Posted on Thursday, April 11th, 2013
Don’t end up like this cowboy!
Basic horse riding tips that can make your riding vacation safer:
There is a great deal more to horseback riding safety than just wearing a hard hat though that is certainly a great idea. After 80 years of riding, 35 years of leading and organizing riding trips and working as an expert witness in riding accident cases, I have formed some strong ideas about the leading causes of riding accidents. They often aren’t what people think. In my experience it is rare that speed alone is the cause of an accident. I have found that the following avoidable risks account for the vast majority of serious accidents.
- Not wearing a hard hat
- Failure to match horse and rider
- Going too fast on dangerous terrain
- Failure to check cinches a first time and a second time after a few minutes of riding
- A hat or coat falling from a horse in front and spooking the ones behind
- A kick from a horse
- On foot in the corral
- Riding when overweight and out of shape
- Lagging behind and catching up by speeding forward
- Prematurely “bailing out” to get off a runaway
- Unqualified ride leaders
- Having too many riders for the number of guides
- Improper mounting and dismounting
- Attaching lead ropes or reins firmly at inappropriate times
- Stirrups and boots
- Tying a horse with too much slack
- Riding with loose horses
- Running Home
Wearing a hard hat
If you are enjoying your life, it makes no sense to ride without a hard hat. They are not that onerous to wear and can often prevent or attenuate head injuries in falls. A head injury is usually far worse than a broken bone and those who have them often do not completely recover. About ten years ago a lovely young woman signed a special release not to wear a hard hat before riding with me. An hour later she fell, hitting her head on a rock and went into seizures. She will never be the same; nor will I ever forgive myself for allowing her to ride without protection. I don’t intend to make that mistake again. Since making hard hats mandatory at our ranch ten years ago we have had one or two hats a year damaged when people took falls and I am convinced that we have avoided several concussions as a result.
Matching horse and rider
I think proper matching of horse and rider is the most important factor in avoiding accidents. A spirited, athletic horse can scare the daylights out of a novice and a tired old plug can bore an experienced rider. An actual evaluation by a qualified instructor of a person’s riding skills is the best way to judge since many people do not really know how well they ride according to the standards of the place where they are riding. If it is a matter of a riding tour, it is vital that riders should be experienced and fit enough to do the trip as it was intended to be done and the difficulty should be clearly spelled out. Riders with insufficient skills can ruin the ride for riders who are qualified and be a danger to themselves and the other riders.
Going too fast on dangerous terrain
I must have taken over a hundred falls in my time and rarely been hurt, but the accidents I think most likely to cause injury are when the horse falls, especially if you are under him. Three of the four accidents which caused me trouble for more than a few days were when the horse went down. Twice it was slippery mud and once it was an aardvark hole in Kenya when we galloped too fast through grass tall enough to disguise holes. Many animals like badgers, prairie dogs, ground hogs, wart hogs, wombats and many others make holes which it can be very difficult for horse or rider to see at a gallop. Down barb wire can also be a problem and so can an unexpected patch of slippery mud. We cannot always be galloping on a race track and probably most people want to take the risk of falling at times, but it should be done with full awareness of the danger and the worst places should be approached with caution.
Failure to check cinches
Some horses seem to blow up their chests when a cinch is first tightened and of course one should be certain they are tight before the rider mounts. Perhaps, as some maintain, the blowing up is an illusion, but it certainly pays to check them again as soon as the rider is mounted and still another time after five minutes or so of riding. Whatever the reason, they will often loosen. There have been many accidents when someone failed to check the cinch on the first mounting or failed to check again after a few minutes of riding. I think it is worth checking again after a few hours of riding, particularly if the horse has round withers. When you have done up 10,000 cinches properly there is a danger of inattention the 10,001st time. Many are the old cowboys who have forgotten to do their own cinches properly once or twice. The cinch is also the most important part of the tack to check carefully for any possible weakness.
Falling object from horse in front
I have seen many falls as a result of a horse making a sudden turn or stop when the rider in front lost a hat or a raincoat or other object tied on the saddle carelessly. I rate this high as a cause of easily avoidable accidents.
Any horse can kick and one should always be aware of this. Many have broken legs as a result. Do not approach the horse in front of you too closely whether it is a known kicker or not. Take extra care with horses which do kick if you fell you must keep them. It doesn’t hurt to tie a red ribbon on the tail of a known kicker to remind other riders to be careful or keep that horse in the rear of the line.
On foot in the corral
Some riding establishments keep guests away from the corrals or saddling areas because many accidents can occur there. A tied horse can spook and pull back, sometimes breaking a lead rope or hitching pole which can cause pandemonium. Horses can be more nervous around people on the ground if they do not know them. When you move behind a horse, you are safer either very close or out of range.
