Humans have been riding horses for around five and a half thousand years, so it’s little surprise that we take the idea of horse-riding for granted. But when you think about it, there are very few animal species which humans ride.
Horse-riding has been good to humans, making them faster, stronger and taller than they could ever be on their own two feet. Raised on the backs of horses, horizons have been broadened, borders have been crossed, wars have been won, cultures have been spread, classes have been established and harsh environments have been defeated. Of course, what was a win for the mounted was usually a loss for everyone else.
What’s so good about it?
Although actual wars are no longer fought from horseback (symbolic wars sometimes occur in the competition arena) and we technically don’t “need” horses, Australians really enjoy horse-riding. There are an estimated 400,000 horse owners in Australia and 148,800 Australians aged 15 years and over reported participating in horse-riding/equestrian activities/polo at least once for the 2011/12 census period.
While the “work horse” romantically gave way to today’s leisure, competition and performance horse, horses have more recently also become our alternative therapists (okay, so they are still working for us).
The physical and rehabilitative benefits of horse riding have been documented in Australia since at least the opening of the first Riding for the Disabled (RDA) Centre in 1964. However, people experiencing mental health disorders/issues such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, PTSD, depression and anxiety report achieving improved quality of life, wellbeing and mental health from equine-assisted therapies, which often extends to their families.
More generally, horse-riding can provide an opportunity for social interaction, taking responsibility, working collaboratively, character building, psycho-social resilience, connecting with nature and being active in the great outdoors. Some people have hypothesised that the element of danger in human-horse interactions provides particular therapeutic benefits, through self-mastery, emotional regulation, learning how to take calculated risk or overcoming fear.
So, what’s the catch?
There are an estimated 1 million domesticated horses in Australia. All of them can bolt, buck and rear; and stumble, trip and fall. However, being ridden places physical and mental stresses on domestic horses for which wild horses did not evolve. Riding can cause pain, discomfort or confusion to a horse, which can result in dangerous behaviour.
Falling from a horse is a fall from height, possibly also at speed. And it doesn’t matter if you ride horses for a living.
Hospital admissions data suggests that an average of six workers are hospitalised in Australia every five days as a result of a horse-related injury. Around 76 per cent of those injuries resulted from a fall.
According to coronial data, there were 98 horse-related fatalities between July 2000 and June 2012, or an average of 8.2 deaths per year, of which 74 per cent resulted from a fall and 42 per cent were people who worked with horses as part of their profession.
Using Bird’s Triangle Theory, each death can be seen to represent 600 near misses. That’s 4920 near misses each year. Such figures would cause widespread outrage if they represented shark attacks or mining incidents.
Are we doing all we can to reduce the risks?
There are some excellent measures for mitigating the risks of horse-riding, from free and accessible information and affordable personal protective equipment, through to formal training and certification.
However, there are many historical, generational, social and cultural barriers. For example, the use of equipment such as helmets has not been normalised in Australian equestrian culture to the extent that it has for construction workers or motorcycle riders, for example.
Most – if not all – horse riders are aware that horse-riding is dangerous, so they often consider they are taking calculated risks when they ride. As a living creature with whom people develop strong friend or child-like attachments, riders can also place enormous amounts of faith and trust in their horses. Indeed, it is the combination of human and equine factors that contributes to the likelihood of an accident or injury.
However, since horse-riding is initiated by humans, it seems appropriate for humans to move beyond the idea of a “freak accident” and be held accountable for reducing the risk of horse-related accidents by wearing protective equipment, increasing their knowledge of horse behavior, and continuously improving their skills in horse riding and training.
There is also an important role for government to play in legislating the use of basic personal protective equipment such as helmets and acknowledging the sentience and willfulness of horses by considering them (and other animals) separately from plant or equipment in workplaces, or from vehicles on roads.
Insurers too could provide incentives for riders to engage in education and training and/or rewards for adopting protective behaviours. The success of all such initiatives requires a unified culture where horse-riders value the safety of themselves, one-another, their particular sport, the horse community and the whole Australian equine industry.
Humans might have been doing things with horses in ways that have remained unchanged for generations, if not thousands of years. Nonetheless, to ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs – for humans and horses alike – horse-riding should be treated as a human privilege, and not a historical right.
- Associate Professor Kirrilly Thompson is principal researcher, and a cultural anthropologist at Central Queensland University’s Appleton Institute in South Australia.