University of Vermont AAHS

HARMONY:  "Permissible" Accidents and Their Prevention

by Jan Dawson

[reproduced from Winter 2003 Caution:Horses, Volume 8, No. 3]

Teaching the Equine Safety/Liability and Risk Reduction Workshop always brings interesting questions. The questions are usually asked as if they are about professional liability. To me they are safety questions asked by horse people from various disciplines and from various parts of the country who have an interest in horsemanship safety - whether they know it or not.

We at AAHS have from the beginning presented safety lectures and workshops under the guise of liability for the specific purpose of raising the interest level. I realized early on that if we hung out a sign that said " SAFETY LECTURE 7:00 PM" only a few people would show up unless we had free food and famous people doing demonstrations. However, if the sign said, "HORSEMAN'S LIABILITY LECTURE/ LAWSUIT AVOIDANCE" we could fill the room and charge for the food.

A bogus trick? I think not. The only way I know to avoid a lawsuit absolutely is to not have the accident. I am not talking about winning the lawsuit or whether a lawsuit may be frivolous if brought, simply avoiding all suits. The only way to do that is to avoid all accidents.

Is that possible? Probably not. Can people be educated about accidents and learn to have fewer of them? Absolutely.

A majority of the questions lead me to believe that many professionals believe that there are permissible accidents and impermissible accidents. They see the hand of God acting alone in places where an accident was facilitated by human hands.

I discovered that a number of people believe that if a horse spooks or stumbles or bolts, the horse is just being a horse, and these are, therefore, accidents that one can live with.

This is not necessarily so. One must take each instance in its own context. Let's assume that these accidents are happening in the context of a riding lesson or commercial trail ride. In these contexts the riders are looking to professionals to provide the service of either a guided trail ride or a riding lesson. The rider is also looking to the professional for the selection of either the trail horse or the lesson horse.

Suppose Customer Frank tells the trail ride wrangler that he has ridden off and on all his life or even owned his own horse. Wrangler Bob gives him an "advanced" horse. This horse spooks or bucks when Frank holds the reins too tight, or, maybe, runs off after spooking at a deer when Frank leans forward and puts his heels accidentally in the horse's flanks.

Lesson Student, Mary told the instructor she had taken riding lessons for several years and even entered in several jumping shows. She is given a sensitive little jumper suitable for advanced riders but the horse reacts to Mary's hands and inability to support her horse, stops at the first jump and Mary falls off. Maybe the horse pitches a fit about Mary's hands during a lesson or warm-up and Mary falls off.

Neither Frank's nor Mary's falls would be "okay accidents" yet in each case the rider has made representations that completely fit with their interpretation of their own experience. Failing to understand the problems that this miscommunication can cause and failing to understand what procedures to put in place to prevent inexperienced staff from being taken by surprise as a result can be a CAUSE of accidents as well as a CAUSE of lawsuits, some of which might be successful.

Many riders who have ridden off-and-on during their lives may consider themselves "advanced" riders. They may also represent that they have been "riding all my life" but their perception of their own skills may be different than what the professional perceives as an "advanced" rider. One would hope that the professional considers him or herself to be an advanced rider. Does this customer ride to that level? Only a carefully evaluated pre-ride skills test or careful introductory lesson will tell for sure.

In a lesson situation, evaluation of the rider is easier. One may begin at the bottom and proceed through all the basics as rapidly as the rider's level of skill permits but the instructor will have a good idea of what the rider's skill level really is. This process prevents over-mounting and the even-more-dangerous practice of starting the rider at the level that the rider maintains is the correct one but may not be. Few programs will agree on the terms "beginner", "intermediate", and "advanced" and few riders can accurately evaluate their own capabilities.

Over-mounted riders create a potential danger to other customers. Do the barn rules cover these problems so that you can legitimately ask a rider to stop a certain behavior or find other accommodations for his horse? Some of the Equine Activity Statutes deal with the issue of a collision with another participant in an equine activity as an inherent risk of horseback riding. Not all do. It is not clear what would be the legal outcome after a collision that was caused by an out-of-control horse with a history of not being under control.

