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Horse Sense Horse Riding Is A Risky Sport, But Measures Can Be Taken To Make It Safer And Still Fun

Is horse riding a safe activity?

That’s a question being asked a lot since actor Christopher Reeve broke his neck during a recent horsejumping competition.

The answer? Yes and no. According to National Electronic Injury Surveillance System figures, horse-related injuries rank just 15th on the list of emergency-room visits attributed to sports. Nonetheless, when an injury does occur, it can be very severe - especially if safety precautions aren’t observed.

And most accidents aren’t caused by show jumping like Reeve’s, best known for his “Superman” films. A national Centers for Disease Control study concluded 60 percent of accidents result from casual, recreational riding.

Debbie Lenius, a North Spokane resident, lost her 12-year-old daughter, Pollie, to a fall from a horse in the summer of 1988. Pollie had just finished Bemis Elementary and was preparing to attend Shaw Middle School in the fall. Pollie and her two sisters were visiting a stable as part of a Northeast Community Center summer activity group. During the ride, Pollie’s horse bolted forward at full speed, throwing her head-first to the ground. She was declared brain dead the next day.

Lenius says she believes her daughter’s death could have been avoided if the girl had been wearing a helmet. She knows others whose helmeted children were thrown from horses, but instead of sustaining critical head injuries they simply had to replace a cracked helmet.

“I guess I’ll never know, but in my heart I feel her death wasn’t necessary,” Lenius says. “We hadn’t been around horses. I never knew helmets were a possibility … (now) I don’t think they should be an option. Helmets should be mandatory.”

Although Reeve was wearing a helmet during his accident, he sustained a spinal injury. A helmet can’t keep a neck from being twisted anymore than a glove can keep an arm from being broken.

Fortunately, spinal injuries are rare. Jean Gulden, a Valley 4-H volunteer who was working on a safety video to be narrated by Reeve, cited a national report that said only 14.2 percent of spinal injuries are sports related, and just 2 percent of those are due to horse riding.

“I only know of one other similar accident in our (jumping) sport in the last 10 years,” says Dr. David McLain, head of the United States Combined Training Association Safety Committee. McLain, a Birmingham, Ala., rheumatologist, was working with Reeve on a USCTA helmet safety poster.

In a two-year study conducted by the USCTA, the group’s 50,000 competitors had just a 0.36 percent injury rate.

“For (Reeve) to have this kind of rare accident is statistically amazing,” McLain says.

Still, when those accidents occur, they are life-changing.

Norine Fitzgerald of Spokane suffered a spinal cord injury five years ago not while show jumping, but when she was trail riding.

The accident left her paraplegic. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. But in her case, like Reeve’s, it wouldn’t have protected the neck.

“Some of the best riders fall,” she says. “You can take all the precautions in the world, but you’re still dealing with an animal that’s thinking.”

In her accident, there was nothing she could do. The horse just got spooked.

“It was just a freak thing,” she says.

It’s stories like hers that make McLain cautious, despite low equestrian injury rates.

“There’s an old Arab proverb I give,” McLain says. “‘The grave yawns for the horseman.”’

So, what precautions can you take? Local and national experts offer this advice: Always wear a helmet bearing the “ASTM/SEI approved” label. Also, don’t ride a horse unless you’re familiar with the animal. Even then, only ride if the horse is broken sufficiently for your experience level.

“It’s not everyone’s position to get on a young, green horse,” says Monty Collison, a horse trainer at Paradise Prairie Stables just west of Spokane. Collison stakes his reputation on matching riders with horses before they buy. He says that screening process keeps the riders he deals with safe and healthy.

But, there is still room for accidents.

Collison, a 15-year riding veteran, suffered a severe head injury himself in 1993. He had mounted his horse in a stable, and the animal put its hoof against the wall and slipped.

Collison fell off, hitting his unprotected head. He was in a coma for 12 hours. After reviving, he spent another five weeks in the hospital.

He then endured three months of physical therapy.

“They had to teach me to walk again,” Collison says.

