Safety Concerns: Rearing Causes Death Of Rider

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Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: Dear Julie

My cousin, who hadn’t been around horses much, bought a used 20yr. old Tennessee Walker, supposedly a calm, old gelding. My other cousin, who’s been around horses and was in 4H said he’d been starting to lift his front feet. Supposedly she and a friend were coming up a slight hill when he reared and she fell off and broke her neck, instantly killing her. Horses are big animals and not warm and fuzzy friendly, I love you like a dog pets. I believe there was a combination of factors: inexperience, lack of paying attention, and the wrong breed. I’ve seen footage of Tennessees moving and they do lift their front legs very high…Yeesh. I’d’ve never bought one.

My husband says he would’ve stayed on, but would never have let me ride him. How do you stay on a rearing horse, like Roy Rogers and Trigger? Can you train a horse not to rear?

The people who sold him to her said he was, of course well mannered. How can you tell? The first 2 horses she had were Arabians and she had to give them to my other cousin. They were high strung.

I realize there’s risk in just driving, but at least I’ve taken lessons. I saw your clinic in 2003 at the Equine affaire in Columbus, Ohio, and told you you’d shown me more in 1/2 an hour than I’d learned in 4 years. You had.

But I still feel she was taken by the used horse dealer, if you know what I mean. How do you keep from being taken, how do you stay on or prevent a rearing? And is it true that some breeds really are patient and pretty unspookable? All the breeders say theirs is the best and most ‘versatile’.
Sorry for the long letter. Thanks for your precious time. I wish I could afford to take lessons from you.

God Bless,
Julia Grauel, Cleveland Ohio

Answer: Julia,

What a tragic story and I am sorry for the loss your family has suffered. Rearing is indeed one of the most dangerous behaviors of horses. When left on their own, horses will rarely turn over on themselves, but when a human interferes, it is very easy for the horse to lose his balance and fall over, and that is what makes rearing so dangerous.

When a horse rears, you should instantly reach forward with both arms and grab around his neck like you are hugging him. This will keep your weight forward, keep you balanced on the horse and prevent you from pulling back on the reins and causing him to lose his balance. Some horses seem to have more tendencies to rear than others but it is an individual tendency not a breed characteristic. It has a lot to do with how they have been trained, their temperament and their general inclination (just like some horses tend to buck more than others, some tend to kick more than others, etc.).

There are several Q&As on my website about rearing. Basically it is caused by a refusal to move forward or when forward movement is inhibited. Fear, pain, obstinance or poor riding can instigate rearing. Who knows what caused your cousin’s horse to rear; we’ll never know the answer to that. But she probably did not have the riding skill necessary to be riding this horse. Horses can certainly be trained not to rear, just as easily as they can be trained to rear. The solution to rearing is always to move the horse forward; it is ineffective and cruel to hit the horse in the head for rearing, which a lot of old-timers will tell you to do.

I don’t think anyone should blame this tragic incident on a breed. Within any breed, you can find individuals that are prone to rear. While it is certainly true that some breeds are calmer, more docile and cold-blooded (insensitive) than others, you’ll always find horses with both good and bad qualities within each breed. Tennessee Walkers do tend to be on the hot-blooded side but there are many TWs used for trail riding with a great deal of success.

The only way to truly evaluate a horse’s training and temperament before purchasing is to be around him and ride him in several different settings. I always encourage people to look at a horse at least three times before purchasing and at least one of those visits should be unannounced, so that you can see the horse in it’s normal state. You should work with the horse on the ground, groom him, handle his feet, trailer load, etc. You should ride him in the arena and on the trail and in any situation that you might be subjecting him to, such as working cattle. Ideally, you should buy a horse on a two-week trial period, but the seller is not always willing to do that. Another idea would be to have an experienced trainer look at the horse and give you his/her impressions. Usually you can pay their normal lesson fee and get them to go check out the horse and ride him. A person that has had experience with hundreds of horses can generally get a pretty good feel for a horse in one session.

Seeing a horrible accident like this and losing a loved one can certainly lead to emotional trauma. It would be perfectly normal for someone who has witnessed such a thing to develop a fear of horses and riding. There is an article on my website called “Coping with a Fear of Horses,” that may be helpful for you or anyone else that has been traumatized by this incident.

Again, I am so sorry for your loss. Riding is certainly a risky sport but I fully believe that having a safe horse, good riding skills and taking all safety precautions, such as wearing a helmet, will help prevent terrible incidents such as this.

Kindest regards,
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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Safety Concerns: Accident Frequency At Lesson Barns

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Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: I work for a large lesson/boarding facility – we have about 50 school horses, 50 boarder horses, and a couple hundred students come through each week. I am concerned because we have had a string of pretty nasty falls recently and I am wondering if this is normal for such a large facility or if there is something unsafe happening. Is there an average number of falls that is acceptable for a facility? Is it pure chance whether a fall is minor or requires an ambulance?

Answer: Through my work with CHA, I have worked with numerous large program operators (50-100+ school horses; 200-300 students per week) that have virtually zero incident rates. I am not a believer in the statement that falling off and having injuries is just a part of the sport. I believe if you have that attitude then you will have wrecks and injuries.

I am not aware of any statistics that say how many falls or injuries are normal, but I think we should all have a zero tolerance policy. Without question, riding is a risky sport and there is nothing we can do to totally eliminate the inherent risk involved with horses. However, risks can be mitigated and with a serious focus on safety, there will be fewer injuries. Certainly some riding activities are riskier than others, such as jumping, and you would expect a higher fall rate with the riskier activities.

Whether or not there is an injury associated with a fall depends on many factors, however, many people advocate teaching people how to fall by relaxing and rolling into the fall rather than bracing against it. There are many good models for this in martial arts and it may not be a bad idea to address this with your students.

Every time there is an incident, whether someone is hurt or not, there should be an incident report made and careful scrutiny by managers as to how the incident might have been prevented. There are few, if any, freak accidents and almost every incident is preventable in some way. When incidents are reported and reviewed, they become excellent training tools for improving the safety record at the facility.

I have spoken with many instructors that share your frustration in seeing the opportunity to improve the safety record at a facility, but feeling powerless to take action. The best you can do is work within the system and be persistent in making suggestions on how to improve. If you have exhausted this approach and made no progress and you still feel that the safety at the facility is unacceptable, then you may have to consider resigning. If that is the case, you should write down all of your concerns and send them in a certified letter to the owner/manager and/or board of directors. Also send a registered copy to yourself, but do not open it, just save it for your files, in the event that any future litigation arises.

The most important thing is for you to keep your high standards in safety, maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward incidents and injuries and when incidents do occur, always examine them closely and find a way to prevent it from happening again.

Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.