Is Horseback Riding a Dangerous Sport?

Saturday, April 10, 2010
Posted by Lynndee Kemmet

In a June 2002 article on spinal cord injuries in horseback riding published in Nature News, the first sentence under the concluding section is "Horse riding is a dangerous sport." Indeed, a multitude of statistics exist showing that yes, riding can be dangerous. In scanning through statistical reports, one report even listed it as 20 times more dangerous than riding a motorcycle. Another called it one of the three most dangerous sports around. In raw numbers of incidents, sports like football and basketball have far more injured participants, but then many more people play football and basketball than ride.

When one looks at the statistics for head injuries, riding is quite high up there. Since Courtney King-Dye had her tragic accident, there has been much discussion about helmets and a lot of individuals and businesses have launched their own "wear-a-helmet" campaign, some of which seem borne out of sincere concern and others as business promotion. I suspect I'm likely to say something in this column that will annoy a few, but I'll take the hit and clearly, this perspective here is my own.

I never wore a helmet as a kid. The only people I knew who did were those who rode in jumping classes. My first horse was an unbroken nearly three-year-old half Arabian. And he made darn sure that before I even hit my teens, I had my first broken bone and become part of the horse riding injury list. I didn't start wearing a helmet until I exercised racehorses in college and that's because the trainer made me. And then in my 20s, I worked with an eventing coach who made me wear one, but only when we were jumping. I probably only started wearing a helmet every time I rode about 10 years ago and then because my mom pushed it.

I wrote my first article about a person with a brain injury from a riding accident years ago as a reporter for Gannett newspapers in California. She was a young rider who was recovering from her injury. She wasn't back riding yet and her speech was a bit slurred, but at least she was on the road to recovery. She was wearing a helmet when she had her accident. When I interviewed her doctor about her injury, he explained that when the head comes to a dead stop, such as by hitting the ground, the brain can slam against the skull causing serious injury, with or without a helmet. He did add, however, that without the helmet, this young girl's injury would have been more severe. I didn't pay much attention to the last part and so perhaps because my first experience with someone who had a brain injury from a riding accident was someone who had been wearing a helmet, I didn't put much stock into helmets as a way to preventing brain injury.

I've gotten smarter since then and realize that helmets might not be the whole answer, but they sure can help limit the damage. The truth is that there is only one way to prevent riding injuries. Don't ride. And here is where I know I'm going to get emails from some of you. My concern about this recent focus on helmets is that it might give some a false sense of security. I've no doubt that somewhere out there are at least a few people who think what happened to Courtney won't happen to them because they'll wear a helmet. Not true. I give Courtney more credit than that. I think she's smart enough to know that every time she gets on a horse, she's at risk. But, she's had the courage to do it anyway.

I know a very, good trainer who once said to me, "When the day comes that I'm afraid to get on a horse, that's the day I quit." Her point being that when you are afraid, you can no longer be an effective rider. A lot of good trainers will tell you that if a rider is afraid of a particular horse, the horse can sense it and its own confidence can go down the tubes. To me, there is no shame when people admit there are some horses they can't ride because it scares them. Sometimes getting older makes you more cautious, sometimes past injuries make you more cautious and some people come to feel they are simply no longer physically fit enough to be riding. Riders should feel no shame in having the courage to decide that some horses are no longer for them.

The point is, getting on the back of horse is a serious risk. Helmets, riding vests, all these things can limit it, but they cannot prevent it. Not even that new airbag vest that is supposed to inflate before you hit the ground. And my concern is that believing that all these things will keep them safe, will cause some people to get on horses they ought not to be on. I don't look at Courtney's accident and think, "I'll be safe because I'll wear a helmet." I look at it and think, "If someone that good can have an accident that severe, then I really need to think about the risks of this sport."

Riders, especially professionals, are notorious for not having medical insurance because most are self-employed and costs can be high. Fortunately for many of the injured, organizations like the Equestrian Aid Foundation, as well as individual fellow equestrians and numerous riding associations, have been good at providing support. But, without sounding like a commercial for insurance companies, I'll say that being uninsured is a decision that riders should really reevaluate. Anyone who knows about good, affordable insurance for riders, do let me know as I'll pass it along.

But to return to the theme at the start of this long commentary, riding is a risky sport. And no amount of safety gear will guarantee that a rider will never be injured. I'm not arguing that people shouldn't ride and I'm certainly not arguing that people shouldn't wear safety gear. I do and statistics clearly show that safety gear – especially helmets – play a huge role in limiting riding injuries. But the statistics also show that if you ride, you have a good chance of getting hurt. And those who ride must accept that risk. It's not the fault of the horse if you get hurt. It's not the fault of the owner of the horse if you get hurt. It's not your trainer's fault if you get hurt. Those of us who chose to get in the saddle must accept that risk And for the young riders who still think they are immortal – if your life plan is to become a professional rider, don't ignore that portion of your career plan that considers the impacts of a serious injury because it can happen to you no matter how good you are.

You can contact Lynndee Kemmet at lynndee@harlynnfarms.com