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    February 2019

    Equestrian Activities at School: Managing the Risks

    Many United Educators (UE) K-12 and higher education members offer on campus, or sponsor at off-campus locations, equestrian programs running the gamut from beginner riding lessons to high-level competition. Students in grades six to 12 at public and private schools can participate in team competitions through the Interscholastic Equestrian Association. At the higher education level, about 400 institutions compete on varsity and club teams through the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association, with several dozen field teams recognized by the NCAA, which treats riding as a women's emerging sport

    Horseback riding offers many physical and emotional benefits, but it is an inherently dangerous activity that can result in serious injuries to novice and experienced riders alike. Regardless of the nature and size of its riding program, any institution’s paramount concern should be managing the risks effectively and maximizing student safety.  

    Riding Injuries  

    Unfortunately, rider head injuries are not uncommon. A study in the Journal of Neurosurgery found that from 2003 to 2012, equestrian sports were responsible for the highest proportion (over 45 percent) of sports-related traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among adults—more than double the share of contact sports like football and soccer. A separate study found that equestrian sports were the third most frequent cause of TBIs among children and adolescents, behind contact sports, skateboarding, and roller skating.

    Most UE claims involve falls, which usually occur in riding rings during lessons, practice, or competitions. The most frequent injuries resulting from falls are concussions, other head or spine injuries, and broken bones. Kicks from horses, which produced the second highest number of equestrian claims, typically cause broken bones or severe bruising. In one case, a student needed surgery to remove her spleen after being kicked.  

    UE’s Recommendations  

    An institution can reduce the risk of injuries—and its own potential liability—by consistently following some basic business and safety practices. UE recommends that schools with any type of equestrian program focus on these areas:

    • Outside stables and trainers. If your institution uses off-site stables or allows outside trainers (rather than school employees) to teach students in your facility, consult legal counsel and draft a contract that sets out the terms of each arrangement, including indemnification language addressing the allocation of risk. Require proof that the stable or trainer has adequate insurance and request to be named as an additional insured on their policy.
    • Releases. Require students—or the parents of minor students—to sign releases for equestrian activities. Releases do not prevent injury, but they help protect the institution from liability and ensure participants are aware of the risks involved. Work with counsel to create or review these documents, which should spell out the dangers of riding or handling horses, including the possibility of serious injury or death resulting from a fall or kick. Novice riders (and parents) may be unfamiliar with the risks.
    • Safety rules. Implement and rigorously enforce safety rules for students and others using your school’s facilities or horses. Students should receive a written copy of the rules and sign an agreement to abide by them. At a minimum, the rules should cover:
      • Safety equipment. Regardless of riding discipline, the single most important thing a school can do is require the use of properly fitting helmets when mounted. Only an estimated 20 percent of riders in the U.S. wear helmets regularly, although Florida, New York, and some local jurisdictions mandate riding helmets for most minors. Prohibit bike or other helmets not designed specifically for horseback riding. Require helmets to be certified as meeting ASTM/SEI standards. Especially for younger or inexperienced students, consider also mandating helmets when working with horses on the ground (e.g., grooming, tacking up, or lunging).

        Some programs may require or recommend other safety equipment, such as protective vests or safety stirrups that break in a fall and help prevent a rider from being dragged.  
      • Proper riding gear. Require proper clothing when mounted, including long pants and riding boots or sturdy shoes with heels. Consider making appropriate boots or shoes mandatory when students work with horses on the ground or are in the facility.
      • Handling horses correctly. Consult with equine professionals to create a list of safety practices for handling horses on the ground, including: 
        • Turning horses out and retrieving them from the field
        • Working with horses on cross-ties (e.g., when grooming or picking hooves)
        • Interacting with horses in their stalls
      • Tack care. Establish a system for regular inspection and cleaning of all saddles, bridles, girths, and other tack. Promptly repair or discard any pieces in poor condition.
      • Riding rings. Establish rules governing ring use, including who has priority and the maximum number of riders or people lunging horses allowed in the ring at one time. Keep spectators out of the ring, which may require creating a separate viewing area.
    • Supervision. Ensure that trainers and instructors who supervise student riders have the appropriate experience, skills, and qualifications. While these vary by riding discipline, many important competencies—including communication skills, matching riders with suitable horses, and recognizing early signs of illness or injury that can affect a horse’s attitude and performance—apply across disciplines. Many schools require certification from the American Riding Instructors Association or a similar organization.  
    • Participant skills. You may want to assess students’ skills before allowing them to participate, especially for small programs or those serving younger students. Establish standards and assessment methods in advance. For example, consider requiring past riding experience or a riding test.  
    • Accommodating disabilities. Consider how your program will respond if students with disabilities want to participate. A blanket prohibition on such participation is impermissible under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Depending on the disability and in consultation with counsel, you may need to provide accommodations that enable an otherwise qualified student to participate safely.  

    State Laws 

    Some states have laws limiting liability for equine activities. Consult counsel to determine if yours is among them and be sure your school understands conditions that apply. For example, states often require expressly citing the limitation provision in contracts or releases and posting them in riding facilities. Moreover, such a limitation is usually abrogated in cases of intentional or reckless conduct, such as knowingly providing faulty equipment or mounting an inexperienced rider on a horse with a dangerous propensity (e.g., rearing or bolting under saddle).  


    EduRisk Contracting and Release Resources 

    Improving Contracting on Campus: Allocating Risks Between the Parties 

    Checklist for Drafting Effective Releases 

    Minors and the Use of Releases 

    EduRisk Concussion and TBI Resources 

    Concussions in Club and Intramural Sports 

    Checklist for Creating an Athletics Concussion Management Plan 

    Concussion Signs and Symptoms Checklist 

    Concussion Awareness Learning Program 

    Other Concussion and Helmet Resources 

    U.S. Equestrian Federation, Concussion Safety: CDC Fact Sheet, Get A Heads Up on Equestrian Helmet Safety 

    Washington State University Extension, Equestrian Safety: A Guide to Promotion of Helmet Use for Riding Clubs and Communities 

    University of Connecticut, Riding Helmet Safety 

    General Horse Safety Resources 

    University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Horse Safety 

    University of Kentucky, Horse Equipment Safety Tips 

    Rutgers University, Safety Recommendations for the Stable, Barn Yard, and Horse/Livestock Structures 

    By Hillary Pettegrew, senior risk management counsel


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