Horse riding is an enjoyable and rewarding activity for more than 2 million of us, but horses can be unpredictable and even with the best safety precautions there is still a risk of accidental injury, especially for the inexperienced rider.
Types of accident
Falls. The most common horse riding accidents involve falls from a horse. Horses flee from danger and so a nervous or frightened horse may shy, bolt or buck to unseat its rider. Being thrown in an uncontrolled way from a horse may result in broken bones and all too many cases may involve serious injury to the head or spine.
Kicks and bites. A horse’s feet and its teeth are its only means of defence and both can be dangerous weapons. A kick from the shoed hind feet of a horse can cause particularly nasty injuries.
Crush injuries. A horse weighs about half a ton, and if rider and horse both fall there is the danger of the horse falling or rolling onto the rider causing a potentially very serious injury. If horses are not properly controlled in stables or other confined spaces where people are moving about there is the risk of being accidentally crushed by a horse against a wall, gate or fence.
Some horse riding accidents are unavoidable and some result from the rider’s own error. Riders accept that theirs is a dangerous activity, but what they should not accept are the additional dangers caused by the negligence and lack of care of others. Here are a number of examples of situations we have dealt with where carelessness creates an unacceptable risk of injury to horse riders:
Poorly planned and supervised riding lessons. Most riding schools have proper systems and training to make sure that dangerous situations do not arise during riding lessons. Considerable thought and experience needs to go into planning and conducting lessons because most riders under tuition will be inexperienced in dealing with horses. That is after all why they are there! But occasionally things go wrong. Perhaps an experienced instructor is unavailable and a junior steps in; maybe a suitable horse cannot be found, in terms of size or temperament, for a particular rider. There may have been an error in the booking arrangements or a riding area was out of bounds so that the available space is overcrowded. If horses feel uncomfortable and threatened they are more likely to behave unpredictably and are more likely to throw their rider.
Defective or poorly fitted equipment. A problem with the tack can cause an accident, and novices and beginners are not familiar with all the safety equipment. If the girth, saddle, bridle, bit, hat or reins are not properly fastened or checked for them then the rider may be unseated or may suffer more serious injuries in the event of a fall than otherwise.
Road accidents. Riding on the road brings its own particular and obvious hazards, and there are about 3000 road accidents involving horses each year. Riders can minimise the risk by wearing reflective clothing but are powerless to prevent vehicle drivers coming too close when overtaking or driving too fast. For a horse and rider on the highway, being hit by a vehicle is relatively uncommon but being spooked by one is much more likely, and a spooked horse may bolt or shy.
Competition and workplace accidents. Organisers and owners of venues at events and competitions owe a duty, not just to the riders but also to pedestrians and spectators, to minimise the risk of avoidable injury. So for instance a fence or jump may be poorly constructed or maintained so that it is dangerous, or the demarcation between horses and spectators may be inadequate so that pedestrians risk being trampled or crushed by the animals. Those who work with horses are owed a duty of care by their employer. That duty requires the employer to risk assess and address any safety dangers arising from that employment, and in practice that means having proper and documented systems for staff training, for potentially dangerous activities and for equipment maintenance and repair.
Safety equipment: correctly fitted riding hats and body protectors will greatly reduce the risk of serious head and spinal injury.
Road riding: wear HiViz equipment and take the Riding & Road Safety Test
Riding schools: check out their credentials and make sure you learn with a qualified and experienced instructor.
See the British Horse Society website (bhs.org.uk) for further details.
Accident claims and the law
These can be difficult cases and the law is quite complicated. For example there is what is called ‘strict liability’ for breach of the Animals Act 1971, which means in theory that a claim will succeed without the need for proving negligence in cases where the animal scan be categorised as ‘dangerous’. In reality however there are very few horse riding cases where the animal satisfies that condition, and even if it does the opponent has a statutory defence of ‘volenti’ whereby the rider is deemed to have accepted the risk of injury when agreeing to carry out such a dangerous activity. Where the Accident Act does not apply it is necessary to show that the accident was caused by the negligence of another. That will depend on the facts and evidence of the particular case. That other will usually be an instructor, riding school, stud or event organiser, and they will carry insurance to cover this risk.
Recent case studies
Mrs J was a keen but inexperienced horsewoman. In 2011 she enrolled with a reputable local riding school to improve her riding skills and her confidence so that she could go riding with her friends.
Her lesson was in an indoor arena and she was supervised by an experienced instructor, but as she trotted around the perimeter her horse was spooked by the instructor and she was thrown to the ground, landing in a sitting position.
She sustained fractures to the vertebra in the lower back which are likely to cause long term pain and disability.
Liability is denied and the case is on-going, so at this stage we cannot comment in detail about the case, but it illustrates vividly the dangers inherent in horse riding. Mrs P was riding slowly, in a safe environment and under one-to-one supervision, but because her horse took fright it threw her off. Most riders are thrown off at one time or another and usually come to no great harm, but being thrown from a horse is a sudden and uncontrolled event and because of the height, speed and force involved it is often impossible to break the fall or land in a safe manner. The rider can easily land on their bottom, and that can cause compression fractures to the vertebrae in the lower spine, and this is what happened with Mrs P.
Miss R, a recently qualified solicitor, took up horse riding and after a few lessons enrolled for a training day with a riding school in Greater London in 2012. The weather was poor and so the outdoor riding areas were out of bounds; all the lessons were held together in the indoor arena.
This meant that there were more riders, horses and instructors than was safe in such a confined space. The problem was compounded by the fact that the riders were all of different levels of ability, from absolute beginner to competent rider, and on top of this there was nobody in charge overseeing the whole operation. This led to the horses all travelling in different directions around the arena. The inevitable consequence was that horses and riders were getting in each other’s way, and the less experienced riders became nervous and defensive.
An experienced rider carried out a change of rein and cut in to the path of Miss R’s horse, which shied and threw her off.
The claim against the riding school was that this was an avoidable accident: they knew or ought to have known that this was something that horse might have done in those particular circumstances that they had created. In a crowded and uncontrolled situation a horse with a novice rider was likely to throw that rider off. This was not a case of a horse throwing a rider because that is something inherent in their behaviour and something that a rider must accept as a risk of the activity. Neither was it a simple case of an instructor making a mistake. It was instead a system failure, and those in control at the riding school were negligent in failing to ensure that there was a proper contingency plan for bad weather, so that the lessons could still go ahead in a safe and controlled way.
Liability was duly admitted by the riding school’s insurers and so there will be no need for legal proceedings.
In the fall Miss R landed on her lower back and sustained compression fractures to two of the lumbar vertebrae. She did not need surgery but despite physiotherapy she continues to suffer low back pain and may well have long term symptoms, including the risk of degenerative change, and we are in the process of obtaining medical evidence so as to understand the long term prognosis and to quantify the claim, with a view to negotiating a settlement with the insurers.
How we can help
Our team of specialists are headed by Partner Stuart Kightley, who is experienced in acting for people injured in serious horse riding cases. Please contact Stuart or any of the team for free initial advice about whether and how you can bring a claim for compensation for the injuries and other losses you suffered in an equestrian accident.