If your camp has liability insurance and your state has equine activity statutes, you may feel protected from lawsuits as they pertain to horseback riding at camps. However, while posted statutes and signed liability releases may deter lawsuits, you can still be sued for negligence. If you are sued, your program and its practices will probably be examined by expert witnesses familiar with horse industry standards. So what can you do to reduce your risk? If your camp is accredited by an agency such as the American Camp Association, there are specific standards. As a general rule, the following are major items to consider:
Sizing Up Staff
While it is important for campers to have fun, safety should always be the number-one priority. Anyone in charge of the horses or riding instruction should have ample experience and be fully capable of successfully dealing with any equine situation independently. Often the standards and/or insurance policy will dictate the minimum age of these workers. There are instructor training programs–such as those offered by the Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Association for Horsemanship Safety–that can increase the confidence and abilities of your instructors (as well as the marketing potential of your programs).
The exact staffing ratios will depend on the activity, but there should always be at least two instructors for each group of campers, whether mounted or not. One can keep an eye on the group as the other instructs. Horses are ”attractive nuisances,” and campers can easily find themselves in potentially dangerous situations if they wander away from the group. On a trail ride, there should be one instructor at the head of the ride, one at the tail and at least one at the side, so that the instructor at the head never has to get out of line (leaving an inexperienced camper in front). Someone is always available to assist campers and open/close gates, and an instructor is the last to ensure that no one is left behind.
Addressing Temperamental Issues
The horses themselves should be assessed by the riding staff in order to become familiar with the skill level necessary to control each horse. It is imperative that horses and riders be matched by skill level. The horses must be monitored throughout the season to ensure that they stay sound, are not developing dangerous bad habits (such as kicking or becoming barn sour), and are not getting overused. Horses at any time deemed unfit or unsafe for the program should not be used, even for instructors. Instructors need to ride horses that permit them to focus on their campers, not horses with a problem. Horses in camp programs should be well broke for the same reason. There is no time to deal with a green (untrained) horse when the focus should be on the campers.
A Different Tack
It is important to maintain equipment. Neglected tack will weaken, crack, and eventually break. For this reason, tack must be kept clean, oiled and in good repair. It should be checked before every ride to ensure the safety of the rider. Equipment used for each activity should fit both the horse and the rider properly. At no time should equipment be ”rigged” to fit; feet should never be placed in stirrup leathers instead of stirrups, etc. Safety stirrups and tapadero (hooded) stirrups should be utilized if at all possible, to reduce the possibility of draggings.
All Helmets Are Not Created Equal
The most important piece of safety equipment is the riding helmet. In addition to wearing long pants to prevent chafing, and heeled boots to prevent feet slipping through stirrups, all riders, regardless of riding style, should wear a riding helmet that meets ASTM/SEI requirements (old-style hunt caps offer little protection). A recent CDC study reported over 100,000 horse-related injuries per year in the United States alone, with over 11,500 of those recorded as traumatic brain injuries.1 Helmets are designed to allow the brain and the skull to slow down at the same rate, so a concussion does not occur. Without a helmet, the skull hits the ground and stops, and then the brain smashes into it, leading to a concussion (or worse).
Start At The “Beginner”
Until riders have been assessed for their riding ability, assume they are all beginners. Some may say they have their own horse or have ridden many times before, but whether that is true or not is useless information. Without seeing a camper ride, an instructor has no way of knowing a rider’s true skill. Our job is to provide a safe experience with horses, first and foremost. Give every rider a safety orientation before the first ride–how to approach a horse, lead a horse, mount and dismount safely, etc. Have the camper ride in an enclosed arena the first time on horseback so that riding skills can be properly assessed. Until the rider feels confident and can demonstrate good control over the horse, he or she should not be allowed out of an enclosed space. Even old and calm trail horses stop to graze once in awhile, or get too close to another horse having a bad day–why take a chance?
Under no circumstances should two people be on the same horse. Only one person can control a horse at one time, and a saddle is only made for one person. Riding double-bareback is also risky. If a rider gets too far back or too far forward and irritates the horse, it is more likely to buck or rear; in an emergency situation (spook, bolt), one rider is almost guaranteed to fall off, and the second rider may pull the first off.
Public areas of horse facilities should be clear of debris, obstacles, sharp objects, horse medications, etc., anything that may cause harm to a horse or human. Riding arenas should have smooth, secure fences and no places a rider may catch a knee or boot. Rounded corners are best so that horses cannot get ”stuck” in them with beginners. Trails should be free of low-hanging branches, trash that may spook horses, loose footing or fallen logs that can cause a horse to slip or stumble, etc. Hitching posts should be at the correct height and stout enough so they won’t break if a horse rears back and pulls.
Take The Reins
If a situation arises that makes an instructor uncomfortable, he or she should follow a gut instinct. Like the old adage states, “It is better to be safe than sorry.” I once had 12 horses tacked up for one-visit campers, only to have 12 4 year olds (under our age limit by several years) arrive from a private summer-school camp. Even though I had excellent trail horses, the average 4 year old does not belong on a group trail ride, much less a group of 4 year olds! I quickly tacked up a pony and gave each camper a ride in a round pen while keeping the others entertained with stories and facts about horses. Everyone was happy, everyone was safe, and I breathed much easier walking a pony than I would have leading a string of pre-kindergarteners!
One last word of advice: no matter how minor an “incident” that may occur, document it. You never know how campers will report events to their parents, and how the events will be interpreted. I once had a horse trot about 15 or 20 steps from the arena to the barn when we were first setting out on a trail ride. It wasn’t a big deal to the camper, and I got the horse back in line for a successful ride. The next day my boss asked me about the “runaway” situation I had failed to report to him.
1 Mendell, C. “CDC Study: More Than 100,000 Horse-Related Injuries per Year.” Retrieved April 6, 2008, from http://www.thehorse.com//ViewArticle.aspx?ID=7046&eID=61638 (2006).
Shelley Mitchell is a Ph.D. student in Leisure Studies at OklahomaStateUniversity. She has worked with horses for over 20 years, leading numerous summer camps, scout badge workshops and pony parties. She currently teaches high school science and trains horses while attending school part-time, and can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com