Safety in the Horse Industry.

Every year, 20 Australians lose their lives to horse-related incidents, and hundreds more are hospitalized.

But according to an industrial safety risk management specialist, it doesn’t have to be that way. If people in the horse industry followed the example of other high-risk industries and sports like mining, construction, and mountain climbing, safety could be significantly improved.

“It has a lot to do with mindset,” said Meredith Chapman, a PhD candidate at Central Queensland University (CQU), Rockhampton campus in Queensland, Australia, and industrial risk management specialist for science, engineering, and health.

“Horse people often just assume that horses can be dangerous and that that danger is an inherent part of being around horses. You don’t see that in other high-risk industries. And as a result, the risk is reduced.”

Proactively seeking risk reduction yields positive results in mining, construction, and transportation, as well as in combat sports and other high-risk sports, Chapman explained during her presentation at the 15th annual conference of the International Society for Equitation Science (ISES), held August 19-21 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

In these industries, there are standardized efforts and methods for improving awareness and providing training, she said. And most of all, there isn’t a general culture of the acceptance of danger as can be seen in the horse industry, where the accident rate is remaining stable year after year.

“These industries don’t just assume that something bad is likely to happen, and that that just comes with the package of being a part of that world,” Chapman told Horses and People. “They challenge that danger by assessing risks and finding effective ways of reducing them, then sharing that knowledge and putting it into practice. The results are obvious, and the horse industry could be doing that too, but it isn’t.”

Changing the mindset would mean essentially transforming horse sport from being “dangerous” to being “high-risk,” she said—the nuance being that people can attenuate risks in order to prevent reaching a point of danger.
Safety equipment like helmets and protective vests are the least effective ways to reduce risk in high-risk industries—but they’re what many equestrians consider a first-line approach to safer horse-human interactions, said Chapman.

“Helmets still reign supreme over all other safety controls for humans interacting with horses, whereas this is rated the lowest and least effective safety control for any other ‘high-risk,’” she explained.

Such equipment can only be considered a last-line effort—a sort of safety net—when more effective methods, like good training and good habits, fall through. “People need to be trained smart and safe behaviour around horses, and they need to be able to train horses in ways that make them safer,” she said. “These methods will go much farther in preventing accidents than safety equipment alone.”

To better understand the current mindset, she ran an online survey of “horse people,” asking them specific safety-related questions. More than 1700 respondents from 25 countries provided a representative overview of this mindset, she said.

Nearly 13% of respondents felt that it was acceptable to administer drugs to a horse to make it safer to ride, according to Chapman. Ten percent believed nothing could be done at all to mitigate risks. But curiously, 25% of the respondents said they would put their horse’s safety before their own.

“We need to see a ‘landslide’ of equestrian tradition, cultural beliefs, and values to a more risk-aversive platform similar to the mindset of other high-risk sports and industries,” Chapman said.

Editor’s Note: This research was presented at the 2019 International Equitation Science Conference on 20th August 2019. On Friday October 4th, the Coroner’s Court of New South Wales called for a major safety overhaul, handing down 31 consolidated recommendations to make horse sports safer. The inquest into the deaths of Olivia Inglis and Caitlyn Fischer who died at separate horse trials events in 2016 investigated the safety procedures at equestrian events and the handling of the deaths by the sport’s peak body, Equestrian Australia. You can read the full article here.

You can download a copy of the Proceedings of the 15th International Equitation Science Conference by clicking here.

This article about safety in the horse industry titled “Improving Safety Will Require a Mindset Change” was published in Horses and People November-December 2019 magazine.