By Jill Montgomery
Most riders are well aware of the risks that come with horseback riding. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, one in five riders (20%) will suffer a serious horse-related injury that requires medical care or hospitalization. In addition, an equine professional such as a riding instructor, may face legal action if someone is injured in their care. We should all pause for a moment to consider exactly what that means. However, there is a lot we can do, and that we should be doing, to manage the risks in equine activities.
Equine professionals should create an environment where clients can enjoy their program and have the necessary tools to make their experiences with horses safe; this leads to repeat customers and more business. Conversely, the old adage “bad news travels fast” is never truer than when a client is injured in your riding program, and it could damage your reputation.
With such a broad range of potential problem areas, you may ask, “Where do I start?”
Key areas for managing risk in a horse program include:
• The horse’s training and suitability for the activity,
• The education and expectations for the participants behavior;
• The education and expectations for the behavior of staff;
• The equipment used in the equine activity; and
• The environment in which the activity takes place.
Proper handling skills and training may reduce risks of injury for both humans and horses. Safety-oriented facility design and advanced planning for emergencies and disaster planning may substantially reduce environmental risks.
Ensure that your well-trained staff and clients practice safety every day with every interaction with a horse or another rider. Train your horses to accept the tasks asked of them calmly and obediently. Check tack and equipment every time it is used, and repair or replace damaged equipment. Plan for and create policies for dealing with environmental risks.
The equine professional must also constantly educate participants about equine behavior and continually identify, assess, and analyze risks associated with the services they offer. However, even with good management, training, and preparation some equine behaviors are largely unpredictable and can cause injury to a client. Unpredictable behaviors such as bucking, shying, rearing, bolting, tripping, or stumbling are collectively referred to as inherent risks.
Almost all states now have limited liability statutes to offer protection from legal liability for the inherent risks of equine activities. While these laws don’t prevent injured parties from suing, they are very helpful to defendants and limit the complaints to the exceptions in the law, which vary by state. Equine professionals need to know their specific state laws. However, despite these statutes, the best defense is to take practical steps to avoid injuries.
Risk management in regards to legal action can be described as a three-legged stool, and removing any of the legs from this stool leaves you in an unstable position. These three legs include:
• Acknowledgement of Risk or Liability Waiver—More than just a release of liability, this document should educate the client about the risks they may be exposed to in your program. Your attorney and insurance company should review and sign off on the language. Everyone in your operation that comes into contact with horses should be taught the material and be asked if they understand it before they sign. Keep the signed document as a permanent record.
• Liability Insurance—Ensure the activities in your operation are adequately covered with insurance. To find the correct policy, work with an insurance professional who understands your operation.
• Refrain from Negligent Behavior—Negligence is an exception in every state’s statutes. Be familiar with the laws in your jurisdiction that effect your program. Know what your community expects from you as a service provider. Build a culture at your facility that is safety aware using training, procedures, and policies. Post barn rules so everyone sees them and can enforce them. Document your safety efforts.
Identifying Risk Scenarios
One technique for prioritizing risk management is assessing the relationship between the likelihood (frequency) of a risk and the severity of the damage if it occurs. Identify the high frequency risks in your program and always be prepared to handle them should they occur. Examples of risk scenarios ranked using frequency versus severity, include:
The Barn Fire—Any barn fire can be catastrophic. However, if you have a disaster and emergency plan in place, it could save lives and reduce the amount of damage.
A Loose Girth/Cinch—This type of tack failure, as well as others, could result in the saddle slipping and/or a fallen rider. Yet, this type of incident is avoidable. Always check if the saddle is off center or if it has moved forward or backward from its normal position before having a rider mount. You can also reduce this risk by adjusting the cinch as needed, adding breast collars for increased stability, and by helping the rider to stay centered on the horse.
Horse Steps on Handler’s Toes—This is one of the most common risks, although it’s often not severe. Teach your horses to be respectful of their handlers’ space and teach handlers to be aware of the potential for crushed toes and to wear proper footwear.
Providing clear and consistent messaging to your clients and staff about your safety policies and practices will help build a safety-conscious culture and create a foundation for your horse program’s continued success.
Jill Montgomery is CEO of JRAM Enterprises, Inc., Equine Business Consulting. She is also a CHA Certified Instructor, CHA Certified Equine Facility Manager, and a Region 9 Director. JRAMenterprises.com.
CHA’s Further Resources
Webinars: Risk Management in a Horsemanship Program; Risk Management—What You Need to Know About Liability, Contracts, and Releases at CHA.horse/store/categories/CHA_Webinars
Books: CHA Standards for Equestrian Programs
Blogs: Emergency Planning: When It Really Counts, Will Your Farm Be Prepared?; Three Must-See Safety Guidelines for Equestrian Facilities; Three More Important Standards for Equestrian Programs; Safety Standards for Managing Equines Important for Equine Programs and Clients; Horseback Rider Safety Apparel from Head to Toe; and 7 Pieces of Equipment for a Safer Ride at CHAinstructors.com/blog