University of Vermont AAHS

LITIGATION CORNER: A Runaway Pony

By Jan Dawson

[reproduced from Summer 2003 Caution:Horses, Volume 8, No. 2]

A young six-year-old child, we will call her Robin, was injured in an accident that occurred when her pony ran away on the trail.  She managed to stay on for a while and finally fell.  The facts surrounding the accident were a bit unsettling.  It involves a trail that goes through the woods, up and down hills and over creeks where a bridge is provided for walkers on foot but one that would not permit them to keep hold of the horses.

The instructor, who we will call Alex, had been teaching for only about a year and had been riding less than five, although she may have ridden a bit as a child.  Alex had taught some with the head instructor at the riding stable.  The director of the riding stable insisted that all the instructors use lesson plans.  The director had ridden for over 10 years by taking two lessons a week from whomever she had hired to be her head instructor.

The main focus of the stable was therapeutic riding and all of the instructors had to be certified in therapeutic riding.  However, they took regular students, as well, and Robin was one of those

In pictures of Robin's lessons her helmet is never worn correctly and it appears to be too big.  Robin is sitting with her legs so far in front of her that she could not possibly use them.  She has been permitted to wear a bulky coat that prevents the instructor from seeing her upper body and which also could catch momentarily on the back of the saddle in a fall.  Robin's reins are also much too long.  In another photo, Alex is teaching Robin and another student on Ponies and he is walking between two students in a lesson and can only see one of them.  The child behind Alex is again out of position and with too long of a rein.  This turns out to be Robin.

The history of the lessons does not give much comfort.  The pony has been a naughty pony and has scampered off at least once before.  The Alex taught Robin to control the pony's speed by using a half halt but had never taught her an emergency stop.  Remember, Robin is only six years old.

The day of the accident is described as cold and breezy.  It was "sweater weather" according to some.  Robin was wearing a sweatshirt.  Alex planned to take Robin on the trail because he had promised her so many times before that he would.  They had been on the trail before but on those occasions he had had the pony on a lead line.

On the day of the accident the pony was saddled and Robin mounted. The pair went directly to the trail.  After a bit the pony started to trot and in a flash was gone.

The defenses that were offered were as follows.

1. The instructor was certified.

2. Robin did not fall off immediately but later so she had been taught properly.

3. The pony was "older" and therefore was appropriate because he had no history of bad behavior.

4. Lessons plans were used for lessons.

5. This instructor was qualified to teach this lesson because she had trained with the head instructor and had been teaching Robin for some time, nearly a year.

6. Robin had been on the trail before.

7. Robin had been taught to deal with the pony's speed.

8. This was not a "naughty" pony.

These defenses were weak for a number of reasons and as a result failed to protect the stable.

1.            Although the instructor was certified, she was certified by an organization specializing in therapeutic riding.  It is difficult to tell what was emphasized, therapeutic instructor skills or standard instructor skills, but certainly trail riding skills were not included.  This ride took the pony out of the arena, away from the stable and out of sight of the barn or other horses.  The Pony was alone in the woods.

2.         How long one stays on before a fall is not an indication of the quality of teaching.  In this instance, this student was in a situation in which she should not have been in the first place.  This student lacked the two skills that would have saved her.  She needed an emergency stop and a position from which to use it effectively.  This is a lot to ask of a six-year-old and certainly cannot be asked without practice.

3.         The pony was breathing so the pony could be naughty as could any horse.  There are 30-year-old ponies and horses that can scamper quite well for short distance with enough motivation and being alone in the woods can easily be sufficient.

4.            Although lesson plans were "required," Alex often made up his lesson plans after the lesson rather than before.  Lesson plans were not checked.  There were no staff meetings relating to students.  There was no procedure for using ponies after a few days off.  There was not even an emphasis on warm-up or, perhaps, longeing a fresh pony.  If he had done them before he may have noticed the part marked "review" and gone over some control skills or perhaps would have taken the review time to warm-up the pony and noticed if the pony was too sparky to go on the trail.  The pony had not been used in several days but no one thought to longe him.  A cold and breezy day is no day to take a 6-year-old on the trail, alone on a fresh pony. 

5.         Alex was woefully inexperienced both in his personal riding and as an instructor to take a student outside of the arena.  The stable had no procedure for this and certainly Alex had no criteria on his lesson plan for this.  If he had stayed in the arena the mishap would not have happened.  Before he had had Robin on a lead line. His lessons make a stab at planning but certainly do not achieve anything close to consistency.  He certainly fails to take into account the fact that Robin is only six.

 6.         It is irrelevant that Robin has been on the trail before.  Doing something that is risky and getting away with it doesn't make it less of a risk.  Robin had not acquired any additional skills by having been on the trail.  The trail ride was not used as a lesson.

7.         A half halt is a wonderful skill and one that should be taught early.  It is also an aid to regulating a horse's speed.  It is not a skill that one would want to depend on to stop a runaway pony or horse because it probably wouldn't. This shows a clear lack of understanding of the risks involved in riding, let alone taking a horse or pony out of the arena.  I rather had the impression that everyone was leaving the safety of the students up to the horses and ponies and that is always a bad idea.

8.         A pony that runs to the gate is a naughty pony.  If he does this inside the arena he will do it outside.  There are many solutions but certainly the first one is to recognize that the pony has the propensity for going where he wishes.   Then one can deal with skills and perhaps different equipment such as a kimberwick bit in certain circumstances to give the rider sufficient control.

On the surface, this program looked as a program should.  However, it would not stand close inspection.  The director was not looking at what her instructors were teaching.  She did not have enough experience to evaluate what she was seeing.  She had not made any decisions as to what should be the procedure for taking a student out of the arena.  At the very least there must be some criteria for doing this.  What skills must a student have to be safe on the trail?  It is not reasonable to think that just because we are walking beside a horse or pony they will go with us.  Alex was not even beside the pony but behind.

I think the best test for these situations is this.  If you feel that you are leaving the safety of the student or rider up to the pony or horse, ask yourself if you would be comfortable taking the bridle off the horse or pony.  If you would, then keep doing what you are doing because control wise it is about the same thing.  Robin had no more control, given her level of skill, than if she had no bridle.  One skill that comes with an emergency stop is the skill of being able to shorten the reins really quickly and that usually will stop most nice school ponies and horses.


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