How Safe is Horseback Riding?
If you are new to horseback riding or you want to start taking lessons, you may be wondering about the potential risks of the sport. This is understandable, and it is important to understand the potential danger involved in an activity before you get started. It is also important to familiarize yourself with the measures you can take to mitigate these risks.
Is horseback riding safe? Horseback riding can be a dangerous sport. In fact, it is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous sports for humans, with some listing it just below auto racing. While this may sound alarming, there are several factors to take into account in regards to these statistics, and there are also many ways that you can mitigate these risks for yourself.
Read on to learn more about the dangers of horseback riding, and measures that you can take to make it as safe as possible.
What Are The Dangers Of Horseback Riding?
There is some level of risk that we must accept with any physical activity, and horseback riding is no exception. I find myself getting scrapes and bruises by just being at the stables! But these probably aren’t the injuries that most concern you – what are a horseback rider’s chances of severe injury or death?
Horseback Riding Fatalities
In the US, there are approximately 100 horse-related deaths per year. To put this into perspective, this is compared to 39,000 gun-related deaths per year and 38,800 vehicle-related deaths. American Football players will experience approximately 12 deaths per year. While fatalities related to horses will come nowhere close to guns and traffic accidents, it can be argued that it is a relatively high number when compared to other sports widely considered to be dangerous.
Of the recorded horseback riding fatalities, at least 60-70% can be attributed to traumatic brain injuries. Head injuries can occur both from falling off of the horse and from sustaining a blow to the head while working with a horse on the ground. After traumatic brain injuries, deaths are most commonly a result of spinal injuries or crushing deaths.
Severe Injuries Among Horseback Riders
Most injuries sustained while horseback riding will not be serious. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve fallen off a horse. That being said, I’ve never been seriously injured enough to go to the hospital. The majority of horse-related hospitalizations are for traumatic brain injuries, with the second most common being broken arms.
Horseback riding is considered to be the third most common cause of severe traumatic brain injuries in children, and the first in adults, with 45% of traumatic brain injuries in adults due to horseback riding. Of note, it is estimated that the majority of serious horse-related injuries occur on the ground – these are most often due to being kicked. One in five injuries overall is suffered on the ground as opposed to in the saddle.
Why Is Horseback Riding So Dangerous?
Understanding why horseback riding is dangerous is the first step to understanding how to best prevent injuries. Surveys of those involved in equestrian sports have revealed that 81% of riders have reported being injured, while 21% reported a serious injury. It is clear that horseback riding could be safer, but why is it considered so dangerous? While much of this danger can be attributed to the nature of the sport itself, the culture also contributes to the increased risks.
When you consider what horseback riding entails, it really is no wonder why there are elevated risks associated with the sport. For starters, you are trusting a 1,000(+)-pound animal with your physical wellbeing. Horses are immensely stronger than we are, and are muscular and powerful. While an experienced rider can be expected to control his or her mount, no animal can be completely controlled. If you pair this with the fact that horses are prey animals and are notoriously skittish, you have a recipe for a potentially dangerous situation.
The horse culture cannot be ignored in this discussion, however. We’ve talked about the number of pediatric traumatic brain injuries associated with horseback riding, but what we haven’t discussed is how much higher that number was several years ago. Equestrian organizations have made great strides in the last couple of decades in increasing safety and awareness through the required use of helmets. Studies have shown that adult riders, however, rarely wear helmets when horseback riding. This could be why the population at the highest risk of horse-related head injuries are those in the 22-35 age group. If we were able to make a culture shift toward the use of helmets, we would likely see a dramatic drop in serious injury.
Steps You Can Take For A Safer Ride
The statistics can be alarming, but for those who ride responsibly, the benefits often greatly outweigh the risks. There are steps that you can take to decrease your own likelihood of a serious injury – in fact, there are more products designed around safety now than ever before, such as inflatable vests and breakaway stirrups. Two of the most important considerations, though, will be both helmets, and your own awareness. To learn more about other protective gear you can get for horseback riding, visit my article Recommended Riding Helmets and Protective Gear.
Horseback Riding Safety: Helmets
If you want to ride responsibly, you have to wear a helmet. The leading cause of a horse-related serious injury is a traumatic brain injury. Helmets are the single greatest protection that you have, and they have been shown to reduce the rate of horse-related fatalities by 70-80%.
What kind of helmet should you invest in? You will need an ASTM/SEI-rated equestrian helmet. These helmets are specifically designed to protect your head after a fall from the height of a horse, whereas bike helmets are only designed to withstand the impact from the height of a bicycle.
As we read earlier, the majority of serious horse-related injuries occur before even mounting the horse. Your horse is no less predictable on the ground than he is under saddle – you can be kicked, shoved, trampled, knocked over, or even head-butted by a horse. If you are working with a horse you are unfamiliar with or one you know has some behavioral issues, don’t feel insecure about wearing your helmet around them.
Some may argue against helmets because they can feel uncomfortable and hot, especially if you’re riding in hot weather. To help prepare yourself for the Summer riding season, check out my article Summer Horseback Riding Attire: What to Wear in Hot Weather.
Horseback Riding Safety: Awareness
There are two types of riders most at risk of a horse-related injury: inexperienced riders, and high-level competitors.
It goes without saying that the more extreme the sport, the more extreme the risk. An elite eventing competitor is naturally putting himself at a higher risk than an intermediate rider who is taking her horse over a cavaletti. Out of adults who were hospitalized for horse-related injuries in Canada, a survey found that the average person had 27 years of experience riding horses. Not only is an experienced rider more likely to take risks, but they are also more likely to lose awareness of the danger in which they are putting themselves.
Inexperienced riders are also at a higher risk than those who are more familiar with horse behavior. Inexperienced riders are more likely to miss the cues of an agitated horse, they are more likely to make mistakes that might irritate a horse, and they are more likely to let their emotions get the best of them in the saddle. It is crucial that new riders are taught the basics of safety, and this is best done with an experienced riding instructor and a forgiving lesson horse.
How Horseback Riding Compares To Other Sports
The numbers are admittedly worrisome, but how does horseback riding stack up against other popular sports? Horseback riding is often ranked in the top 10 most dangerous sports, but not always. The National Institutes of Health claim that horseback riding is more dangerous than motorcycling, downhill skiing, football, and rugby. Total Pro Sports ranks horseback riding as #7 in their list of most dangerous sports, behind football, soccer, and baseball. These lists are contradictory, as it is difficult to quantify the risks involved in any sport.
A study in the journal Neurological Focus found that when researching traumatic brain injuries in children, 1,444 incidents resulted from playing contact sports, 806 incidents resulted from skateboarding, and 427 incidents could be attributed to equestrian sports. These numbers can be misleading, however, as it would be more helpful to consider percentages. There are millions of children who play contact sports every year in the United States, and much fewer children in the US participate in equestrian sports. Therefore it can be argued, for example, that there could be a higher likelihood of pediatric traumatic brain injuries when riding horses as opposed to playing soccer.
Stay Safe In The Saddle
For millions of people around the globe, there is no greater joy than that experienced in the saddle. There are countless benefits that you can experience through horseback riding, including improved mental health, increased physical activity, and the confidence required to enter a trust-based relationship with an animal much larger and stronger than you. As with everything we do in life, we must perform our own risk-benefit analysis to determine whether we want to participate in any given activity. For us, as responsible riders, the benefits are well worth the risk. If you feel the same, know that there are steps you can take to limit the risk to you and your family.
Want to help reduce the risk of incident and injury around horses? Visit my article 26 Horse Safety Tips For Beginners.