Time to change – by Meredith Ransley
“The danger from horse riding is compounded by the interaction of two species, human and horse, which may result in unpredictable events.”
– Dr Raymond A. Cripps, AIHW National Injury Surveillance Unit
“We need to be a Horseman not Human when it comes to interacting with horses.”
– Shane Ransley, Founder of Quantum Savvy Horsemanship
Do you, as a horse lover, personally know of someone who has been killed or seriously hurt by a horse? With the statistics alarmingly and unforgivably high, chances are that you do. Each year in Australia alone, 20 people on average are killed in horse related activities*. That is, riding or handling horses in some way. And while the stats are often hard to track down, they state that more than 3000 people each year in our country alone are seriously hurt by a horse*. Just this week a lady in South Australia fell off her horse and broke her neck, and another in Victoria came off her horse and fractured her skull. Plus there have been at least two deaths this summer already, and this is just incidents that I’ve heard of without even looking.
The trouble is that statistics are just that. Numbers, that give a benchmark of occurrences and their frequency. Something to measure. They aren’t real to most of us who would just write them off as ‘acceptable’ in this ‘risky’ sport we all partake in, that is horse riding. It’s annoying and frustrating that those researching the statistics of horse related accidents say, in nearly every paper I’ve read, that the number of injuries and deaths is “comparatively low as a percentage of people actually involved in the dangerous sport of horse riding”. In other words, lots of people ride horses so what is a couple of thousands injuries and only twenty or so deaths a year? I’ll tell you what it is. It’s not low enough for the families of those who died. It means in the 20+ years I’ve been teaching horsemanship, more than 400 people in Australia have died. In the UK, the numbers are only slightly lower than in Australia, but some stats claim that in the USA the figure is over 200 a year!
If we just look at things purely as statistics, as percentages if you will, the odds of being killed in a plane crash or by a shark are only 1 in many millions. But we are all horrified by these facts. And yet when someone is killed by a horse we say “how terrible” then shrug it off as acceptable in such a risky pursuit. We’ve conditioned ourselves to the point that it’s no longer shocking. It’s normal even.
“The way we’ve learned to live with the shock of loss of life, is by telling ourselves it’s a dangerous sport, therefore it’s acceptable.” Shane Ransley
But it isn’t acceptable. These aren’t just numbers. They are real people….Mums of small children, grandmothers, fathers, daughters of distraught mothers who have to live the rest of their lives overwhelmed with questions why and with no answers.
One such Mum, whose 18 year old daughter was killed a number of years ago while attending a horse related course with an accredited establishment, has been doggedly pursuing answers and demanding change ever since. She has been relentless in chasing down why this happened. How her beautiful girl could leave home happily one morning, to attend a course she was looking forward to and not ever come home again. Ever.
Frustratingly, to many people (and I of course include most horse riders in this) this rate of injury and death is acceptable. Even normal and to be expected. Recently an acquaintance’s young daughter came off her horse and hurt herself and everyone’s response was, “Never mind, get back on. These things happen. When you ride horses you can expect to get hurt from time to time.” But it isn’t acceptable. Not to me, not to the families of the people killed and injured and nor should it be to any of you who own or are around horses.
I have been very fortunate to have been consulted by the Mum of the 18 year old, as she pursues her goal of having an industry standard code of practise put in place for all establishments who teach horse related activities. I have been asked to participate as one of many consultants, to put forward my opinion and to provide input and feedback to the ongoing cause. To date there has been quite some success with this pursuit, and it does look like some kind of industry code will commence at some point. However, I am very afraid that it will have little or no effect on the statistics as they are. I fear that all we will end up with are more useless rules made by people who really have no idea about horses and safety and saving people’s lives. Why do I fear this? Why won’t it have an effect?
Most of the professionals consulted agreed that horses and horse riding are dangerous. They also didn’t want any kind of industry standard being put into place and were happy to do their own risk assessment in their own businesses. And here in lies the first issue. Belief number 1; That horses are dangerous. Horses are not dangerous. Horse riding is not dangerous. We have this belief that it is, so when someone falls and gets hurt, we accept it as ‘normal’. Which is just wrong. Horse riding should not be dangerous. Beginner riders on green horses however is unbelievably dangerous and terrifying to watch. What we need, and in Australia we are terrible for this, is to not let green, beginner riders get on horse’s that are not fully educated. And I don’t mean educated in the conventional sense of the term, I mean a proper education. Horse’s that are mentally, emotionally and spiritually educated to take care of a beginner rider. Here in Australia, we just jump on anything and hope it will be okay. To protect ourselves we wear helmets, body armour, and put all kinds of gadgets on the horse and then go. We may as well cross our fingers as well for all the good it does us. And that brings us to Belief number two: That it’s okay to ride dangerous horses as long as we wear a helmet and use the right gear on the horse.
