Western horsemanship safety

Horsemanship safety is important. No one will argue that. As a parent, a riding instructor, a trainer, or just a horse lover, it is our own responsibility to exercise caution around these animals that outweigh us by seven or eight times over.Horsemanship safety is important. No one will argue that. As a parent, a riding instructor, a trainer, or just a horse lover, it is our own responsibility to exercise caution around these animals that outweigh us by seven or eight times over.

Story originally posted by: Jill J. Dunkel

Horsemanship safety is important. No one will argue that. As a parent, a riding instructor, a trainer, or just a horse lover, it is our own responsibility to exercise caution around these animals that outweigh us by seven or eight times over.

As with any sport, certain safety equipment or attire can reduce the number of injuries sustained while enjoying our animals. Breakaway or safety stirrups and helmets have been commonly used in English events for decades; however, they have yet to become mainstream western attire.

These devices are not illegal in western events, but they are not part of the western tradition that much of western style is founded on. After all, how many true cowboys have you seen riding the range who have traded in their Stetson for a helmet? Not many!

Some routine western attire is designed with safety in mind, like cowboy boots. The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) requires that all western exhibitors wear cowboy boots in any western class. Typically made from tough leather, cowboy boots offer some protection in the event that a horse steps on your foot.

The heels on cowboy boots are designed to keep the rider’s foot in the correct position in the stirrup. The heel discourages the foot from sliding completely through the stirrup, which poses a significant dragging risk. Cowboy boots prevent many injuries, however some argue that other forms of safety equipment could reduce injuries even further.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, approximately 20 percent of horse-related injuries acquired by young riders are to the central nervous system. "The majority of these injuries are cerebral contusions, concussions, or skull fractures," states their policy statement on Horseback Riding and Head Injuries. They have found that use of approved helmets has been associated with a decline in the occurrence off severe head injuries.

However the vast majority of riding organizations do not require the use of helmets in western events. Instead, these organizations endorse a "pro choice" policy. Rule 445b of the AQHA Handbook states that, "It is optional that an exhibitor may wear a hard hat with harness in all classes…"

"We’re seeing more and more helmet use all the time," says Charlie Hemphill, Director of Shows for AQHA. "If an exhibitor chooses to wear a helmet in a western class, it is considered part of their attire, and should not be counted against the rider in any way."

Some local ordinances and even state laws have taken matters into their own hands. In January 2000, New York became the first state in the nation to enact a statute requiring the wearing of an approved equestrian helmet while riding a horse. The statute applies to anyone 13 and under, with violators subject to a $50 fine.

The law also states that any "horse provider" must offer a helmet to all riders, regardless of age. The bill was introduced by Robin Schimminger, who argued that requiring helmet use of younger riders and encouraging widespread helmet use, would hopefully reduce the number of head injuries from horseback riding accidents. Ontario, Canada, has a similar statute, as do some U.S. cities.

Another safety device, western safety stirrups, is gaining in popularity. Breakaway stirrups from the STI Corporation are designed to "break away" from the saddle when the rider is in danger of getting hung up or being dragged. According to STI, the release mechanism is designed to release itself from the stirrup leather when it reaches a 72-degree backward angle or a 45-degree forward angle. The release mechanism is not affected by the weight of the rider. The stirrups are available in a variety of styles and sizes and can even be custom-made.

The STI stirrups have earned endorsements from a variety of western disciplines, including several members of the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association). The Kansas Livestock Association, the Colorado Cattle Feeders Association, the American Association for Horsemanship Safety and the Shoshone National Forrest all encourage the use of the STI Breakaway stirrups.

Horseback riding has some inherent risks, as does almost any sport. Add speed or other variables to that, and the risks increase. However, most states and organizations choose to leave the aspect of safety equipment up to the rider. It is important to educate yourself on the available safety equipment and any local or state regulations that apply to horsemanship safety. Couple that with your riding expertise and your horse to determine what is best for your and your family.