Key points that are beneficial to understanding most riding accidents arose during a case in which I was recently asked to render an expert opinion.
First, the emotional state of the equine is of paramount importance at the time of the riding session. The staff and/or instructor must be able to understand the horse’s expression of this emotional state, by reading the horse’s body language and behavior.
Second, gut instincts of clients, students and patients, and of staff, are critical— if it feels “off” or unsafe, it probably is. Professionals must be trained to recognize and act on these instincts by altering the course of a session to ensure safety. No athletic or therapeutic riding goal should be given more heed than how a horse feels about being ridden in that moment— the true professional will discard riding entirely should the client, equine or both exhibit anxiety about the activity.
The following guidelines are useful to understanding potential facility liability when reviewing depositions of participants and eye-witnesses:
What WORKS in excellent facilities:
- Lack of rigid lesson protocol
- Staff flexibility in paying attention and responding to the emotional states of clients and equines
- Placing physical safety above all other concerns
- Lack of emphasis on competition or other human-imposed goals (including therapeutic)
- Staff ability to trust gut instincts
- Thorough staff training in feel-based or natural horsemanship techniques
What DOES NOT work in any facility:
- Staff refusal or inability to acknowledge equine body language as expressive of his/her emotional, physical, and intellectual state
- Staff refusal or inability to acknowledge anxiety or concerns in client/students/patients as expressive of their readiness for mounting, riding or even handling equines
- Poor communication between instructors, barn managers, therapists, volunteers, and other members of a facility’s team in assessing individual animals and their appropriateness for individual tasks and clients
- Poor communication between team members after an accident, and no willingness to review training or systems to determine the cause of an accident
- Lack of feel-based horsemanship training. This training should be present in the entire staff, including contracted therapists and volunteers
- Pushing forward with pre-set agendas in spite of gut instincts counter to those agendas
- A focus and dependence on tack, equipment, helmets, forms of equestrian costume, the looks or athletic skills of the horse, arenas, facilities, barn or organizational rules, professional certifications, and other man-made constructions, rather than on the quality of equine-human relationships
The natural horseman Pat Parelli said that riding constitutes about 20% of horsemanship. The other 80% happens on the ground. In more prosaic terms, riding is just the crown atop horse-human relationships— it is based on a foundation of feelings and trust that must be established before any riding is to take place.
While force majeure incidents such as engines backfiring, explosions, and other totally unexpected events can occur and thus cause horses to be extremely reactive, most riding accidents happen because the base communication between the equine and the human is not firmly established or acknowledged as central to safety. These accidents can and should be prevented by a proactive and well-trained facility staff equally sensitive to the needs of equines as they are to the needs of their clients.
About The Author
EXPERT WITNESS E-080407
This expert is certified as an Equine Specialist in the EAGALA modality. She has operated a Parelli Natural Horsemanship approved facility in New Jersey for more than 15 years, accumulated a wealth of experience in the rehabilitation of horses, donkeys, ponies, and mules. She is adept in the observation of herd behavior and equine communication, running one of the largest sanctuary herds in the state. She has 15+ years of experience providing equine therapy to mentally and physically handicapped individuals.
BA, Connecticut College
Certified, Equine Specialist for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
Member, International Sidesaddle Organization
Member, American Mule Association
Member, American Donkey and Mule Society
Current, Horsemanship Instructor, a New Jersey Equid Sanctuary (15+ years)
Current, Executive Director and Instructor, a Center for Equine Assisted Therapy (15+ years)