A group of enthusiastic riders had just arrived at the ranch keen to begin their horseback riding holiday. At that time the ranch strongly suggested that all riders wear hard hats, but did not require it if guests would sign a special indemnity form.
A lovely, vivacious young woman decided she absolutely did not want to be bothered with a hard hat and blithely signed the form. A few minutes later she and four or five other riders were off with the guide for a horseback ride up into the mountains.
Beware of spooking horses with coats and hats on the trail
It was a windy day with a threatening storm so the riders had raincoats tied on behind their saddles. The horseback ride was going well and the group had an exhilarating canter to the top of a hill at about 9,000 feet. The spot where they stopped offered a breathtaking 360 degree view of the surrounding country. Unknown to the guide, a lady in the group decided to get off her horse to take a picture. There was a flat boulder just to the right of her horse which made a very convenient dismounting block. The trouble was that neither she nor the horse were used to right side dismounts; especially while wearing a bulky Australian raincoat.
Unfortunately, coming off the saddle, her left leg got hung up in her raincoat. She tried to throw her leg back over the saddle. She didn’t quite make it and landed behind the crupper. The horse gave one surprised leap forward and off she went, clunking her head on the boulder as she hit the ground.
Wear a riding helmet when horseback riding
She lay quite still for a few seconds and then went into seizures. By some good chance a doctor was along on the ride. He looked at the wrangler and said, “Get a helicopter fast as you can.” It was the days before cell phones so the wrangler headed back to the ranch as fast as his horse could carry him to telephone for help.
Fortunately, within two hours, a helicopter was there to evacuate her. They were able to drill a hole in her skull to relieve the pressure of bleeding quickly enough to save her life. Recovery was long and she will not be quite the same. A hard hat would have probably meant a slight concussion at worst and would have avoided a tragic accident.
It was an accident the ranch could have avoided by insisting that she couldn’t ride without the hat. The guide will always be full of remorse for his weakness in not insisting that all equestrians wear a riding helmet. He decided then and there that when it lay within his power, he would always insist that a hard hat be worn. In fact, all horseback riders at this particular ranch must wear them now; the guide is convinced that it has avoided several serious head injuries over the last 20 years.
Safety tips for a horseback riding vacation
There is a great deal more to horseback riding safety than wearing a riding helmet and proper riding boots. Many serious horseback riding accidents could be avoided if novice riders or experienced equestrians followed these basic safety suggestions while riding.
- Wear a riding helmet
- Match horse with rider
- Go slow on dangerous terrain
- Always check cinches before mounting and a second time after a few minutes of riding
- Beware of spooking horses with falling hats & coats on the trail
- Do not bring your cell phone horseback riding – unexpected ring tones scare horses
- Beware of ears flat back, this could result in a kick from a horse
- Do not over-estimate your riding abilities if you are out of shape or overweight
- Do not purposely hold your horse back in order to trot or lope
- Do not “bail off” prematurely to get off a runaway horse
- Is your guide qualified
- Are there too many riders for the number of guides
- Do you know how to mount and dismount
- Attaching lead ropes or reins firmly at inappropriate times
- Are your reins to loose or too tight
- Stirrups and boots
- Is the horse tied with too much slack
- Riding with loose horses
- Never run a horse back to the barn
Equestrian Bayard Fox shares horse safety tips
If a horse is unusually nervous or just pricks his ears and looks somewhere it is a good idea to investigate as it may alert you to the presence of wild game or something else out of the ordinary which might spook the whole line of horses later. Several times my horse has alerted me to the presence of a covey of grouse on the ground before they flushed. If you aren’t aware of birds until they flush near the horse, it can cause a stampede.
One time I was hunting elk alone in the mountains in lightly falling snow and I wanted my horse to take a steep mountain trail. That horse refused to take the trail which was totally out of character for him, but I was adamant and impatiently got off to lead him up the first part of the trail and get him started. There was an inch of fresh snow on the ground and when I had gone a few feet up I looked down and saw the biggest grizzly track I had ever seen. It was a very fresh track as yet still clear despite the falling snow. I took one look, turned my horse around, jumped in the saddle and headed quickly for home. Ever since that time I have paid careful attention when a horse didn’t want to do something.
As in any sport, no matter what precautions are taken, accidents can occur. It is therefore important to have plans in place to get quick and effective help in case of need. When riding in remote places a cell phone, satellite phone or radio can save critical time and if someone in the group has first aid knowledge it can make a great difference. In my experience horseback riding need not be a dangerous activity when compared to a sport like down hill skiing. Riding sports like cross country jumping and fox hunting can multiply the dangers many fold.
Bayard Fox and his wife, Mel, own the Bitterroot dude ranch and Bayard is the owner and founder of Equitours Worldwide horseback riding vacations.