It’s that time of year when everything is just right in Kentucky. The fall weather is upon us, the sound of marching bands and football games can be heard, another much anticipated fun-filled basketball season is on the horizon, and the tradition that is the Keeneland fall race meet is under way.
While experiencing Keeneland’s opening weekend, watching these magnificent thoroughbreds go galloping by, I was quickly reminded of one of the first-ever, unsupervised death-defying solo horseback riding ventures in my life, which happened to come at the ripe young age of 7.
As my grandfather Charlie Clemons sat comfortably underneath a shade tree enjoying his filter-less Camel cigarette on his farm just outside of Peonia in Grayson County, I quietly snuck away to the barn with a plan.
Hard-shell riding helmets have been proven to save lives. (Photo from Flickr)
For those of you who haven’t read my stories lately, many of my younger days were filled with countless risk-taking endeavors, and this day was no exception. I somehow figured out a way to saddle up and bridle “Flicker” the family horse, but I still wasn’t able to reach the stirrups to mount my ride. Not being a quitter, I eventually figured out a way and led Flicker over to the side of one of the barn stalls, climbed up and then hopped on. I obviously had watched way too many episodes of Gunsmoke and Pondorosa, as I swatted Flicker on the hind end with a leather strap and yelled “Yaaaww.”
As we both came flying out of the barn down the gravel driveway in a full gallop that would make even John Wayne proud, I quickly discovered that my knot-tying ability and my horsemanship were less than desirable. The saddle and I slowly started sliding underneath the horse with each gallop. As the story goes, I made it almost to the house clinging on for dear life under the belly of this beast, eventually losing my grasp as my grandfather sat stunned.
Realizing that I wasn’t hurt that badly and that my only real injury was a big hoof print bruise on my back, Grandpa Clemon’s who was known for wielding tree switches with the leaves still attached, just chuckled and simply said, “That will teach you.”
The fact of the matter is, whether you are a trained professional jockey or a young “wannabe cowboy,” horseback riding is actually a very dangerous profession, sport and past-time. Approximately 30 million Americans ride horses each year, and according to riders4helmets.com, an about 78,000 people visit emergency rooms annually. What’s more, there are more than 100 fatalities each year, with 10-20 times as many head injuries for each fatality.
The reason is that equestrian-related activities, such as racing, jumping and cross-country riding, are inherently risky because horses can weigh up to 1,500 pounds and travel at speeds in excess of 30 mph while riders can stand as tall as 13 feet while riding. Most severe injuries result from falling off the horse, which can lead to paralysis and sometimes even fatal injuries. Who will ever forget Christopher Reeve’s life-altering accident that left him a quadriplegic.
Think about it, if the government requires employees to fully harness up with a Personal Fall Protection Arrest system when working at heights of 6 feet or higher, imagine how dangerous it is on top of a horse, with the added unpredictability of an animal that weighs 10 times more than the average human.
Horseback riding is even more dangerous that motorcycle riding, as it carries a higher injury rate. According to one Internet report, on average motorcyclists suffer an injury once every 7,000 hours of riding. By contrast, an equestrian (horseback rider) may have a serious accident once every 350 hours.
One of the most dangerous professions today is being a jockey, and definitely the most dangerous in all of sports. Since 2007, there have been five deaths, according the Jockey Guild, and last year 19 percent of the active riding members of the guild were out on temporary disability. There are roughly 650 active riders in the guild and with the national average of two fatalities a year, that equals to 1 in 325 jockeys being killed every year.
In one race this year at Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in West Virginia, eight horses started. Seven fell. One finished and the rest of the jockeys were left scattered on the track. Watch by clicking here.
Outside of the racetrack, even more people are being killed in other forms of equine activities, including on the family farm. Head injuries resulting from falls are the major problem. The No. 1 thing all riders should do is wear a hard-shell helmet as they have proven to save lives.
Other injuries include being caught in the stirrup and dragged. A properly matched boot-stirrup combination is very important and release catches should always be used. Correct positioning of the foot in the stirrup is also important. Riders should always wear properly fitted boots should never wear loose-fitting or baggy clothing. All riding equipment should be maintained and inspected thoroughly before venturing out on top of a horse.
Additional body-protecting gear, such as the KevlarT Body Protector, is now available to help prevent soft tissue injuries and rib fractures; however, it does not protect the spine from injury and does not protect against a massive crushing blow to the chest.
(Photo from Flickr)
Horseback riding is an extremely rewarding and thrilling sport, but it should be safe as well. As a result, three years ago the University of Kentucky created the Saddle Up Safely program, a collaboration of 40-plus medical and horse organizations. It was developed to raise awareness and understanding of rider safety and to encourage injured riders to return to the sport via formal training in horsemanship. The program seeks to educate current and future riders about the simple steps that can be taken to prevent accidents.
The program provides brochures promoting safety, an interactive website, continuing medical education, a multimedia campaign and education-based programs. It is a superb resource for equine safety. Here is a wonderful safety clip that addresses equine safety.
As for me, it still took me another three years to eventually learn my lesson as it relates to equine safety. As I was riding on the back of another horse with a cousin not too far from my grandfather’s farm, I was knocked unconscious by an under-hanging tree branch, as we went riding underneath a tree in the front yard, in a full gallop. From what I was told, he saw the limb coming and ducked, but I didn’t and I still bear a small scar as a result.
Growing up, my father also owned a couple of horses in which I had to help care for out at our Anderson County farm. But today I have no desire to own or even ride a horse, as I have grown older and wiser. I now choose to keep a safer distance comfortably on the other side of the race railing. My only equine safety hazard that I’m exposed to today is that I sometimes listen to others with a sure bet for a racing tip that usually always leaves me with a different kind of undesirable bruise on my wallet.
Be safe my friends.
Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.