the child for an activity that the child will not really benefit from.
Young children really do not mix well with horse sports. CHA is constantly asked to recommend a minimum age for a child to ride. We specifically do not publish a number because there are so many mitigating factors that influence this decision, like the staffing, the horses and equipment, the environment, the programming and the purpose for riding. For example, the potential for benefit in therapeutic riding may well exceed the potential for harm when specialized equipment, specially trained horses and knowledgeable and experienced professionals are employed.
Every riding operation should have a written policy on the eligibility of riders, which is determined by all of the factors listed above (this is a safety standard published by CHA). The eligibility policy should always include a minimum age, among other factors such as maximum or minimum weight, minimum height (sometimes height is used as a determining factor rather than age, since height cannot be lied about), physical capabilities needed, etc.
In my position as program director for CHA, I have the opportunity to be familiar with the polices and procedures of many large riding operations, a lot of which are virtually “incident free.” In general, I have found that the most common minimum age is 10 years old for trail riding, 8-10 for group arena lessons and 6-7 for private lessons. Children five and under should only be considered for riding with extreme caution.
There are also the individual characteristics of each child that would influence the decision on when he or she is old enough ride; such as size and strength, attention span, endurance, ability to follow directions, eye-hand coordination, maturity and desire, just to name a few.
It is easy to get over-eager to introduce a young child to riding, in the hopes that she will learn to share your passion and be a young protégé. The reality is that there is little to gain by introducing a child too young to riding; and there is much to lose.
As it turns out, Kay did her three months penance flat on her back, followed by intensive physical therapy and about six months later she was able to get on her horse again and now she is riding normally. She learned some important lessons about safety around horses and she is in no hurry to put her grandson back up on a horse, until he is ready to takes the reins, so to speak.
Editor’s Note: Normally this column includes true stories that have been fictionalized. This article is a true story written in the words of the victim, with editorial assistance from the author… Thank you for sharing stories that will prevent others from being hurt. If you have a story you would like to share, please email it to us at office@CHA.horse