What’s more dangerous, riding a horse, or mounting someone else on one of your horses? That depends. What frightens you more, hitting the ground or opening your mail? As horsemen, we all know we can get hurt. We just wish novice riders understood that as well.
As it grows more and more expensive to insure equine activities, due to the constant overhanging threat of lawsuits, riding schools are slowly disappearing and public and private land is being closed to horsemen. Ten years ago, I rode to a friend’s house and her parents asked me to lean over and sign a release. A few years later, I worked at a stable that required everyone who stepped outside of the tack shop to sign a release.
We’ve all signed those release forms, and seen the signs by the farm gates, with that single umbrella statement that is supposed to protect us all from lawsuit: something like “an equine activity sponsor, an equine professional, or another person is not liable for an injury to or the death of a participant or property damage resulting from an inherent risk of an equine activity.” It varies a little from state to state, but that’s the gist of it. I’ve almost memorized it, but I couldn’t tell you what it says without looking closely at it. It’s legalese, it’s gibberish, it’s a lot of very long words strung together to say something very important to someone else.
The British Horse Society has introduced an interesting new document called “The Horse Rider’s Code of Conduct,” in hopes of stemming some of the constant lawsuits threatening horsemen and stable owners. Evidently the U.K. is just as litigious as the United States, and, just as they are in America, insurance rates are increasing alarmingly.
In contrast to the legal language of most American releases, the BHS form is a bullet-point list in the first person. “I…” precedes each statement. “I may fall off and be injured. I accept that risk.”
There are a lot of other bullet points that the reader must sign off on, including that wearing a hard hat reduces the risk of injury and that they are being honest about any previous riding experience they might have, but that statement, “I may fall off and be injured. I accept that risk.” really seems like the most important one to me.
How else, honestly, can you put anyone on a horse, unless you have that person straight off say, “I know I can get hurt, and that is my choice”? Horses are dangerous. We’ve had the helmet debate. We know that quiet horses can do bad things.
I once turned down a client who wanted to ride a horse without a helmet on our stables’ trails. He argued strenuously with me, saying that he’d sign anything I wanted saying that my stable was not liable in the event that he was injured. I wouldn’t allow it, and he eventually hung up on me.
I still would never allow it – it’s dangerous to mount someone on your property, you can be sued, and that’s the end of it. But I’d feel a little more comfortable if I had clients signing off on the Rider’s Code of Conduct. And maybe hanging it up all over the barn, as well. “I may fall off and be injured. I accept that risk.” As horsemen, most of us say that to ourselves everyday. It’s a philosophy that should be taught to every aspiring rider on day one.