Overweight and out of shape
Riding is an athletic sport which demands good muscles and a trim body for the best results. Those who feel that it should be like sitting on a motor cycle should stick to motor cycles. A rider who is overweight cannot perform as well because he puts more stress on the same muscles if he is 20 lbs. overweight. If he falls, an injury is more likely because the greater weight puts more stress on the same bones. It goes without saying that extra lbs. make a huge difference to the horse. Look how jockeys struggle over a pound and what a little extra weight does to the speed of a race horse.
I have seen several serious accidents occur because someone in the riding group felt the pace to be too slow and held a horse back so they could gallop up to join the others. This often makes the horse held back frantic so that it gallops up at speed and crashes into the rest of the group, getting the other horses very excited and out of control. It can also be dangerous to have an inexperienced rider fall behind a group unintentionally because she does not know how to make the horse keep up close to the others. Even a quiet, lazy horse which may have been grazing along the trail can suddenly decide to move forward quickly when it gets the urge to join the other horses and inexperienced riders may not be able to handle this safely.
I have known people to throw themselves off a runaway horse because they were terrified and wanted the terror to end. I believe this is usually a big mistake. Horses are not often suicidal and when they tire they will slow down. Usually one can ride it out. I did correctly bail out once when a rock gave way under my horse’s leg on a narrow trail and he went over a cliff, but those situations are rare. Another time when I was leading a ride on a very spirited horse the metal bit broke near the middle and I was left with no control as we were starting a canter. The horse leapt forward like a rocket when he felt the pressure on his mouth give way and I was badly scared. The thought of bailing out did cross my mind, but fortunately I rode it out and a mile or so later he came to a stop of his own accord. The riders behind me thought I had gone crazy.
Unqualified ride leaders
Ride leaders need to be not only good riders themselves, but they need to pay careful attention to the others in the group. Great Britain and France require commercial ride leaders to take courses and pass exams before they can be licensed, but nothing of the kind exists in the United States which means that totally unqualified people often lead rides and ignore basic safety rules. Sometimes wranglers at places offering riding vacations do not have the experience or maturity required to take on the responsibility safely.
Too many riders for the number of guides
There is a limit to how many riders each guide can keep track of. Of course the skill of the riders is an important factor and if the group is experienced, there is less need for supervision. Generally I believe that a ratio of six horses to a guide is about the safe limit. I say horses because a guide leading pack horses has to give them some of his attention and if there are four or five of them, it means that he will be 20 yards or more from the first guest if they are going single file. The guide leading pack horses is also hampered in going to the assistance of a rider if need be because leaving the pack horses unrestrained can be a hazard in itself since they could turn and run back through the riders. A single guide leading five or six riders always poses a problem because one cannot constantly be looking backward, particularly at a gallop. I believe it is safer to have two guides with one leading and one behind, but it usually does not make economic sense to have more than one guide for small groups. Having too large a group can also become a safety hazard, particularly if the group is moving at all gaits. If a group spreads out on an open plain for a canter and the horses and riders are keen, some have a tendency to edge ahead. Then the other horses will want to catch up and the next minute they can all be excited and going flat out. They may not be easy to stop before they come to a place with dangerous holes, down barbed wire or quick sand.
Mounting and dismounting
Like take-offs and landings, mounting and dismounting are potentially dangerous times. They require the rider to put all her weight on the left side of the horse which throws the animal off balance and can cause it to react. While the rider has one foot out of the stirrup she is vulnerable to any sudden movement of the horse and has poor control of the reins. It is also a time when a sudden forward movement of the horse can cause the rider’s left leg to be caught in the stirrup and then be dragged so that the left foot should come out of the stirrup before the right leg gets close to the ground. Obviously long legged, athletic riders can get away with this more easily and safely. Someone should be holding a horse while a rider mounts if there is any question about mounting safety and sometimes also when dismounting. A secure mounting block makes getting up much easier and safer for most guests. Another risk in mounting is that with all the weight in one stirrup it tends to pull the saddle over to that side. If riders can get on with one quick, fluid motion, there is less chance of the saddle slipping, but use of a mounting block reduces the pull to the left side because it is far easier for the rider to get her weight properly balanced quickly rather than struggling up from the ground. At times it may also be helpful for someone to hold the right stirrup down while the rider mounts to compensate for the weight on the left side. Of course mounting blocks are not always available, but usually a substitute can be found or someone can give the rider a leg up. Before mounting the rider should always be holding the reins in her hand. The group should never start to move out while one or more of the riders is on the ground after opening a gate or for whatever reason because horses tend to get nervous if they feel they are being left behind and can be difficult for the rider to handle.
