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Horse safety

Safe horsemanship equals good horsemanship

For centuries people have interacted with horses as part of their daily lives in the same way that people now own cars. Horses were an essential tool for war, transport, farming etc. When horses were largely replaced by vehicles it was predicted that they would become unnecessary. An elderly friend of mine, when training to become a farrier in the 1950s, was chastised by his father for getting into a career that was seen to be dying out! Ironically, there are now thought to be more horses in Australia than at any other time in history.

What was not predicted in those pre-car days was that that people would have more time and money available and that they would be able to do things simply for recreation – a strange concept for anyone other than for the very wealthy back then.

Horse ownership and recreational horse related leisure activities are on the increase in Australia. This is due in part to higher standards of living, more disposable income and time available for leisure. TV shows such as “Saddle Club” and “McLeods Daughters” are all helping to popularise horse riding. Equine activities and related industries now make a major economic and cultural contribution to Australia. The horse industry is one of Australia’s largest in terms of Gross Domestic Product GDP and one of the largest employers.

There is now a situation where many people who are getting their first horse have no previous experience of horse or even animal ownership (other than maybe a small pet). There tends to be a widespread ignorance about what horses actually are. People tend to anthropomorphise (attribute human characteristics) to their horse behaviour.

Horses are large heavy animals, just this fact alone is sufficient for people to be aware of potential safety issues when around them. When this is added to the fact that although flight is usually a horse’s first choice they have effective techniques to defend themselves (kicking, biting, pushing) if necessary. These same techniques are used naturally to defend themselves in the wild.

Horse riding and its related disciplines are widely acknowledged as being high risk activities. Due to high accident figures insurance companies continue to categorise horse activities as extreme sports. This is not surprising when Australian statistics are taken into account. Between the years 2001 and 2003 there were an estimated 2400 hospital admissions due to horse-related injuries. Also, in that same period approximately 30 people died as a result of their injuries (Cripps R 2005 pers. com). Equestrian activities have among the highest risks of serious injury and death of any sport including motorcycle and car racing (Sport and Recreation Victoria). About 80% of horse-related injuries occur when riding (falls) and the rest occur when handling and being around horses. Common injuries are caused by kicks, crushing, bites etc. (Sport and Recreation Victoria). Yet most of these incidents are avoidable.

Horseback riding carries a higher injury rate than motorcycle riding. On average, motorcyclists suffer an injury once every 7000 hours of riding. By contrast, an equestrian horseback rider, may have a serious accident once every 350 hours (Hughston Sports Medicine Foundation).

Interacting with horses will never be 100% safe. A horse is a large animal with its own instincts and agenda and we tend to put this animal into unnatural circumstances. However, many of the dangers can be reduced and managed by employing safe practices and risk management strategies. These factors need to be incorporated into all of your dealings with horses and by all levels of horse people from beginners to advanced horse people. Equestrians need to be responsible for their own safety and for ensuring that they do not put other people at risk. Horse people need to be aware that non-horse people, or even inexperienced horse people, are usually unaware of the potential for injury when around horses and should take steps to keep them safe.

Many injuries and fatalities occur with horses due to a lack of understanding about why horses react in the way that they do. People can become complacent. The term ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ is especially true among horse people. Experienced horse people can be inclined to take shortcuts or break the rules; thinking that their experience will save them in an emergency. Sadly, I know of several very experienced horse people who have been permanently and seriously injured by horses.

What seems to be irrational behaviour to us is not irrational to a horse. Being safer around horses may mean learning new skills, or changing your ways of thinking, using safer practices and adopting risk management strategies. These practices and strategies require horse people to:

This section of the website aims to give people an objective view of safety issues with horses whatever their chosen discipline or whatever their current skill level. While recognising that there are numerous opinions in the horse industry about how to do things with horses and many different methods of handling and training horses, the safety issues remain the same. Whether new to horses or having been around them for some time, whether your involvement is for personal reasons or commercial, the information on this website will help to improve safety, reduce risks and prevent accidents for people that handle and ride horses and for people that are not directly involved but could still be affected by them (bystanders, spectators etc).

See also the more safety info page for links to articles and other websites etc.

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We have a book about Equine Safety called Horse Safe - A complete guide to equine safety which is available from our bookshop