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“The hack ahead” – the key issues affecting horse rider safety

What are the factors behind the rise in horse riding accidents and what can be done to reverse this trend?

Horse riding continues to be a popular activity in the UK, with an estimated 3.5 million regular riders. Given the continued exodus of people from cities to the countryside (with COVID-19 and an increase in homeworking being the most recent catalysts), we expect to see an increase in horse riding accidents and a consequential rise in claims for compensation being brought under the poorly-drafted Animals Act 1971 and in negligence. Typical injuries to horse riders include head injuries, spinal injuries, long bone fractures, soft tissue injuries and bite marks.

Safety on public roads

Horse riders frequently ride on public roads in order to access off-road routes or the fragmented Public Rights of Way network (‘PROW’).

Many accidents happen on rural roads where a road user’s visibility of other traffic and hazards is typically limited and riders may be unable to move out of the path of other road users, due to narrow roads and high banks.

The safety of riders can be compromised by the inconsiderate actions of other road users. Horses can be easily startled and will often respond to perceived danger by attempting to flee from it. This response can result in a rider being thrown from their horse, sustaining injury. Common problems experienced by horse riders include verbal abuse and other road users spooking their horse by travelling too close to it and/or travelling past at speed and sounding their horn or revving their engine. Pedestrians failing to keep their dogs under control is also an issue.

The British Horse Society’s (‘BHS’) latest national statistics for 2019-2020 detail 1037 horse-related accidents. Of the 136 injured riders, one person sadly died, as did 80 horses, with the majority of the accidents having resulted from vehicles passing too close to the horse. Recently, ‘Horse & Hound’ reported on a teenager who sustained a serious head injury after a speeding car was said to have caused her horse to bolt.

Query if the recent steps implemented by the Government to promote cycling and walking and the increasing popularity of e-scooters on our roads will result in further congestion of the roads and a further rise in horse-related incidents.

Arguably, more can be done, particularly in dense horse-riding areas, to improve horse rider safety, such as automatically including equestrians in the local planning process, taking better account of their needs when planning speed-calming measures and shared use routes, creating more parallel routes for riders and providing horse crossings on busy roads.

The Government’s proposed changes to the Highway Code, if implemented later this year, provide an opportunity to significantly improve equestrian road safety. They promote greater awareness of riders as legitimate and vulnerable road users and of horses as easily startled animals. All road users should welcome the guidance offered on how to safely pass horses (passing at a minimum distance of at least two metres and a maximum speed of 15mph). If the changes are implemented, they should curtail often costly and lengthy liability arguments in civil claims, to the benefit of the rider and the motor insurer.

Off-road issues

Difficulties accessing off –road routes are commonplace due to factors such as poor local parking facilities for horseboxes and unsuitable gates. Paths and nearby walls can be poorly maintained and overhanging branches have the potential to unsaddle the rider.

Access to the existing PROW network for equestrians remains limited, with only 22 % of the network being available to horse riders and just 5% of it being available to carriage-drivers. It is thought that much of the rights of way network for horse riders is wrongly recorded as having footpath status.

Organisations such as the National Federation of Bridleway Associations have highlighted the need to ensure that all historic bridleways and byways in the PROW network are correctly recorded on each authority’s Definitive Map by the statutory deadline of 1 January 2026. If equestrians’ historic rights of way are not recorded by the deadline, they will be lost and riders may be forced to use public roads more.

There remains an ongoing need for communication between highway authorities and equestrians to improve equestrian accessibility to and connectivity across the existing PROW network and to ensure the existing paths are properly maintained.

Increasing use of the countryside

Increasing people and traffic in rural areas and the failure by some to follow the rules of the countryside (by closing gates to prevent animals escaping, staying on permitted paths, controlling their dogs and reducing noise etc.), has the potential to increase horse-related accidents, both on and off the road. Improved education as how to act when in the countryside (to include information on how to behave around horses) will be key to reducing these incidents.

Non–riding activities

Injuries often occur during routine activities such as feeding, checking teeth, grooming, picking out horses’ hooves and saddling. With many experienced equine staff having been let go or furloughed as a direct result of the devastating impact of COVID -19 on the industry, we expect to see more injury claims from equine staff or volunteers who are less familiar with the behaviour of the horses that they are caring for and with the task at hand.

The closure of riding schools

The ongoing closure of riding schools will have deskilled some riders, especially beginners. It will also have reduced a horse’s exposure of and tolerance of different people and environments. Riding schools may have lost experienced staff who were familiar with the behaviour of each horse and who had a good understanding of the needs of each rider. Riding schools should exercise more caution when they re-open to ensure each rider is paired with a suitable horse and appropriate training and supervision is provided to their staff and to their clients.

Rider safety

Riders can continue to take practical steps to improve their safety, both on and off the roads. Such steps include: matching the horse to their skill set, using appropriate and correctly fitted equipment, wearing the correct clothing (an appropriate secured helmet, air jacket/other body protector, gloves, boots and high-visibility clothing), riding on non-slippery and well-maintained surfaces, riding when visibility is good, riding, where possible, in single file on narrow and busy roads and on bends, maintaining the correct position in the saddle, being aware of and providing clear signals to other traffic and receiving periodic professional training.

As lockdown lifts, it will be vital that all involved in the equine industry are more aware than ever of the potential safety risks to staff and riders and guard against these, where possible. Equally, there is a need for all on and off-road users to recognise that horses are easily startled creatures and to exercise consideration and patience when they are in the vicinity of the animal. 

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