I have written much about my crazy horse, and how to deal with horse behavioral issue. Today I realized that I have not posted much on rider safety. While bucking, rearing, refusing, and general in-saneness are all part of riding and training horses, I never want to overlook the importance of rider safety. While I do not feel that riding horses is a dangerous activity – at least no more than driving a car or walking across a busy street – certain riding situations and circumstances are.
In the equestrian world these days, it is pretty much a given that helmets prevent many serious injuries. Most injuries can heal. Head injuries, however, can cause major life-altering long term problems. My worst fall would have been much worse had I not been wearing a helmet. We weren’t jumping, or doing anything out of the ordinary, Chance wasn’t wild. We were cantering, he tripped and fell, and I hit my head just right. So often the worst falls are freak accidents. That is why it is so important that we protect our heads any time we are on horseback.
What about the falls that can be prevented? The accidents caused by rider or trainer carelessness, or even poor horse care? In the sport of equestrian, falls are inevitable. Injuries are inevitable. But continuous falls and repeated serious injuries like broken bones are NOT NORMAL. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s not. I had been riding about eleven years when I got a concussion, which was my first actual horse related injury. Most of the riders I know that have ridden for many years have been hurt at one point or another, but the actual injuries (not just bumps and bruises) are few and far between. If you are repeatedly experiencing bad falls that result in broken bones, concussions, etc., something is wrong. There is usually an underlying reason for poor horse behavior, that may have nothing to do with you. Horses can get wild and sour if they do not spend enough time outside, or are hurting. Happy, healthy horses generally behave. Bored, over-worked, under-worked, lame, or sick horses do not. Oftentimes, the only way to tell us that something is wrong is to act out.
Another cause for accidents can be a poorly matched horse and rider pair. Staying safe on your horse involves knowing your limits and what you can or cannot handle as a rider. Oftentimes, a rider can fall off frequently if he or she is on too much horse. Someone who has only been riding a few years and only ever ridden mellow schoolmasters should probably not buy a four year old. A pony rider should not immediately move on to a level 5 jumper after leaving the pony ring. Riders riding horses well within their expertise and ability level, typically stay pretty safe. I have a high-strung difficult horse. However, I had over a decade of riding experience (including experience with young horses and problem horses) under my belt when I got him. As I often say, he has greatly challenged me; but rarely beyond what I can handle. The times he has challenged me beyond what I can handle, I have taken a step back or even had my trainer ride him. I have also been around horses long enough to fully understand the risks of riding a high-strung, or green horse. I know what I am getting myself into, you could say.
Furthermore, knowing your horse’s limits is as important as knowing your own. Horses that are over-faced when jumping are much more likely to stop. They are also more likely to crash through the jump, or flip over it. Most horses will let you know their jumping limits, it is important to listen. Many horses do beautifully at three foot in the hunter ring, but you take them to three six and they shut down. Sometimes their bodies can’t take it, and sometimes it’s their minds that can’t handle the height. Regardless, a horse’s limits must be respected.
Whether or not a horse is “dangerous” is relative, in my opinion. What may be dangerous for one rider may not be for another. It is the situations that can be dangerous. While falls may be inevitable, I believe that many accidents can be prevented with proper horse care, training, well-matched horse and rider pairs, and respecting horses’ limits. And when the inevitable happens, to always be wearing a helmet.