Besides picking a horse carefully, make sure you or your children take lessons. Ask around and make sure the teacher has a good reputation; word-of-mouth praise is significant. Also, contact your local 4-H group.

Official credentials are sometimes harder to come by. While there are private associations that certify instructors, there is no national standard to ensure the quality of the certification process.

“Right now, you can hang some blue ribbons on the wall and call yourself a teacher,” says Dr. Doris Bixby Hammett of Waynesville, N.C. Hammett is the secretary for the American Medical Equestrian Association. Her group, started just six years ago, is trying to change that.

“Various groups check on drugging of horses, soundness of horses or the humanity of horse treatment, but no one was checking on the human part of the team,” Hammett says. “That’s the most important part.”

Her group is also trying to increase knowledge about horse-related accidents that aren’t caused by falls. Hammett says a 15-year Canadian study published in 1993 concluded that over one-third of horse-related deaths there happen in other ways.

“That includes kicking, crushing, dragging and biting,” she says. “We need people to understand there is risk in other ways. These are the things we’re finding out that we haven’t addressed before.”

Does all this mean you shouldn’t even consider saddling up? Not at all, say health professionals and even accident victims.

Despite her daughter’s death, Lenius still thinks horse riding is a great youth activity - as long as helmets are worn.

Fitzgerald, though paralyzed, calls horses “beautiful, wonderful creatures.” She still owns a stabled horse she visits occasionally and has an embroidered picture of a horse on her living room wall.

Paula Dillon Mays, a Spokane-area physical therapist, has treated victims of equestrian accidents. Nonetheless, her 13- and 17-year-old children both ride.

“It worries me, but you have to weigh the risks,” she says. “The risks of horse riding are nothing compared to the risk of drugs.

“When you look at a horse and stable situation, it’s a good experience. The risk teaches them responsibility. Also, the type of people they’re around influence them in a positive way. It’s a good environment to grow up around.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: How can you ride safely? Follow these rules:

Wear a helmet: Although they can’t prevent spinal damage, they protect against brain injuries, which are far more common. Be sure and look for the “ASTM approved” label. “When you’re four feet above the ground, if you land on your head you’re at the fatal threshold,” said Dr. David McLain, head of the United States Combined Training Association Safety Committee. “Most people now days won’t get on a motorcycle without a helmet, and the standards for motorcycle and equestrian helmets are very similar.”

Take lessons: Don’t assume you know how to ride. “I’ve been riding all my life, and I don’t consider myself an advanced rider,” said Tom Greenfield, owner of Trail Town Riding Stables at Riverside State Park. “I learn something every day.”

Know your level: Don’t ride a horse beyond your ability, and don’t try to show off. “The biggest mistake people make is trying to do things beyond their ability,” Greenfield said. “They watch the Olympics and get too excited. They watch ‘Young Guns’ and want to impress their girlfriends. But just because you can ride one horse doesn’t mean you can ride them all.” - Ward Sanderson

This sidebar appeared with the story: How can you ride safely? Follow these rules:

Wear a helmet: Although they can’t prevent spinal damage, they protect against brain injuries, which are far more common. Be sure and look for the “ASTM approved” label. “When you’re four feet above the ground, if you land on your head you’re at the fatal threshold,” said Dr. David McLain, head of the United States Combined Training Association Safety Committee. “Most people now days won’t get on a motorcycle without a helmet, and the standards for motorcycle and equestrian helmets are very similar.”

Take lessons: Don’t assume you know how to ride. “I’ve been riding all my life, and I don’t consider myself an advanced rider,” said Tom Greenfield, owner of Trail Town Riding Stables at Riverside State Park. “I learn something every day.”

Know your level: Don’t ride a horse beyond your ability, and don’t try to show off. “The biggest mistake people make is trying to do things beyond their ability,” Greenfield said. “They watch the Olympics and get too excited. They watch ‘Young Guns’ and want to impress their girlfriends. But just because you can ride one horse doesn’t mean you can ride them all.” - Ward Sanderson



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