As an instructor and trainer, safety concerns have to be my paramount importance constantly. As a clinician for the Certified Horsemanship Association, I have certified hundreds of instructors. CHA’s guidelines exactly match mine. Safety is the first consideration in rating an instructor and deciding if they will receive certification and, if so, at what level.
As an eight year old I had no awareness of what was safe or dangerous. It would have been better if my mother was more informed, but time and again I see young students and their parents trusting the professional. Remember when you take a lesson or buy a horse, “professional” just means that the person is accepting money for what they are doing. It is not an indicator of ability or safety awareness.
An instructor needs to take a fall or any injury that a student receives while in their care VERY seriously. Sometimes a fall happens and it is pretty much unavoidable. But most of the time if you go over the incident closely, you can see that it could have been avoided.
In my Confidence Clinics, I often have students who are trying to get over a bad fall. When they relate the story to me, it is often obvious that it probably could have been avoided. Many times an instructor is not involved. The student was riding her own horse independently and made an error of judgement. Sometimes this has a lasting effect on the rider. An activity that brought pleasure and a sense of accomplishment now is frightening.
These are some of the mistakes I commonly see and hear about that are safety factors:
Unsuitable match of rider and horse
Often in my Problem-Solving Clinics I find that a student has purchased a horse that is beyond his scope and ability. Often they were uncomfortable with the horse even when they rode it before the purchase. But the seller and sometimes their trainer convinces them with promises of how the horse will be in the future. Disposition and safety need to be what you are comfortable with now — at the time of purchase.
Do not accept excuses such as “He has not been out for a while with the bad weather. He does not like the lawn mower next door”, etc. If you are not comfortable and you really like the horse, go back another day.
Take your trusted trainer with you when making the purchase. Be suspicious if the seller can ride the horse and you can’t and he offers to train your new purchase for two to six months at a reduced price if you buy him. It adds money to the purchase price and you are not assured that the horse will be something you are comfortable with. The term “Buyer beware” is never more suitable than when used when horse shopping. Be certain that your trainer truly has your best interests at heart. If they are collecting a percentage fee from the seller they need to let you know this. An ethical trainer will never let financial profit interfere with finding you the best and safest horse.
Always do an “environment” safety check before riding.
This includes where you are riding. If you have brought your horse there for a lesson, or even riding a school horse in a new place, look for:
a. Kick boards. I refused once to teach at a new stable in Connecticut. They had just put in an area covered in plastic but they had not added kick boards. The horses were exposed to steel cables going from the ground to the top, and concrete blocks on the ground. Some kick boards have supports which stick out. A head, shoulder or knee can be injured (rider or horse).
b. Equipment on the ground. Jumps on their sides or too many in the ring when not needed. Jump cups facing outward. Jump cups should be removed or the standards faced inward. Just too much “stuff” all over.
c. Footing. Some excessively hard or deep footing can be unsafe as well as bad for the horse’s legs.
d. Other horses in the area. I believe it is fine to have other people riding during your lesson, but the lesson should have the right of way. Others should ask permission before they want to canter or jump.
e. Weather and Sensory differences. Is it unseasonably cool? Is it raining? Snow on the roof which could slide? Neighbor plowing the field next door?
Your instructor needs to take all of these factors into consideration and change anything which is questionable.
Horse (and rider) need to be mentally and physically ready for riding session.
If the horse comes out holding his breath with his head high and wild eyes, it is ludicrous to consider riding at that time. Do quiet ground work or constructive lungeing, until you see the signs that he is receptive to being ridden. Wait for him to take a deep breath and for the adrenaline to lower. I have seen instructors put their beginner – intermediate students on horses that are not ready to be ridden. This is inexcusable.
The rider also needs to be in the correct frame of mind. A good lesson or a good ride on your horse almost always takes away the stresses of the day. But if you are really upset about something, do not ride that day. Groom your horse, lead him around and let him graze. Horses are very sensitive and getting on looking for a fight will probably result in just that.
• Check tack before each ride. Be careful of rubber coated reins……leather can be weak on the inside. Make certain stirrups are wide enough for feet, especially in winter wearing thicker boots.
• Children should wear ASTM-SEI approved helmets whenever around horses including grooming. Riders should always wear helmets. Be sure to check on the age of helmets.
• A horse’s “kick range” is very large. Have children try to go around the front of the horse always.
• Always lead with a halter and lead rope. Be quiet and soft around horses. If you are not experienced, if a horse has a stable vice such as kicking or biting, have a qualified person advise you.
• If you are a parent and your child is taking lessons, do research on your instructor. Have an awareness of safety. If your child falls off, ask about the causes. Falls happen and they are often unavoidable, but if seems to happen at a particular stable with any regularity, check it out. Do not let your child be mounted on a horse that is too much for her. There should be guide lines in her progress. For example, many instructors do not let a student canter until they can trot without stirrups. If they lose a stirrup during one of their early canters they may well have the balance not to fall. Do not let yourself be pushed into allowing your child to jump or barrel race (at speed) until they are ready.
Those riding and working with horses need to have an awareness of safety with all participants. Have fun, but be safety conscious at all times!