University of Vermont AAHS

Riding Instructor’s Legal Liability for Injuries to Students During Lessons: Part Three

Robert O. Dawson
Professor of Law
University of Texas
School of Law
AAHS Secretary/Treasurer

[reproduced from Winter 2000 Caution:Horses, Vol. 5, No. 4]


In the HorseLaw article published in the Summer 2000 issue of Caution:Horses, I discussed the legal duty of a riding instructor to provide a reasonably safe lesson to a student, what inquiries the instructor must make to determine the student’s abilities, and how, if at all, this legal picture is changed by an equine activity statute in the jurisdiction. In the Fall 2000 installment, I discussed how the legal picture is changed by the experience and ability of the student.

Here, I discuss what, if any, duty the riding instructor has to monitor the safety of a lesson once it has begun.

Continuing Duty to Determine Safety. In Part One of this article, I made the point that the law absolutely requires the instructor to determine the skill level of the student before the lesson begins and that simply taking the student’s word for it will not suffice—a riding test, which may be brief, is necessary.

But, even if the student "passes" the initial riding test, that does not exhaust the instructor’s duties to determine skill and to assure a reasonably safe lesson. Plaintiff Hendricks in Hendricks v. JAFI, Inc., 1999 WL 1336069 (Mass.Sup.Ct. 1999) was injured when thrown from defendant’s horse during a lesson. Defendant moved for summary judgment on the ground that the Massachusetts Equine Activity Statute applies. Plaintiff claimed the statute did not apply because the accident came with the exception that the instructor "provided the equine and failed to make reasonable and prudent efforts to determine the ability of the participant to engage safely in the equine activity, and determine the ability of the participant to safely manage the particular equine based on the participant's representations of his [or her] ability."

All parties agreed that the instructor was not negligent in matching horse with rider when the lesson began. However, plaintiff claimed that it should have been apparent to the instructor as the lesson progressed that the rider was having difficulty controlling the horse and the instructor at that time had a legal duty to terminate the lesson on that horse. The defendant claimed that matching horse with rider applies only at the beginning of the lesson. The trial court agreed with the plaintiff:

"Holding that [the exception in question] has nothing to do with what happens after a rider mounts up would immunize an equine professional from liability no matter what the horse did under the professional's watchful gaze after a lesson's commencement. But horses, like humans, can have bad days. Sometimes, the fact the horse is having a bad day, and therefore may be particularly difficult to manage, manifests itself before the horse actually does anything untoward. Sometimes it does not. If it does and if the manifestation would put a reasonable equine professional on notice that a rider of the caliber on the horse's back should then not be there, it is surely consistent with the statute's limited objective to require the professional to take the rider off."

"In my view, therefore, a proper construction of the statute imposes on the equine professional a continuing duty to determine whether, under the circumstances that actually appear during the course of a given lesson, the participant has the ability to engage safely in the equine activity the equine professional is supervising. Construing the statute in that fashion does not rob its of its vitality. The broad exemption from liability provided by [the statute] remains intact except to the extent that the equine professional becomes, or should become, aware that the rider does not have the ability to engage safely in the day's equine activities as those activities progress."

"The question in each case, therefore, is not whether the professional gave a particular negligent direction, not whether the professional failed to communicate instructions with reasonable care and not whether the professional failed to anticipate a particular horse's reaction to a particular stimulus. The question is not even whether the rider has displayed a pattern of inattentiveness during the course of a given lesson. Instead, the question is whether the horse's behavior during the course of a particular activity was sufficient to put the professional, or a reasonable professional in his or her place, on notice that, on that day and at that time, the particular rider did not have sufficient ability to engage safely in the activities the professional was supervising."

Accordingly, the trial court refused to grant the defendant instructor’s motion for summary judgment.

This case speaks to an important principle—that the instructor has a continuing duty to supervise the safety of the lesson and may be required to take action to terminate a lesson immediately when the lesson has become unsafe even though it was safe in the beginning.

Obviously, the same principle would apply in other supervised riding contexts, such as guided trail rides.

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