Attaching lead ropes and reins
Naturally at times it is necessary to tie a horse to a fixed object like a tree, a solid fence, a picket line or a hitching post. A horse should never be firmly tied when a rider is on its back as they tend to feel trapped and will often buck or pull back. While a rider is leading a horse the lead rope should never be firmly attached to the saddle or the body of the person. The horse can pull back hard enough to make the lead horse fall, buck or to drag the rider. People have tried to their sorrow to lead horses by tying them to a four wheeler because horses can easily tip them over. When leading a pack string I think it is usually best to have the pack horses behind the lead horse attached with a thin rope which will break if a horse pulls on it hard. This means that one horse is not so likely to get the others into trouble and it is more likely to settle down quickly if no longer attached. The breakaway rope also reduces the chance of accident in case a pack string is spooked by a bear, a falling tree or whatever. A string of firmly attached pack horses running abreast in a panic can mow down the riders in their path. I never like to tie a horse to a dead tree since they may be rotten and if a horse pulls back hard, it can make the tree fall. I have seen a horse drag a dead tree 15 ft. high around, causing pandemonium with the other horses.
Stirrups and Boots
I imagine I have been lucky as I have rarely seen a rider dragged by getting one foot caught in the stirrup as they fell off. Nevertheless it can certainly happen and can cause one of the worst kinds of accidents. A fairly high heel in riding boots can prevent the boot from slipping through the stirrup and various breakaway devices on the saddle can make the stirrup fall off the saddle in the event of strong backward pull. Tapaderos can also prevent the boot from slipping through as well as protecting the feet from thorns and brush. Care should always be taken to keep the weight on the ball of the foot and not let the stirrup get back into the instep.
Tying a horse with too much slack
If there is too much slack in a lead rope when a horse is tied it is easy for the horse to get a leg over the rope and if they pull back they can become entangled and hurt themselves seriously. When riders stop for a picnic, it is a temptation to leave the lead rope long enough to allow the horse to graze a bit. I have seen many accidents caused by this practice and am convinced that the risk is seldom worth the small amount of grass they get that way. Many horses have gotten serious rope burns in this manner which can put them out of action for weeks. These days when horses are put out to graze in a place where they must be restrained, an electric fence is normally used, but if they must be picketed, I believe it is safer to tie them by a leg just above the hoof rather than by a lead rope attached to a halter as the horse is less likely to become entangled.
Riding with loose horses
Loose horses in a riding group can cause accidents by crowding the ridden horses, making them veer to the side or stop suddenly and by kicking. They can also excite the ridden horses by running ahead and making it difficult for riders to hold their mounts at a controlled canter. On the other hand, sometimes riding with loose horses can be difficult to avoid. When we are traveling 200 miles or so in a week across the African bush and have no easy resupply of mounts, we need to take several extra horses in case some go lame or tire. One can hardly ask guests to lead them and if there are four or five of them, they are extremely hard to handle at a gallop unless they are very well trained to lead. At home I have galloped with up to three tailed horses without mishap in open country, but many horses do not respond well to tailing. I remember well one day in Africa when we had 35 miles to cover. About twelve of us were galloping along on an open plain with several herds of zebra and wildebeest not far away. There were five loose horses and as a herd of zebra galloped across our path in a racing challenge, which is tremendously exciting to horses, the five of them followed after the zebra at top speed, cutting across our path too close. One of them crashed into our lead horse making it fall. The rider, a black groom, dove head first into a termite mound. Two other riders fell in the pandemonium. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid these situations, but one should be aware of the dangers. An exception is in Iceland where it is common practice to ride with a group of loose horses for frequent changes. These small horses are extraordinarily good tempered and accustomed to this routine so that there seems little safety risk. There are many other parallels in history like the fabulous cavalry of Genghis Khan, but they aren’t appropriate in most situations today.
I think it is a mistake to let horses go at a fast pace when they are getting close to home. Even if they are still a long way from the barn once they know they are headed toward home they can become more difficult to control. If you let your horses get in the habit of running that last mile to the barn, you had better be damn sure you are always with some good riders. I am more confident riding fast with a group of riders on the way out than on the return if I am doing a ride from a fixed location they know like their own ranch. Another thing which can cause trouble is that horses cantering abreast can become much more competitive than they are in a line and often a group in line will want to start to race. I have seen a line like that start to go faster and faster across an African plain until all the horses are going flat out in a race and the tall grass harboring nasty unseen holes is upon you.
Getting over a Riding Accident
One very positive thing you can do to improve your self-confidence and make riding safer is to get in as good physical shape as possible. Extra weight is certainly a handicap. Strong muscles, good endurance and a flexible body are a huge advantage. It will improve every aspect of your life.
A riding accident can certainly be a scary and unpleasant experience. Often the worst part of it is that it makes you lose confidence in yourself and in the horse. People who are in good athletic shape are usually not seriously hurt when they fall and I must have fallen over a hundred times in 75 years of riding. Most of those falls gave me no more than a bruise or two and damaged my ego. Three times I have been quite badly hurt when a horse fell with me and I think those falls are usually the most likely to cause injury. I was lucky enough to begin riding at an early age on a pony so that I didn’t have so far to fall, the ground was soft and I was young and supple. Falls where you don’t get hurt can actually help build confidence as you see that falling usually isn’t that horrible. There is some truth in the old proverb that you can’t call yourself a rider until you have fallen at least seven times.
