Working with horses is risky and sometimes dangerous; we all know this. But so is mountain climbing. So is motorcycle racing. So are contact sports such as karate and boxing. And so are certain nonsport professions, such as construction, transportation, and mining.
In contrast to these fields, though, horse-related activities receive less attention to risk management, said Meredith Chapman, who’s a risk management engineer specializing in industrial safety. She’s currently a PhD student at the CQUniversity Rockhampton campus in Queensland, Australia, and presented on risk management in the horse industry at the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.
Addressing Risk Head-On
People working with horses seem to simply accept that, traditionally speaking, equestrianism is high-risk, she said—a mindset that continues to reinforce the industry’s high accident rate.
“Horse people often just assume that horses can be dangerous and that that danger is an inherent part of being around horses, which is in and of itself dangerous,” she said. “If the horse industry followed risk assessment and management principles the way other high-risk industries do, we would likely see a considerable drop in accident and fatality rate.”
An average of 20 people die in Australia every year, and one person per day is admitted to the hospital, due to horse-related accidents, Chapman said. Fatality and injury rates are similar in other developed countries across the globe, with no real improvement in the statistics over the years.
“These accidents are having devastating effects on people’s health, emotional state, and financial situations, as well as on the reputation of the industry as a whole,” she said. “It’s a world which is curiously steeped in the tradition that it’s just risky, even though we see other industries evolve in their accident statistics by addressing risks head-on so as to prevent them.”
To investigate people’s views and traditional beliefs associated with horse-related activities, Chapman analyzed more than 1,700 online survey responses from horse people (owners, riders, and enthusiasts) in 25 countries. Her questionnaire addressed themes of safety beliefs, values, and interests.
She found that 10% of respondents felt they could do nothing to mitigate risks around horses, and 12.5% felt that it was acceptable to drug a horse to make it safer to ride. More than a quarter of the respondents stated they would place their horse’s safety before their own.
Respondents working with horses in a professional situation (professional riders, grooms, stable hands, etc.) tended to show more knowledge and application of safety principles than amateur and leisure horse enthusiasts, Chapman said.
Respondents listed helmets as their most likely choice to control risks, she said. They considered training to be the least effective option.
“Helmets still reign supreme over all other safety controls for humans interacting with horses, whereas this is rated the lowest and least effective safety control for any other ‘high-risk’ workplace (e.g., mining and construction),” Chapman said.
Helmets help protect riders from injury in all kinds of high-risk situations, she added, but they’re not meant to replace more effective options such as proper training, appropriate rider-horse matching, and safe environments.
“There’s a general acceptance that horses are dangerous, with a high proportion of respondents being ‘risk-tolerant,’” Chapman said. “In comparison to other high-risk industries and some sports, equestrianism has no uniformity of safety-related standards, training methods, or regulatory framework. What we need to see is a ‘landslide’ of equestrian tradition, cultural beliefs, and values to a more risk-aversive platform similar to the mindset of other high-risk sports and industries.”