It’s not okay. And this is something I see all the time and that both frightens and frustrates me at the same time. This is a really important point and when I raise it, it’ll seem obvious. Riding horses shouldn’t buck, bolt, rear or shy. If a horse does any of these things, or has a tendency to do any of these things, it shouldn’t be ridden. Don’t get on it. Plain and simple. A Riding Horse should be emotionally calm, sensible, quiet and using it’s left brain. It should be thinking. I see so many people on or around right brained, scared horses it amazes me….actually it astounds me that more people aren’t hurt by them. And when I say a quiet horse, I don’t mean one that is dull, or has no play, or is boring. I just mean one that is educated, can think it’s way through what would normally be an emotional trigger for a horse and stay calm. And this, believe me is really easy to achieve with a horse.
To most people, and this may be many people reading this missive, this may seem like a huge and complicated thing to do. Indeed it must do because even after so many years of having this kind of knowledge and help available, the majority of horse owners and riders still just don’t get it. And that is because of Belief No 3: We think in order to work with horses, we need to control the right brain instead of educating the left brain. Think about that one a bit because it is really important.
Traditionally, everything we do involves controlling the horse and his instincts (his right brain). We want to use bigger bits, more tie downs, nose bands, side reins and on and on. And just in case that doesn’t work, we need to wear helmets and body protection. Everything we do, every decision we make is based on the need or the belief that we need to control the right brain. And that is complicated and hard and something we still haven’t been successful with because of one thing. It can’t be done. You are never going to control the right brain of anything let alone a flight response prey animal like a horse. At best all you will do is contain them, but certainly not control. I bet you have all experienced, or else seen someone who has, a horse that has been right brained and emotional and felt the need to flee or be free. It is terrifying. The moment that containment is no longer enough and they really try to break free. They would rather risk hurting themselves…..or worse, in an effort to be free. And if you are around them or on board in that instant, you soon become aware of just how vulnerable and insignificant you are in that moment.
In all honesty, if I felt that I had to put a helmet on, or wear body armour, then I would not get on the horse. And I mean a riding horse. I am not saying that people should not wear helmets. Far from it. But I do think we should consider more fully the times they are actually needed and make sure our horses are better prepared before we get on. This is the problem; trying to ride horses that shouldn’t be ridden. The problem isn’t that horses are dangerous. I want to be really clear on this because I know there are some people who may get confused by what I am saying or try to twist my meaning. A ‘Riding Horse’ should not bolt, rear, buck or shy. If a horse does any of these things, it needs more help, more education by a true horseman to overcome it fears. Or else the person causing the horse to do these things should step away from the horse! A beginner rider who is still learning about balance and developing their seat, should certainly wear a helmet and should only ride a fully educated horse. Period!
Any horse of course can put a foot wrong at times, so we need to be prepared for that. But even a beginner rider can stay on a horse that stumbles a little at walk. Even trot. Usually they end up in a fit of the giggles when it happens. If a horse stumbles at canter or gallop it can be difficult to stay on but this shouldn’t be beginner riders in an arena. For people doing eventing, racing, jumping, colt starting or horse training and so on, it only makes sense to wear a helmet. The risks in this case are higher from a practical view point.
What about trail riding or hacking? Trail riding is one of the riskiest and most dangerous sports to under-take and one of the most commonly pursued by horse lovers. As a horseman it is very easy to understand why it is risky. Horses are flight response prey animals. Their default system tells them to run (in a straight line) if they get scared. Out on the trail there are any number of things to trigger a horse’s flight response so it is really easy for a horse to trigger right-brain and flee. It is usually not beginner riders who get hurt on trails, but people who lack horsemanship on emotionally uneducated horses, trying to ride in straight lines! (Horses being prey animals are very vulnerable in open spaces and presented with straight lines will often trigger a right-brain flight response.)
Educating the left brain, to teach the horse to think through moments that may trigger survival behaviour, is actually really easy to do. But it has nothing to do with controlling the right brain, or training the horse, or wearing him out, or beating it out of him. It is just a matter of learning to become a horseman. And I don’t mean someone who just calls themselves that. Someone who thinks that being able to stay on a horse makes you a horseman, or working with horses, or having been around them forever and a day. I mean a real horseman. Someone who understands horses, what makes them tick and can communicate with them in a very real and repeatable way and who horses trust and respect.