I think one’s attitude toward horses and experience with them aside from riding has a great deal to do with being at ease on horseback. We used draft horses on our farm and I grew up as a little boy with the smell and feel of them before I could ever ride. The people around me revered them. They can still scare me when I feel over-matched or they are running away with me, but I have never had the visceral fear of them that I have of sharks or parachuting. I was as terrified by my last parachute jump as I was by my first one and always hated them. Sharks never hurt me beyond a sand paper like scrape when one rushed past me to grab a struggling fish I had just speared, but I have always had an unreasoning fear of them; especially when diving at night with a flashlight. On the other hand I have been badly hurt by horses, but never had the same kind of fear of them and I think the manner of my introduction to them and relationship with them has a great deal to do with it.
I believe riders who want to make a happy recovery in the saddle after a frightening fall would be well advised to spend some time with horses on the ground. There is nothing like playing with the young foals on our ranch to restore your love for them. Those foals become as friendly and playful as Labradors. It is also good to ride a really quiet, responsive horse for a time without feeling you have to begin right away to ride a spirited, athletic animal posing a challenge. One should also start riding at a leisurely pace with people who are not inclined to do anything which poses a risk. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you think I could help.
There are a few things which it can be useful, perhaps even save a life, to take with you on a riding trip in fairly remote country. One of them is a cell phone or a satellite phone if they won’t work where you are. A serious accident might need immediate attention or at least demand a helicopter evacuation. A first aid kit anyone can buy in a store may give some psychological comfort and help prevent infections, but they are pretty useless in a real emergency. Some kind of splint could be helpful. First aid and CPR training can possibly save a life.
I always like to carry a pocket knife because a good one has multiple tools like cutting blades, leather punches and wire cutters. They can help with tack repairs and as hoof picks. They can also save trouble if a horse should get caught up in barbed wire or you have to cut wire to make a safe passage through some down wire. Most pocket knives have a tool which can also serve as a hoof pick which can be very useful at times. Depending on where you are, don’t just ride out even for half a day with just a light shirt because, especially in the mountains, the weather can change fast. I have ridden out in the morning with clear skies and come back a few hours later in a hail or snow storm. Horses hate hail as their eyes are not protected from it and they will just turn their backs and wait for it to subside.
I have spent hundreds of hours riding at night and have a great deal of faith in the horse’s ability to find its way in the dark. After some experimentation I completely gave up the use of flashlights on horseback as I am convinced that a light flickering about only disorients the horses and detracts from their night vision. Obviously turning on a light reduces our night vision as well. One thing which makes a difference is that I have usually ridden at night only on trails the horses already knew. Horses don’t tend to make allowances for overhanging branches under which they can pass, but the rider cannot so in places where I think there may be branches I can’t see I hold my hand in front of my face. Horses also have a terrific sense of smell enabling them to follow the trail of another horse even if it is an hour or more old.
If a horse is unusually nervous or just pricks his ears and looks somewhere it is a good idea to investigate as it may alert you to the presence of wild game or something else out of the ordinary which might spook the whole line of horses later. Several times my horse has alerted me to the presence of a covey of grouse on the ground before they flushed. If you aren’t aware of birds until they flush near the horse, it can cause a stampede. One time I was hunting elk alone in the mountains in lightly falling snow and I wanted my horse to take a steep mountain trail. That horse refused to take the trail which was totally out of character for him, but I was adamant and impatiently got off to lead him up the first part of the trail and get him started. There was an inch of fresh snow on the ground and when I had gone a few feet up I looked down and saw the biggest grizzly track I had ever seen. It was a very fresh track as yet still clear despite the falling snow. I took one look, turned my horse around, jumped in the saddle and headed quickly for home. Ever since that time I have paid careful attention when a horse didn’t want to do something.
As in any sport, no matter what precautions are taken, accidents can occur. It is therefore important to have plans in place to get quick and effective help in case of need. When riding in remote places a cell phone, satellite phone or radio can save critical time and if someone in the group has first aid knowledge it can make a great difference. In my experience horseback riding need not be a dangerous activity when compared to a sport like down hill skiing. Riding sports like cross country jumping and fox hunting can multiply the dangers many fold.
I hope it will encourage you to know that in 80 years of riding I only had one fall which put me in the hospital so I don’t think it is really that dangerous. On the other hand, riding has been one of life’s great joys for me. Take a moment to look at some of the many wonderful horse riding adventures on this website that you can enjoy around the world.
By Bayard Fox