University of Vermont AAHS

A Dude Ranch Trail Ride Case

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Fall 2000 Caution:Horses Volume 5, No. 3]

A young couple chose to spend their honeymoon at a dude ranch in Montana. They went trail riding and the wife identified herself as an experienced rider. They were taken out on a guided trail ride with three other riders. The other three were beginners. All were satisfied with their horses and they were on their way back to the barn. Coming to a gate, the wrangler dismounted and the ride, beginners in front, passed through the gate. The wrangler omitted to ask everyone to wait while he closed the gate and remounted. The beginners continued down the trail and before the wrangler noticed they had traveled over 300 feet. The honeymooning couple knew better and waited for the wrangler. When the wrangler noticed what had happened, he turned his horse and went cross country at speed to catch up with the beginners. When he did catch up, instead of waiting for the other riders they all continued to the barn.

Being left alone, the two more experienced riders began to walk the trail to join the others. The horse being ridden by the wife became headstrong, attempting to catch up with the others although the horse of the husband was walking quietly Soon the lady’s horse was plunging forward as she tried to manage him with all the skills at her command. Eventually the horse reared up and fell--seriously injuring her. She had gone 400 feet before she came off. If the wrangler and the beginners had waited the couple would have caught up with them before she came off. She brought suit against the dude ranch and won without going to trial.

Testimony for the defendant dude ranch put forth the following positions. Somehow Montana is different than other states; dude ranches in Montana don’t need to follow the standards of the other states. Since there are no written standards, there are no industry standards and each dude ranch may do what it likes. The plaintiff held herself out to be an experienced rider so she should not have complained that she could not handle the horse, which had given her no problem up to then. There had been no prior complaints about the horse so whatever was the matter was a first time and the ranch could not be responsible for a "first instance."

The expert witness for the dude ranch was an experienced packer and outfitter. Experience notwithstanding, he had no specific safety training, no known certification, and little apparent knowledge outside of the State of Montana. On the other hand, given the above facts, it would have difficult for any certified personnel from any equestrian safety organization to have testified for the defense in this case.

This case hinged on the actions of the wrangler and wrangler training. At the moment the wrangler saw the beginners heading for the barn alone he knew what he should have done but by then he was already in a no-win situation. If he had stayed with the couple at the gate the beginners might have had trouble with their horses and been headed to the barn faster than they had planned to go. If he left the couple and caught up with the beginners either of the two isolated horses ridden by the couple at the gate might have acted up and caused an injury, which is what happened. The third alternative is that the wrangler could have waited with the beginners while the couple caught up or all could have gone back and met them. They apparently never looked back.

Although it was not expected that the horses would act up, it was a foreseeable (the buzz word indicating probable liability) possibility that one or both would. Furthermore, most professionals are aware that when a student or dude ranch guest represents himself to be an "experienced" rider it often means "advanced novice" or "several rides at a dude ranch." It rarely means trainer, rider of problem horses, colt breaker, or bronc rider. As most horsemen know an argument with a horse over returning to the barn can require some advanced skills. "Experienced rider" should never be taken to mean "can ride problem horses" or "can ride under difficult circumstances." It is necessary to make serious additional inquiries before putting a guest rider in those circumstances. In this case the horse was rearing and plunging and the woman exhausted her list of things we are traditionally taught to do when a horse rears. She was, in fact, quite an experienced rider.

Wrangler training and written procedures would have probably prevented the accident. When procedures are written and emphasized it is amazing how they are more frequently followed. A properly run trail ride will have trained staff following a standard procedure, an orientation which, besides a skills test, will have a discussion of the rules of the ride. Sometimes a guest will catch a tired wrangler’s mistake. If written procedures had been part of the program and the wrangler had been trained, the ranch could have made a showing that such precautionary procedures were followed and the case would have been tougher for the plaintiff to win and she might even have lost.

With written procedures and formal orientation that is checked on and reinforced by management, it is much less likely that a wrangler would behave in such an unconscious manner. As it was, the defense folded following the deposition testimony of the plaintiff’s expert witness.

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