Updated: Apr 22, 2020
“You’ll keep her safe right?” pleads the mother of a young student getting ready to ride for the first time. “I’ll do my best,” I reply. Of course I’ll do my best. I’m not in the business of getting kids hurt. But is horseback riding safe? No. Horseback riding is not safe. Riding in a car is not safe. Walking to school is not safe. Playing football is not safe. Heck, even eating isn’t safe. You could choke you know!
In life we take risks. Some are calculated risks, as in starting a business. Some are risks that don’t even occur to us, like when we get in the car to drive to work every morning. Most risks are small, and worth it because the benefit outweighs the risk. Some risks are bigger and that’s when we have to take a step back and consider how much is too much.
So where does horseback riding fit in and how does one decide whether it’s “safe,” or more realistically, whether it’s worth the risk? I think the answer is going to vary greatly from one person to the next. It’s nearly impossible to look at it objectively. Sure, I could look up statistics on emergency room visits and compare the number and severity of horse related accidents with motorcycle, football, or gymnastics accidents. But some of us are just super passionate about our horses, and life without them is not an option. I’m one of those! I’ve had my share of accidents. In fact, as I write this my nose is swollen and bruised from colliding with my horse’s head yesterday morning when I was putting hay in his feeder! Whether or not you feel safe getting on a horse, or letting a child ride, really comes down to personal preference and experience. If your previous experience has been negative, you will probably feel safer staying on the ground, while someone who thoroughly enjoyed riding their friend’s horse wants to do it again. So maybe we should be asking how to minimize the risks, rather than whether it’s safe.
I can’t speak for other riding instructors, but at Redbird Farm we have certain safety precautions in place. Here are some of those precautions:
Every rider at Redbird Farm is required to wear a helmet when mounted. Helmets save lives. I have personal experience with this, and I will not get on a horse without one. I know more than one person who has had a concussion from a fall while wearing a helmet. Without that helmet the situation would almost certainly have been much worse! Many people feel that their horse is “bombproof,” but I think they have a false sense of security. There’s no such thing as a bombproof horse. Even the calmest, bravest horse could spook, slip and fall, or have to swerve suddenly to avoid another horse that spooks or stops suddenly. Some riders say that they are such good riders that they don’t need a helmet because they never fall off. I say they are asking for trouble. Again, you never know what your horse or another horse is going to do. And another person you’re riding with may inadvertently do something that puts you and your horse in harms way. Hopefully, you won’t have a fall. Around here, they’re pretty rare. But you never know. Better safe than sorry!
Proper Clothing and Footwear
Feet first. The right shoes are the next most important thing after the helmet. You need sturdy boots with a 1″ heel. No sneakers and no flip flops. I don’t allow flip flops in my barn at all. Even if you’re just out at the barn observing your child’s lesson, it’s smart to wear closed toed shoes. You could be petting a horse when it spooks or another horse comes up and chases it away, and you could get your foot stepped on. It hurts bad enough with shoes on! Exposed toes could be broken or even severed!!!
In the saddle I require boots with a heel. That heel can keep the stirrup from ending up around your ankle. If you have a fall, you want your foot to easily slip out of the stirrup and not get hung up. A properly fitting boot with a heel is going to help prevent that.
Clothing is another important consideration. You should always wear long pants when you ride. In shorts it’s a lot easier to get your leg pinched by the stirrup leather, or get chafed or rubbed skin. You also want to make sure that you aren’t wearing super loose clothing. Anything really loose could potentially get hung up on the saddle in a fall and cause you to get dragged by the horse. Scarves are a big no-no. They can get wrapped around something and get you strangled!
The Right Tack and Equipment
All horse tack and equipment should be clean and well maintained. Leather that gets dried out or rotten can break and cause a fall or loss of control of the horse. Bits that don’t fit right can pinch a horse, which could cause a response in the horse that puts a rider in danger. So can poor fitting saddles. The saddle should also fit the rider. If a saddle is too big or too small, it can hamper the rider’s ability to ride effectively and stay balanced. Stirrups should be the right length and the right size. If stirrups are too long the leg swings too much and the rider will be insecure. Stirrups too short can cause the seat to pop up too high out of the saddle. And a stirrup that is too small for a rider’s foot can cause the foot to become stuck. If you fall off and your horse is running, you don’t want to have your foot stuck in the stirrup! The saddles I use for my younger students have special stirrups designed to help keep little feet from getting hung up in case of a fall.
The Right Horse
Pairing a rider with the right horse is important both for safety and to facilitate the best possible learning experience. Obviously I’m not going to let a beginner rider get on a horse that’s barely broke or that has a tendency to start bucking. But there are other factors to consider when making sure a student has the right mount. Size, for instance. A tall, long legged rider on a pony is going to have a hard time figuring out where to put their legs on the horse. They’re going to feel off balance like they’re riding on a fence rail. A small rider might feel insecure on a big horse, and the horse might be more inclined to take advantage.
Temperament is an even more important consideration when matching horse and rider. It takes a very special horse to carry beginner riders. A horse for beginners needs to be very calm and tolerant, as beginners often accidentally pull too hard with their hands, bounce in the saddle, and kick too hard with their legs. Highly trained horses are often not good at all for beginners because they are taught to be so sensitive to the riders movement. The excessive movement of a beginner rider can confuse them, causing them to act out. Some horses are bouncier than others and therefore not good for inexperienced riders because it’s so hard to keep steady on them. A conscientious instructor will work to match each student with the horse that they work with the best.
A well matched horse and rider with proper equipment and clothing
I have safety rules that I teach students when they begin riding with me. I don’t allow students or their siblings or friends to horseplay and run around near the horses. I don’t allow kids in the paddocks with the horses without an adult. My students are taught how to hold the lead rope and the reins correctly so that they are not dragging on the ground or wrapped around a body part. They are taught how to go behind a horse the right way so as not to get kicked, and how to lead a horse the right way. Safety is a priority at Redbird Farm and is incorporated into all we do and teach. If you’re considering lessons somewhere, please ask questions about safety. Find out if they require helmets, sneak a peek at their tack if you can. If you ever feel as though the safety of students is not a high enough priority, find a barn where it is.
So, is horseback riding safe?
There are risks in doing anything with horses. We can’t eliminate all risk from our lives or we’re not living. But there are things that we can do to try to prevent accidents and injuries. When the risks are minimized, riding lessons and horses are more enjoyable for everyone.