reducing rider fatalities

Sarah Waugh died falling from a horse. Not in an open field by herself. Not on a slippery, high-traffic road. Not trying anything crazy, daring, or risky. The 18-year-old pre-veterinary student sustained fatal head and neck injuries riding a lesson horse during an organized beginner’s level class.

The horse, Dargo, was a 4-year-old Thoroughbred that had raced six weeks before the accident, placing seventh in a field of 10.

With better risk evaluation in the industry and a heightened understanding of equine behavior and learning, tragedies like Waugh’s death could be prevented, said a risk management engineer specializing in industrial safety.

“There was no risk assessment of the horse at the time of purchase” by the lesson program, said Meredith Chapman, a PhD candidate at the CQUni Rockhampton campus in Queensland. “And Sarah had had fewer than 50 hours of lessons. She was so inexperienced. We need to get into people’s heads and see why some people perceive some things as riskier than others.”

She presented her work at the 2017 International Society for Equitation Science Conference, held Nov. 22-26 in Wagga Wagga, Australia.

Many industries benefit from regular, in-depth safety and risk assessments, but the horse industry lacks such quality investigation, Chapman said.
“The (Australian) Workplace Health and Safety (WHS) framework has provided effective risk management and accident prevention techniques in ‘high-risk’ workplaces, like mining, construction, and road transport,” she said. “However, the WHS framework has not been systematically applied to horse-related work and nonwork contexts.”

So, Chapman instigated a retrospective look into Waugh’s accident in an attempt to reveal the contributing factors. While those factors might be specific to that case, they might reveal details about overall risks and safety oversights in the industry, she said.

Chapman applied quantitative data analysis to each possible accident-cause factor that her investigation revealed as being a “failed WHS Critical Safety Standard,” she said. In her investigation she identified numerous uncontrolled or unrecognized events leading up to Waugh’s accident, latent conditions, human error, and poor decision-making with regard to risk management and organization.

Five elements seemed to be key contributors to the accident, Chapman said:

  • Lack of adequate supervision;
  • No individual training programs;
  • Poor communication;
  • Inadequate risk assessment; and
  • Numerous organizational failures, including inconsistent WHS practices.

“There was no accredited training program in the facility,” Chapman said. “There was no first-aid certificate. There was poor understanding of how a young horse learns to work as a lesson horse after a career on the track. There was no understanding of the horse’s ability to stop. And these are just a few of the many issues we uncovered that work like holes in Swiss cheese to weaken the whole system and lead to failure. We need more effective risk controls than just putting a helmet on.”

Chapman hypothesized that if just one of the contributing factors had been removed, Waugh’s accident could have been avoided and she might be alive today. Recognizing these errors could help prevent similar tragedies in the future.

“Horse-related fatalities in work and nonwork contexts can be reduced through industry collaboration, regulation, and the united presence of cohesive safety standards,” she said.