It’s taken me a few days to get my thoughts straight on this one, but I think I’m finally there. The issue is this: yet again, UK equestrianism has been hit by the health and safety debate. With this topic, one issue tends to bring another, then a third follows, and before you know it, opinions are like… well, you know the phrase.
There’s a chicken and an egg to this story: the tabloids over here picked up on two stories in quick succession – one was the resolution of an inquest into an incident which occurred about a year ago, whereby a rider died after her horse bolted; the other was something which actually happened recently, when an owner and reportedly highly-experienced horsewoman died following injuries sustained whilst clipping a young horse. Following the reporting of these cases, my favourite bastion of tradition and outcry, Horse and Hound, published a feature on how terrified riding schools are to teach the way they’d wish to. And then British Eventing came out with their hammer and nails to finish the coffin off and decided that they can’t afford to properly investigate the safety or lack thereof regarding helmet cameras (this despite deciding that they would do so back in October in time for the 2015 season, and the USEF deciding in the meantime that they would allow riders to take responsibility for their own decisions).
So now I’m frustrated. I’ve mentioned previously that I think health and safety gets an unnecessarily bad reputation – rules are there for a reason (protecting often-unsuspecting humans), and should be followed – and I maintain my stance that many rules are in place because people lack basic common sense. It sounds pretentious, but I see my responsibility as an instructor – whether it’s ground work or ridden – is to teach my clients to think as much as it is to teach them to ride or handle a horse. Because we do work with sentient beings, so I can’t possibly mitigate for every scenario. It’s not like teaching someone to ride a bike – push one pedal forwards and down and around you go, check for other traffic, look where you’re going – things will change on a moment by moment basis, and whoever I work with has to be aware of that. It’s critical to me that they are able to quickly and calmly assess any situation and figure out the best course of action in order to preserve their safety, because that’s what a horse does! Horses are prey animals, which means that they react to the slightest sign of danger and do everything within their power to get away from it. As we aren’t physically a match for them, we must do the same.
It’s for this reason that I can’t ever see myself wishing to teach someone to leap from a galloping horse in order to “stay safe” and “bail out” because they’re out of control. My opinion regarding that particular skill is that it’s a fallacy – that and I’ve witnessed a friend get injured doing this (our experiences inform our opinions somewhat…). There is something I’d teach regarding that scenario, though, and I don’t think that it’s something which pushes the boundaries of health and safety – there are ways and means to bring a horse back to you and ask him to stop which don’t involve you leaping headfirst into the nearest tree… but nothing will always work. The bottom line is that there are no guarantees with horses.
All of this happened in a week when I was already pondering the possibility of equestrian centres and employers demanding that staff and clients handle all horses in a helmet (and, in my opinion, once we go down that road, where does it end? Will we ultimately be in body protectors? Or leading horses only on 20 metre lunge lines?). I’m aware that some sectors of the industry – notably racing, from what I see a lot on TV – already have these kinds of rules in place, where grooms seem to spend much of their time wearing helmets when not mounted. As I was writing this post, in fact, a “cautionary tale” popped up on my Facebook feed, and much as I am of course glad that the lady in question is okay (as is the horse), I decided to analyse it a little further – this task made much easier by the facts that I don’t know the lady, hindsight is a wonderful thing, and everyone’s a critic (story in italics, my commentary in bold… and I’ve corrected the grammar):
“Now I’m not the most safety conscious person in the world. In fact I’m well known for being a bit haphazard. [Alarm bells ringing for anyone else yet? This lady already comes across to me as accident potential…] I’m the first person to jump in to a situation whether I’m prepared or not. [Good, so like many other people in the horse world, you’re someone who is reactionary, rather than prepared…] On Wednesday however I got a bit of a wake up call. I don’t usually wear a crash hat to fetch any horse in from the field, even if it is a horse I don’t know. I happened to have my spare hat [You ride in a “spare” helmet?! What is wrong with you?] on from riding and quickly nipped down the road to fetch a horse in. Well he was a bit of a sod and wouldn’t come through a patch of mud. [Why not? What were you doing? Oh, taking him away from his friends, probably in a hurry and with a poor attitude. Are we shocked the horse doesn’t want to come with you by himself?] I tugged on the leadrope [Excellent idea – could he see you? Did you offer any verbal encouragement?] and he decided to rear up and strike out with his front feet. [And you were stood – as a friend of mine puts it – where the tree falls] He caught my chin on the way up and whacked me round the top of the head on the way down… I bit my tongue as well and I have a lovely hole in it. Now no one knew where I was. [WHY ON EARTH NOT?!] If that had been my head and not my hat I don’t think I would have walked away with just a bruised chin and a holey tongue, [No kidding!] and I wouldn’t have been found for a good couple of hours at least. Just a thought then, perhaps that sweaty head look isn’t such a problem. It’s better than a dented head.”
I’m not perfect. We’re all in a hurry, we all make mistakes which – hopefully – we don’t suffer too great a physical injury from and that we are able to learn from… but as I have pointed out, there are so many things about this scenario which could’ve been prevented. Indeed, fortunately this woman was wearing a helmet. But there are some real basics here which she could have stopped and considered in order to prevent this incident from happening: firstly, she should’ve told someone where she was going and/or not gone alone; secondly, it’s a foolish person who tries to take a horse away from his herd by himself, unless he and the others can see where he’s going; thirdly, it’s in the way you choose to go about this task, and where you physically put yourself in a scenario – why was she within striking distance of the horse?
This kind of thing, I feel, proves my point – that health and safety isn’t there to make lives harder and ruin our fun, but it is there to make us think. Yet clearly, that message isn’t getting through. In my opinion, there is absolutely no need to drastically change the activities we choose to teach, we just have to monitor the way they are taught, and regulate them in order to make them as sensible and safe as possible. Would you teach bareback lessons with more than one client per instructor, or with a horse or horses who haven’t done it before in a bustling arena? Would you allow a client to lead a horse anywhere in the stables without checking first that they know how to do so, where to put themselves, what to watch for? Would a client be left responsible for tacking up their own horse and then be allowed to mount without an instructor watching or checking their equipment?
It seems to me that equestrians consider the term “health and safety” and think about the ultimate negative implications of an accident without truly considering what can be done in between, other than ceasing activities altogether. To me, it’s just a puzzle: find a way or make one.