We know from the old saying ‘horses for courses’ how important it is to choose the right horse and prepare it for the job.
Fiona Wilders, a Pony Club and equestrian instructor, tells us that people need training to understand horses as much as horses need training to understand people.
“Injuries happen all the time, but they are generally minor and mostly related to misunderstanding horse behaviour or when gear breaks,” Fiona said.
“The worst accident I had was while plaiting my horse. He stomped to get rid of a fly and stomped right on my foot. The capillaries in my foot were injured and now one foot is slightly bigger than the other. I’ve also had a couple of broken toes.”
If you work with horses you have probably also had a painful near miss experience.
Indeed, if you ride horses you can expect to experience an injury for every 1000 hours of exposure to horses.
The findings of a study published in the Australian Injury Prevention Network in 2000 concluded that these statistics make horse riding more dangerous than motorbike or car racing.
In fact, one person in Australia is hospitalised every day for a horse-related injury and between 2000 and 2012, 98 people died. Almost half of these occurred at work.
Christine Tumney, WorkCover’s Acting Director of Business Strategy and Performance, has looked at the statistics.
“What we see is that young females are more likely to get injured but males are more likely to suffer fatal injuries,” Christine said.
“If you work with horses, the most common accidents are falling from a horse or being struck by a horse, and common injuries are sprains, strains and fractures.
“Horses often react suddenly, and what can sometimes seem unpredictably, but by establishing safety controls you can prevent injuries.”
Fiona teaches basic guidelines from the beginning – like watching the ears.
“Horses may react suddenly to something. If their ears are back, it’s a warning. If they flick softly, they are paying attention but not worried,” she said.
“You can have the same horse react totally different on any given day. Everything you do has to be based on how the horse is reacting to its environment. What’s it looking at, where’s it looking?
“These are easy visual clues but like safe procedures, you have to constantly remind novices both verbally and with things like signage.”
Preparing horse and rider is good advice and can help minimise risks, but if a horse or handler is asked to do something they are not ready for, it will increase the risk of an injury.
“For the inexperienced handler there is a bigger chance horse or handler will get into trouble and get hurt.
“In racing for example, you’re working with very young horses that haven’t had a lot of training.
“They have a lot of feed and they’re kept in stables and let out for short bursts. It’s like caring for a six foot, hyperactive child on sugar so you really need specialised training.”
While younger, more inexperienced people suffer the majority of injuries, the reality is that anyone who works with horses work in an environment where, if the risks are not properly controlled, injuries occur frequently.
Many of these are serious enough to require recovery time off work.
Annual worker’s compensation claims for horse-related injuries in NSW top $6.6 million – about $11,500 for each claim.
Although the horse racing industry accounts for a high proportion of workers compensation claims, horse-related injuries at other workplaces such as riding schools, equestrian centres and farms are also commonplace.
In NSW an experienced rider was mustering cattle while working as an overseer on a station. He became dislodged from the saddle and was dragged with his foot caught in the stirrup. The coroner’s report said his head injuries were consistent with being trampled by the horse.
He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“The most important thing is having someone who knows what they are doing, to set a good example,” said Fiona.
“That means somebody who always wears the correct gear and always demonstrates safe practices.
“Then it becomes instinct, like always checking your equipment before packing it away, or always tying your horse to twine.
“Nobody wants people or animals getting hurt under their watch.”