Many questions at the workshops focus on the rider with his own horse which offers special problems. If the rider has been riding previously with a trainer and the trainer has been riding the horse also several times a week or a month, the rider may not know if the trainer was only keeping the horse tuned up or actually making it possible for the owner to ride the horse safely. In some situations the possibility of this owner/rider becoming the principal rider of the horse was never anticipated and has never been discussed.

The professional may be faced with an amateur owner/rider who has no clue about the horse he is riding beyond what the rider was taught for the show ring. It may take some special attention to keep this situation from becoming a problem.

The over-mounted rider is common to many 4-H Horse Clubs. It is not as much of a problem in the bigger show barns where riders have assistance in selecting horses and often buy known individuals out of the same barn. The over-mounted-rider is a bigger problem in the smaller, neighborhood barns. The rider can be an adult or a child. The adult, or the child's parents, may simply not recognize the danger.

You as the professional do (or should) recognize the danger. It is always possible that the nearest professional will be named in the lawsuit. That does not mean that the lawsuit will be successful against you but you will still have to defend yourself. Your insurance company will come into play and your rates may go up, or worse. If there is a way to remedy the situation before an accident happens it is a good idea to do so, even if you do not believe that it is your direct responsibility.

If the situation has no remedy, you are sitting on the horns of a dilemma. We seldom see the horse to be boarded before it comes in. Potential boarders should fill out an information sheet about their horse and address the issues of vices, history and training. You need not accept for boarding a horse that poses a potential danger to other customers. It is easier to turn away a boarder than to be rid of a difficult one.

Sometimes the best we can do is to have some carefully drafted indemnification language in the boarding contract that relates to the boarders' responsibility for reimbursement to the Stable for all damage above a certain amount caused by this horse whether the damage is to persons or property. All riders should have medical insurance before being permitted to ride.

Over-mounted adults who are responsible for their own behavior and safety are a risk to other riders or other people, horses and property. The danger lies in the adult's inability to manage his own horse. Will your barn rules help you? Will they help you more if they are incorporated into your boarding contract? What about making these control issues part of the terms for eviction? While the answer to some of these questions may not be so clear, common sense is usually a safe guide. That would be your common sense as a horse professional.

When the over-mounted rider is a child the situation is more complicated and your duty to step in is probably better defined. The issue is cloudy when the parents do not know anything about horses and have bought one for their child. The best thing that can happen in that case is for the child to be in lessons and the horse to be in training. That is not always within the means of the parents. What needs to stay uppermost in the barn owner's or manager's mind is that accidents hurt a business' reputation.

It is possible to go over all the paperwork before accepting a boarder. There is time not only to explain all the paper work but also to ask questions about the horse and rider that may be coming in. You can have criteria that determine which customers you will be willing to accept for the safety of those that are already there. If that is too difficult, you can have barn rules and procedures that will allow you to isolate problem horse/rider combinations. If these procedures are made known in advance, and it need not be phrased in unpleasant terms, it can be made palatable.

The questions about drugs and alcohol use in the barn were always easy questions. Don't do it and don't allow it. If you have a barn party - watch the kids and keep the party away from the horses.

It is surprising to me, but I guess that it should not be, that the same questions keep coming up over and over. Simply stated, the situation seems to be that many horse professionals would like to pass the responsibility for whatever happens to the adult amateur customer even though almost all of the professionals will agree that this same adult amateur cannot evaluate correctly his or her own ability. This seems to be true whether it is a trail ride, or lesson or an over-mounted rider. The same professionals want the parents to accept responsibility for things they as parents don't understand. The only way that will work is to train the parents as well as their child.

If we understand that the rider cannot correctly evaluate his or her abilities then it is silly to rely on such an evaluation. The same goes for parents attempting to evaluate their kids.  This puts the professional in the position of knowingly allowing the rider to be in a situation where, if something unpredictable happens, an accident is not only foreseeable, it is probable.

Accidents are bad for business and it is best to avoid all of them. The more help you can give to the problem situations the better off you will be in the long run.

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