So, horses are dangerous. Is that just the way things are? And does taking risks with horses make you look braver, more confident, or more of a leader?

According to one equestrian safety scientist, there are better ways to deal with horse-related risks. And there are better ways to reduce those risks. Perhaps more importantly, there are better ways to lead by example in the equestrian world.

“There seems to be a theme in life that we have to look, or perform like, the ones at the top-of-the-tree or in the spotlight to be seen as successful, acknowledged, or popular,” said Meredith Chapman, PhD, of The Appleton Institute at Central Queensland University in Wayville, South Australia, and Safety in Focus in Narrabri, New South Wales.

“In the horse world, I see this as very dangerous. And it often endorses the fast-track-approach to the top, no matter what, and taking short-cuts, and being a risk-taker. The idea that in order to be part of the in-group (popular), you need to be in the winners’ line up, can be fraught with some danger, is far from truth and often very unfulfilling.”

It’s also extremely hazardous to your health, according to Chapman.

Fatality statistics in horseback riding are highest for young women 20 and under involved in competitive sport—and despite the production and marketing of better safety equipment like vests and helmets, the numbers aren’t changing, year after year.

That’s particularly problematic considering that more advanced and professional riders tend to take the most safety risks with horses, Chapman said.

Her new survey revealed “disturbing” results—that higher-level and paid riders tend to have a more accepting attitude about the dangers of horseback riding, and that these are the riders who are more likely to do things that actually put them at greater risk, like riding without a helmet or skipping groundwork before getting on a horse. (Groundwork can help “connect” with the horse and give riders an idea about how the horse is feeling that day, she explained.)

If the industry wants to change the statistics, reducing the number of injuries and deaths related to horseback riding, it needs to encourage riders to do more than just buy expensive protective equipment, she said.

People need to change their attitudes about risks, and change their behaviour around horses.

They even need to change their goals—seeking a strong, mutually beneficial relationship with the horse more than that prized trophy.

And they need to be constantly aware of who’s watching them, and what kind of image they’re portraying to less experienced riders who might be looking up to them.

“Many of our inexperienced equestrians look for safety advice and directives, and if we are prepared to disregard basic safety principles for the sale of a horse or a blue ribbon, what are we teaching the younger generation?” Chapman said. “And what will the tally of incident, injuries, and fatalities be like in another 10 years’ time?”

Chapman and her fellow researchers collected data from the responses of nearly 1,300 equestrians in 25 countries surveyed about their views on risk and safety in connection with horses.

More than 10% believed there was nothing people could do to control risks around horses. But 12.5% said it was fine to drug a horse to make it safer to ride, Chapman said.

Alarmingly, 91% said that if an experienced rider didn’t use safety equipment, that could influence the way less experienced riders viewed safety precautions, she added.

Most of the respondents—81%—said they’d had at least one horse-related injury, and the average number of injuries per person surveyed was 3.3. Of those, 74% said they “now take more safety precautions around horses” because of that accident.

Even so, more than 25% of the respondents stated they were willing to put their horse’s safety above their own, Chapman said.

Ensuring a horse’s safety is important, of course, she added. But good precautions and management can help reduce the risk to both partners.

“Horses and humans need time to connect and learn as a duet,” said Chapman, who has been handling, riding, and breeding horses for more than 50 years.

“Being proud of what you achieve is where the mindset is most healthy, going forward with small steps. It’s about going out for an equestrian competition, for example, not to be measured by another’s place or someone else’s comments, but to explore if your hard work and training at home paid off in a different environment.”

That means taking things slowly, and taking time to train ourselves about how horses’ brains work, and how they learn.

“I feel we need to take a moment to stop and think about what we do with horses and the expectations we place on them,” Chapman said.

“We are the ones changing their world for our gain and pleasure. Take a little more time on the ground with them, and don’t be too quick to climb aboard and pursue your dreams. Give them time to adjust and learn, and be prepared to go back, and teach them again.

“Be kind, because they don’t speak our language. And remember that overconfidence can contribute to an unstable foundation, and this is when safety short-cuts are often taken, resulting in undesired outcomes.”

In addition to her five decades of horse experience, Chapman has worked in the health and safety industry for 20 years, and used to be a registered nurse in intensive care units, where she treated many equestrian patients recovering from—or succumbing to—horse-related injuries.

“My purpose in life now as a health and safety professional, and an academic, is to connect with the equestrian world and use some of my skills, experience, and research to help improve human-horse interventions in a safer and more respectful way,” she said.

The study is published in Animals and is open access. It is titled: ‘What People Really Think About Safety around Horses: The Relationship between Risk Perception, Values and Safety Behaviours’ by Meredith Chapman, Matthew Thomas and Kirrilly Thompson. You can read it here.