Equestrian Activities: Manage the Risks
Horseback riding offered at or through your K-12 school, college, or university provides many physical and emotional benefits. But it is an inherently dangerous activity that can result in serious injuries to novice and experienced riders. Regardless of the nature and size of your equestrian program, the main concern should be managing risks effectively and maximizing student safety.
A Journal of Neurosurgery study found that from 2003 to 2012, equestrian sports were responsible for the highest proportion (over 45%) of sports-related traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among adults. That’s more than double the share of contact sports like football and soccer.
A separate study found that equestrian sports were among the most frequent causes of TBIs for children and adolescents, behind contact sports, skateboarding, and roller skating.
Most United Educators (UE) equestrian-related claims involve falls, which usually occur in riding rings during lessons, practice, or competitions. The most frequent injuries from such falls are concussions, other head or spine injuries, and broken bones. Kicks from horses, which produced the second-highest number of equestrian claims, typically cause broken bones or severe bruising. In one case, a student needed surgery to remove her spleen after being kicked.
Reduce the Risk of Equestrian-Related Injuries
Reduce the risk of injuries — and your institution’s potential liability — by consistently following some basic business and safety practices. Institutions with any type of equestrian program should focus on these areas:
Outside Stables and Trainers
If you use off-site stables or allow outside trainers (rather than school employees) to teach students in your facility, consult legal counsel and draft a contract that sets out terms of each arrangement, including indemnification language addressing the allocation of risk. Require proof that the stable or trainer has adequate insurance and request to be named as an additional insured on their policy.
Require students — or parents of minor students — to sign releases for equestrian activities. Releases don’t prevent injury, but they will help protect your institution from liability and ensure participants are aware of risks involved. Work with counsel to create or review these documents, which should spell out dangers of riding or handling horses, including the possibility of serious injury or death resulting from a fall or kick. Novice riders (and parents) may be unfamiliar with the risks.
Implement and rigorously enforce safety rules for students and others using your school’s facilities or horses. Students should receive a written copy of the rules and sign an agreement to abide by them.
At a minimum, rules should cover:
- Safety equipment. Regardless of riding discipline, the most important thing a school can do is require the use of properly fitting helmets when people are mounted on horses. Only an estimated 20% of U.S. riders wear helmets regularly, although Florida, New York, and some local jurisdictions mandate riding helmets for most minors. Prohibit bike or other helmets not designed specifically for horseback riding. Require helmets to be certified as meeting American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)/Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) standards. Especially for younger or inexperienced students, also consider mandating helmets when working with horses on the ground (for activities such as grooming, tacking up, or lunging). Some programs may require or recommend other safety equipment, such as protective vests or safety stirrups that break in a fall and help prevent riders from being dragged.
- Proper riding gear. Require proper clothing when mounted, including long pants and riding boots or sturdy shoes with heels. Consider making appropriate boots or shoes mandatory when students work with horses on the ground or are in the facility.
- Handling horses correctly. Consult with equine professionals to create a list of safety practices for handling horses on the ground. Among the things to include: turning horses out and retrieving them from the field; working with horses on cross-ties (such as when grooming or picking hooves); and interacting with horses in stalls.
- Tack care. Establish a system for regular inspection and cleaning of all saddles, bridles, girths, and other tack. Promptly repair or discard pieces in poor condition.
- Riding rings. Establish rules governing ring use, including who has priority and the maximum number of riders or people lunging horses who are allowed in the ring at a time. Keep spectators out; this may require creating a separate viewing area.
Ensure that those who supervise student riders have appropriate experience, skills, and qualifications. While these vary by riding discipline, many important competencies — including communication skills, matching riders with suitable horses, and recognizing early signs of illness or injury that can affect a horse’s attitude and performance — apply across disciplines.
Many schools require certification from the American Riding Instructors Association or a similar organization.
You may want to assess students’ skills before allowing them to participate, especially for small programs or those serving younger students. Establish standards and assessment methods in advance. For example, consider requiring past riding experience or a riding test.
Consider how your program will respond if students with disabilities want to participate. A blanket prohibition on such participation isn’t permissible under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Depending on the disability and in consultation with counsel, you may need to provide accommodations that enable an otherwise qualified student to participate safely.
Some states have laws limiting liability for equine activities. Consult counsel to determine if yours is among them, and ensure your institution understands conditions that apply. For example, states often require expressly citing the limitation provision in contracts or releases and posting them in riding facilities. Moreover, such a limitation is usually abrogated in cases of intentional or reckless conduct, such as knowingly providing faulty equipment or mounting an inexperienced rider on a horse with a dangerous propensity (such as rearing or bolting under saddle).
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About the Author
Hillary Pettegrew, Esq.
Senior Risk Management Counsel
Hillary’s areas of expertise include employment law, Title IX, and study abroad issues. Before joining the Risk Research team, she practiced employment law and handled UE education liability claims.