One of the points of interest that was brought up in regard to the new standard code of practise, was that people who teach horse activities should have riding accreditations and teaching accreditations. All very well but what about horsemanship accreditations? Most people who fall from horses and get seriously hurt are not beginner riders. Probably the most at risk are those who have been riding for some time, even years and who think they are good riders. And maybe they have even have had lots of riding lessons. But what they still lack is horsemanship skill. Having a good seat will not necessarily save you on a bucking or bolting horse. Having the horsemanship to know when to step off, or better, not get on at all, will save you every time.
The other day a man was killed when he walked up behind his horse and patted it on the rump. It responded by kicking him in the throat and killing him. A tragic accident many said. A freak thing to happen. I am sorry but it was not. It was a head shot….a kill shot. Horses know exactly where their feet are going. They are very good at warning shots. Just watch them with each other for a while and you’ll see it. They know just how hard to kick or bite to let each other know and get their message across, without inflicting damage. I am very, very sorry for this man and his family. It was a truly terrible thing to happen. But you should be able to walk up behind your own horse and give it a pat without risk of injury. I know some of you won’t agree and you’ll probably even be quite cross with me in regard to this, but that is because you still think horses are dangerous. A horse shouldn’t be so wound up and so scared that it feels the need to defend itself to this degree. And if it is, we should have the horsemanship to be able to tell and to steer clear.
There are examples of lack of horsemanship everywhere. Recently a British elite equestrian was under attack for her let’s say ‘forceful’ dealings with a horse at a demonstration. She had the chance to work with a famous race horse and try to turn it into a dressage horse. I don’t know the time frame she was given but the outcome was not very successful. She had to resort to a lot of force and strength to get it to do anything and people were upset by it. But let’s look at this scenario because it is one we see all the time in Australia. A race horse is bred and trained to run as fast as it can in a straight line. It is what we call a long horse. Flat out, fast, straight, length of stride. A dressage horse is bred and trained for elevation of stride. To collect, round up, engage and power up in an elevated or lateral frame of movement. A good race horse then, should not be a good dressage horse and vice versa. It was ridiculous to try to turn one into the other. A horseman should know this without thinking. Of course it can be done, with enough time and education you may be able to take all the forward out and redirect it to up but it’d be like trying to turn a Ferrari into a 4WD. Even if it can be done, what is the point?
The trouble is that we don’t even understand which end of the horse is the bit that needs to be communicated with. Because we believe that we have to control the right-brain, we try to put things on the horse’s head to achieve this control. A horseman knows that it has nothing to do with the head physically. You can take control of the head but that doesn’t mean you’ll have control of the rest of the horse. We’ve all seen horses bucking or bolting with someone hanging on to the reins (and therefore their heads) for dear life and it making no difference whatsoever. Control of the horse comes from the back end, from the hind feet if you really need control. From being able to communicate with the hind quarter and the horse having the trust and confidence in you to offer disengagement of it. Communication with the horse when riding, comes through your seat and the lateral softness of the horse. Even a horse that is collected and truly engaged can only be so if his back and ribs are soft laterally and his hind coming underneath him. Getting a hold of his head will only make him feel more contained and claustrophobic. If you cause him enough pain he may do your bidding but how will he feel about that? Do you think you’d really be getting the best from your partner if you are hurting him? Most horses who have assumed the ‘correct’ head set, are also hollow in the back or over flexed at the poll, to try to give themselves some relief. Even people who think they are being kind by riding in bitless bridles still don’t get it. It is not about the head. And there are plenty of bitless bridles around that still work by causing pain or depriving the horse of air. Cruel.
True self carriage comes from soft lateral ribs and back, calm emotions and an engaged hind quarter. You shouldn’t need anything on their heads at all for that.
While it is wonderful that at last there seems to be some, who are at least listening to the need for things to change within the horse industry, the new code of practise for beginner riders won’t save lives. I doubt it will make any difference to our statistics at all. It is time to change. Time to change our antiquated beliefs about horses and to stop thinking that horsemanship is just owing a horse. All riders, beginners and experienced riders alike, are at risk until we understand that it is Horsemanship that needs to be encouraged and mandated. A true understanding of the way horses think and respond and a knowledge of true communication.
* Related statistics taken from;
J R Silver, High Street, Wendover, Bucks HP22 6EA, UK
*Flinders University Study
Australian Institute for Health and welfare
National Injury Surveillance Unit – Raymond A Cripps