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Overall, is horseback riding safe? I could not resist the urge today to look up horseback riding accidents so that I could see what "could" happen and I guess it sort of scared me. I rode a horse for the first time on Saturday and since then, that is all I can think about. I want to take lessons badly but at the same time want to avoid scenarios that could result in an accident. I am looking for a hobby, something just for me that I will enjoy. I am 29 and wish that I had ridden a horse 10 years ago. I think I would have been riding all these years. After reading some of the articles about the accidents, I guess it put a bit of fear in me. I read that horseback riding is more dangerous than motorcycles and I am deathly afraid of motorcycles, but felt great horseback riding. Although, I have to admit, there was a bit of fear in me the first time, not knowing what to expect or what the horse may do. I'm wondering if I should just take the plunge and see how it goes or if, because I fear it, I shouldn't do it. In your years of teaching, is it common in the arena to see major accidents when not competing?

Thanks and God Bless!
H. P.


Is horseback riding safe? Absolutely NOT! To be precise, the insurance company statistics say you are 4-1/2 times more likely to suffer a serious injury while riding a horse than while riding a motorcycle. (I often point out that fact to my motorcycle-riding friends. Then I'll remark, "That just proves motorcycles are for wimps; REAL men ride horses!" -- You should see the reaction THAT gets!)

In fact, I can guarantee you that, if you ride or are around horses long enough, you WILL get hurt -- if not from a fall then perhaps from being stepped on, kicked, nipped, having a pulled muscle, or any of the dozens of mishaps that can happen around half-ton critters. Even when your own horse is behaving like it should, you have to watch out for others. I've had other horses come after the one I was riding and have narrowly avoided a broken leg when the other horse took a kick at mine. It pays to be alert to what other horses are doing as well as your own.

Should that scare you away from horseback riding? I certainly hope not. The occasional pain is a small price to pay for the great pleasure and other benefits you'll gain, and there are ways to reduce the risks to the point where you're about as likely to get hurt from a horse as you are while simply walking around in your home.

Here are some basics:
1. Be alert at all times. Most accidents happen when the human isn't devoting full attention to what's going on around him or her. Never let your brain slip into neutral.

2. Know how to avoid accidents. If you haven't done so already, take a look at the helpful tips on these Q&A pages (and elsewhere on my site):

Q&A 24 -- Overcoming fear in the older rider

Q&A 81 -- I was severely injured and can't shake the fear

Q&A 63 -- I love my horses... but I have seizures!

Q&A 111 -- On-line riding lessons for a fearful young rider

3. Even if you ride well, you may fall some day, so know how to land and roll away from your horse. A while back, I saw a young girl enter her -- and her horse's -- first barrel race. Things went well around the first two barrels, but as they approached the final barrel something spooked the horse and it started bucking. The girl flew off in a split second and landed face-down in the sand. The horse did what most horses do after a rider falls: it stood rock-steady next to her. If it had kept jumping, that kid might have been killed, because she didn't roll away. Believe it or not, you can learn to fall correctly (a good gymnastics coach can give you some pointers) and movie stunt riders actually do it for a living! My biggest worry once that girl stood up was that she would just walk her horse out of the arena. She did the right thing, however: she saddled up again and rode him out of the arena -- to the sound of a huge round of applause!

[A side note: some folks have pointed out a seeming inconsistancy between this Q & A and my comments in Q & A #24 where I talk about how to avoid falling. In some extreme bucking situations, even the best riders may take a fall -- look at how few rodeo riders make it to the buzzer. A fearful or inexperienced rider has no business even mounting that sort of horse. Also, not all falls come from being bucked off. I once had a new horse start pitching around so much that he fell to his knees... and rolled me off into the brush!]

4. Use the right gear. Never trust that the tack is okay -- always inspect each piece before, during and after a ride. Leather wears out or cracks; Chicago screws come loose; cinches get slack. And don't ignore your own gear. Always wear long sleeves and long pants; get good riding boots; always wear gloves. If you're riding English, wear a good helmet.

Is horseback riding dangerous? Sure. So is getting up in the morning. You could twist your ankle getting out of bed; slip in the shower; cut yourself while slicing a bagel; or get in an accident on your way to work. So to be safe you should stay covered up in bed -- which still won't protect you from tornados, lightning strikes, or a meteorite coming through your roof. Truth to tell, very few of us are going to get out of this life alive, so don't fret about what MIGHT happen -- take care of what IS happening... and enjoy the ride!

Here's a case in point:
I was leading a huge, 2,000 pound draft horse when he suddenly spooked at an unexpected noise. In a half-second or less, he moved a couple of his feet a few inches and planted one of them partially on my left foot. I told him to get off my foot, and he quickly obeyed, but the damage was already done. He didn't break any bones, but he left me with a swollen little toe and a bruise that stayed for two or three weeks.

Now, consider this... because the dinner plate size of his feet spread his weight over a large area, that giant equine probably exerted 35 pounds of pressure per square inch -- or less -- on my foot. On the other hand, a petite 100 pound woman wearing high heels could easily put 500 pounds or more per square inch on my foot if she stepped on me with one of her heels. That's enough to break one of my toes -- and certainly something to fear! Does that mean we should all live our lives avoiding ladies in high heels? I don't think so!

Enjoy your lessons -- and feel free to drop me a note about how you handle (or better yet, avoid) your first accident.

God bless -- and protect -- you!

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