Good Horse Sense

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?

No Horseplay

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.

Eliminate Hazards

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.

Work cited:

1 Mendell, C. “CDC Study: More Than 100,000 Horse-Related Injuries per Year.” Retrieved April 6, 2008, from (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

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