University of Vermont AAHS


Horse Show Safety

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Summer 2001 Caution:Horses, Vol. 6, No. 2]


How safe are you, your children, or your students at a horse show? Do you ever arrive at a show only to find yourself horrified at an unsafe condition or situation? Would it surprise you to know that in many cases the safety of the exhibitors or spectators is the last thing considered by the management at the typical horse show?

The first issues considered are how to get participants in and out of the ring, is the water close enough to the horses, are the stalls safe, and is there an adequate warm-up area?

The following are conditions that have been observed at large shows in the spring of 2001. You be the judge as to whether or not there are problems.

At one large facility the guy wires holding up the red iron, supports of the huge arenas were exposed. The red iron posts themselves had no buffers.

A large regional competition had warm-up areas in the middle of a large concrete parking lot. The problem was that although the area was covered with plenty of dirt and the footing was good the areas were surrounded only with sawhorses every few feet. Suppose some junior exhibitor’s horse had acted up and scooted and left the dirt area for the parking lot, would that have been a problem? Would it have been different for an amateur exhibitor? What about for a trainer?

Another show has a beautiful arena that opens into a gravel parking lot where there is an unnecessary raised observation booth just outside the double doors to the area. An exiting horse must make an immediate ninety-degree turn to avoid the booth. Vehicles are often parked at the entrance as well and if a horse leaves the arena suddenly it must dodge vehicles and often video cables.

One well-known show facility has a tunnel that runs from one part of the facility to the other. The ceiling is low for a mounted rider and most people lead their horses. Sometimes exhibitors with supreme confidence in their horses will ride down the steep and slick, although grooved, cement, through the low tunnel to the other side. If there were to be an incident in the tunnel and a horse reared up, a serious injury would be guaranteed, yet there is neither warning sign nor any supervision. If the incident involved a minor, what would be the possibility that the parents of the victim would claim "unsafe condition," "lack of supervision," or "improper marking" with respect to the hazard

And the problem is not only with minors. When people have spent a considerable amount of money, time and effort to get to a horse show they may not have the option or pulling out if they perceive the situation to be unsafe. If it is a trainer who has many clients at the show, what shall trainers do when they know they will get no money back if they pull out. It the show is one requiring qualification, will the trainers have any customers left if they pull out due to unsafe conditions?

The professionals who have many clients at a show and who have spent a great deal of money to be there also have customers pushing them. These trainers will have a hard time telling their clients that they felt the facility had serious problems and so they left the championship show or qualifying show knowing that they would not get their client’s money back. That is a bitter pill to the owner who has spent thousands of dollars to campaign a horse or to a parent whose child has competed all year for a chance to be there. If it is only a single show in the series, if it was a critical show it will come back to haunt them.

If people have traveled many miles or maybe days to get to a show the basic traveling expenses may be substantial.

The amateur exhibitor may not be able to evaluate the risk factor of the facility as well as a pro because he or she lacks the experience. The parents have not taken the riding lessons and usually know less than the children. The minor often feels bullet proof, especially the more confident ones, and will take chances because they believe that either they won’t have an accident or that their horses will get through it.

There is also the belief that if the conditions are found at a show they must be basically okay.

There are enormous pressures on exhibitors to make the best of the conditions at a show and take things as they are. These factors all operate to invalidate the "assumption of the risk" defense to negligence.

One cannot assume a risk one does not understand and one does not assume the risk voluntarily in the face of strong economic pressures to go forward with the activity.

The point is that all these exhibitors have right to expect a safe place to show their horses and compelling reasons to go ahead and show even if they find something amiss. If there is a wreck they have an argument that will, at least, pass the giggle test, and will generally get them past the early stages of a lawsuit.

It is extremely important for show management to consider what will be the needs of the exhibitors, including youth, amateur, and pro because if an unsafe condition causes the accident, the numerous equine activity statutes will not likely save the show management. None of the exhibitors is likely to be able economically or otherwise to turn around and leave a big show after their entries have been paid and the stalls are rented.

The minors must be protected and to simply leave this up to the parents is faulty reasoning since the parents are not the ones who have taken the riding lessons and generally know less about the situation than the kids.

The amateurs are under economic pressure as are the trainers. For them it is lost work time or vacation time, not to mention the expenses of maintaining a show horse and participating in the shows.

In order to avoid losing a lawsuit arising out of an accident caused by an arguably unsafe condition that was taken for granted, show management needs to realize that it has a duty to the exhibitors to provide a safe environment in which to show their horses.

If the show management expects observers, whether paying or not, these spectators need to have a safe place from which to observe and the show management must understand that the spectators may not have any experience with horses.

The following are some guidelines to cover the most frequently seen problems:

  1. Spectators need to have a safe place from which to watch and into which horses will not be permitted. They may not all want to use the area but to have such an area lets the show management put signs up for spectators and the spectators can choose to respect them or not, but to have them gives the management an edge if a spectator goes into the horse area and is hurt.
  2. There must be appropriate warning signs for spectators or non-exhibitors in the barn area if they are to be permitted there.
  3. There must be a safe entrance and exit from all arena and warm-up areas which is free from autos, strollers or anything which could cause a problem if a horse backed or walked into it.
  4. No one should be permitted to be mounted where the ceiling is too low for the same reason that we do not permit riding in the barn unless there is an area specifically constructed for that purpose with enough head room for a full-size, rearing horse.
  5. Warm-up areas must be proper enclosures or located in an area that would be considered a normal riding area. If surrounded by concrete the area must have a gate and it should be kept closed when not in use.
  6. Horses and riders must be protected from exposed support beams and related structures.
  7. Just as we know that loose horses are not unusual we must also assume that the occasional horse will get out of control through no fault of the rider and the rider must not have to deal with serious hazards due to the lack of planning of a show management team.
  8. It is probably not wise to permit cross-ties in the aisle at shows although it is a common practice. It makes life difficult for exhibitors coming and going and creates a serious hazard for visitors in the aisles.
  9. Covering a slick walkway designed for pedestrian traffic with a thin rubber strip to allow for horses creates an unimaginable hazard. The first slip splits the cover leaving a tear. The horse that catches his foot on the split can slip on the polished cement below and fall injuring himself and his handler. The injuries on this type of surface may very likely be fatal.
  10. . It is a good idea to have some supervision in the staging area at the in-gate, especially for the younger children. We would not leave these young teens and pre-teens in a situation where their safety depended on their not being distracted. We too often see show management depending on the parents to supervise and often the parents know nothing.

It is going to be increasingly difficult to plan shows as if each show horse were Ole Dobbin. We have over forty states whose legislatures by the enactment of Equine Activity Statutes have officially said that horses are unpredictable and dangerous. We in the horse industry wanted these statutes. Perhaps it is time that we began to pay attention to our safety practices in a way that demonstrates that we actually believe what these laws say.

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