University of Vermont AAHS


Criminal Charges Result from Trail Ride Death: Can It Happen Here?
by Jan Dawson
President, AAHS
[reproduced from Caution:Horses, Vol. 4, No. 3, Fall 1999]

The owner and head trail guide from a Canadian ranch have been arrested and charged with criminal negligence following the death of a 10-year-old girl who was killed in April. The girl’s horse bolted, she fell from the saddle, her foot became tangled in the stirrup. She was dragged 150 meters. She was not wearing a helmet.

While we are worrying about the possibility of money damages from civil suits we seldom if ever consider the possibility of criminal charges being filed as a result of the same accidents. Certainly each state has the legal mechanisms to file such charges, but would they do it? What are the circumstances that generate criminal negligence charges in comparable situations? The most obvious comparison would be with automobile accidents.

Generally what generates criminal charges as a result of a traffic accident is a blatant disregard for the welfare of others. This can be a disregard for safety regulations, some of the most common being related to the use of seat belts or car seats. It may be related to a disregard for traffic signs, especially in a school zone. Of course, we always think of the accidents caused by the driver impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Could parallels be found in the equestrian world? Probably, if the situation is outrageous enough. Many people believe that they are doing what is necessary to be safe; however, they are the same people who pass up opportunities to participate in a safety workshop or seminar, much less become safety certified. When their business is involved in an accident and the safety experts are deposed in preparation for trial, these same people are amazed at what is considered the "industry standard". Many are unaware that their state has regulations governing their operations. They find that the defense of having done something one way for twenty years without a problem is no defense at all.

Where should one look for potential trouble spots? The short answer is look to where the various parts of the industry are close to agreement, e.g. how and when to check a cinch; the type of fencing considered adequate between horse and highway; horses appropriate for beginners. Some areas that are approaching general agreement is a helmet requirement for minors; safe conditions of trails and arenas; and management of trail rides and lessons.

It is far better to anticipate the changes and be prepared for them rather that be caught by a change that was unexpected.

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