We’ve all seen the signs. When you walk into any barn, there is a bulletin posted at eye level in glaring, bold letters:
“WARNING: Under *insert state here* law, an equine sponsor or professional is not be liable for any injury to, or the death of a participant in equine activities resulting from the inherent risk of equine activities”.
There are other variations of course, but they all culminate to a similar message: by walking into this barn, you are accepting the fact that horses are dangerous. You are accepting the fact that riding is dangerous. You are accepting the fact that even just being around horses can be dangerous.
Not the most friendly ‘welcome’ sign, now is it? And yet, we all still do it. Kids still gleefully run into the barn for their lessons, non-horsey family members come to watch lessons or meet their child/grandchild/niece/nephew/sibling/parent’s horse and probably never even think twice about this sign. Maybe they haven’t actually even read it closely. How much as equestrians do we even pay attention to this sign?
We take so many precautions. We teach proper horse handling skills, horse safety, trailer safety, barn safety…certainly how to be safe on the back of a horse as well.
Don’t stand behind the horse. Don’t walk in front of the horse when leading him, always stand to the side. Don’t run or scream around the horses. Don’t sit on the ground next to the horse. If you have to cross behind your horse, put a hand on his rump so he knows where you are. Always approach a horse in a manner that he can see you. Don’t cross under the horse’s neck when he is in cross ties. Always use safety release knots when you have to tie your horse up. Use break-away cross tie snaps. Don’t ride alone. Always wear a helmet.
We’ve heard these things (and probably a couple hundred others) about a million times.
But in this sport, even the most amount of precaution does not guarantee safety. A horse gets cast in his stall or paddock and panics, hurting the person trying to get him right side up. A horse is fresh because of the weather changing and bucks his rider off. A horse spooks, knocking into the person leading him. A horse catches a leg over a fence, and falls on his rider.
When we walk into a barn, we automatically accept these worst-case scenarios, and often without a second thought.
Sure, most of the time, the safety precautions we’ve put in and adhere to are enough to keep us coming back to the barn day-in and day-out without a hitch. That worst-case scenario never even crosses our mind.
Until it does.
We are not reminded how dangerous our sport can be until something goes catastrophically wrong.
If you are on social media and are involved in the equestrian world, you have most likely at this point seen the rising wave of #rideforolivia posts, a tribute to 17-year-old eventer Olivia Inglis, who was killed after her horse caught a leg over a fence during cross country, resulting in a rotational fall. The horse she was competing on was also euthanized after discovering he had sustained a neck fracture.
On a more personal level, just yesterday, my roommate was clipping the legs of her horse, when he spooked, kicking her in the thigh and throwing her to the side. He’s 150% bomb-proof (or as close as that can be), so what he even spooked at, I couldn’t tell you. The way she got kicked and landed, she has fractured her ankle in 2 places and is looking at surgery. Luckily, one of our coaches and our barn manager were present and were able to get her tall boots off and her ankle icing immediately, but it was a total freak accident.
How do we handle these situations? These instances where it is truly unclear if anything could have been done to prevent it? When “just an accident” can result in severe injury or worse, why is it that we continue to saddle up and ride? Or even be around horses?
I believe that as equestrians, as horse people, we acknowledge this inherent risk with a high degree of respect. We are aware of how bad things can get when things go wrong. Or even just when accidents occur. We have all seen the repercussions of situations like these; maybe we have been the one in such a situation. And somehow, the love we have for this sport and these animals trumps it all. We mend the bones, we ice the bruises and get back in the barn if and when we can, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
So next time you walk into the barn, next time you put your foot in the stirrup, take a minute to thank whatever deity you believe in for your ability to be around horses. Take a minute to appreciate the ability you have to ride. Do everything within your power to make your sport as safe as possible.
Don’t take your sport or your horse or your life for granted. Ride for those who can’t.