The BHS Code of Conduct, and the Risks We Take

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.

The BHS Code of Conduct, from Horsetalk.co.nz

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.

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7 responses to “The BHS Code of Conduct, and the Risks We Take

  1. thatkyragirl

    I love this, I am going to start using this at our barn. makes more sense and easier for the riders to assume their own responsiblility. Thank you!

  2. Natalie,
    The British Code of Conduct is an excellent idea, one that I would love to see put into practice in the U.S.

    I don’t know if it would necessarily stave off the threat of lawsuits, but maybe it would help riders and families of riders accept and understand.

    I miss the “old days” though. I had a friend in the small town I grew up in, and one day she road her horse Mack over to our house. I asked if I could take him for a spin, and we cantered up the road, out of the neighborhood, and down a fairly busy street. I love thinking about it now. That would never happen today, and maybe it shouldn’t.

    Anyway, great post. Thanks!

  3. When I was in high school my friends and I constantly swapped horses…I’d go over and ride theirs, they’d come over and ride mine and no one ever worried about a lawsuit.

    Today, even though I HATE doing it, if one of my friends comes over to ride with me on one of my horses, I have them sign a release…just in case. I have even required parents (who are friends) whose kids want to ride my daughter’s horse sign a release for them…just in case.

    It’s ridiculous that we have to be so careful because people are so sue happy.

  4. Totally agreed. I cannot imagine trying to teach today. I had one broken bone on one student, over 20mumble years.

    I wonder…

    anywho, great post.

    I do believe all this idiocy started with the coffee-HOT lawsuit at mcDonald’s.
    That’s when the world went crazy.

    I will SUE you, when I’m stupid!

  5. Just FYI, releases are pretty much useless once someone decides to sue. (And I wouldn’t use this verbatim until I ran it by a US lawyer as the UK laws are different in general.)

    I did feel like, this weekend, saying before I hopped on Takota “I’m doing this at my own risk!”

    (And yet again, in fairness to the plaintiff in the McDonald’s case, the coffee was so hot it caused third-degree burns requireing grafts and by no rational standard could have been construed as safe to drink. They’ve since had to reduce their temperature they serve at, and other places like Starbucks will sometimes refuse to heat coffee higher than service temp even when asked because of fear of burned customers.)

  6. I love this idea. Actually, what I would like is a release that simply says, “I accept that getting on this wild beastie could lead to serious injury or death.” But I’m weird, as you know.

    Steve and I just signed new releases that even included the risk of being stepped on. (We won’t even discuss being squashed against pipe panels right now.)

    It’s really sad because places like Slide–the people who inspired us to get into horses–have opted out of letting people ride their horses because the liability is too great. Where will people learn to ride if that keeps happening??

    When I broke my arm, I had to confirm it was my horse that caused the injury. And while I get it–high cost of medical care, etc.–it still aggravates me. Even if she wasn’t my horse, I chose to get on and ride that day.

    Somehow, we need to fix this as it is just one more burden horse businesses bear to the detriment of the sport/hobby/whatever.

    • I suppose – actually, I hope – that other businesses are complaining just as much as we are about the costs of insurance and the personal injury lawsuits that are taking our sports apart. People who do anything potentially dangerous, from gymnastics to dirt bikes, ought to be under the same stress. Are they? I don’t know, I don’t follow any other sports but riding, and even riding I follow from a distance.

      It’s an overall affliction of our culture, to blame someone else, instinctively – and then to seek out “our piece of the pie,” since everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t we?

      Maybe legally it doesn’t set you any farther ahead to have the Code of Conduct hanging in your barn, or signed off on, but maybe having something that says straight out “You could die today, and that’s your decision, just as I could die and that’s my decision, the risk that I take,” could do a lot over time to alter the culture in the lesson barns and livery stables, to let the soccer moms know that their daughter isn’t just taking on another hobby, and everyone has to be careful.

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