Keeping Yourself Safe when Riding

Horseback riding is more dangerous than motorcycle racing, according to Heather S. Havlik, MD, director of the sports medicine program at Charlotte Medical Clinic in North Carolina.

"Never take for granted the fact that your partner in equestrian sports is much larger and much less predictable than in any other sport out there, and that situation requires constant awareness to help prevent injury," she said.

Havlik reviewed published studies done across a three-year period. She found the risk of injury was greater among equestrians than for motorcycle or automobile racing participants.

One in five horseback riders suffers serious injuries, most often head and neck trauma, as well as upper extremity fractures.

"Having grown up showing horses, I had a pretty good idea of the risk of injury, particularly head injuries," she said. "However, seeing the risk related to motorcycle and automobile racing was a bit startling."

Yet, most physicians do not recognize the injuries experienced among horseback riders. "There are certain injury types or patterns that physicians automatically think of in association with certain sports, such as football, basketball, or gymnastics; however, most physicians have little awareness of what injuries they should be most concerned about among riders, which makes it more likely for less severe injuries to go undiagnosed and untreated."

Novice riders experience the most injuries, but experienced riders tend to suffer more severe injuries because they spend more time in the saddle and, therefore, increase their chances of injury. In addition, experienced riders tend to take more chances.

"Riding greener horses, jumping higher or more complicated combinations, riding at faster speeds--these all put the more experienced rider at higher risk for a more severe injury," she said.

Havlik offered these tips to avoid injury:

  • Be aware of the risk.
  • Know your horse, your surroundings, and your limitations.
  • Always wear an approved helmet, even when just hacking or training at home.
  • Wear an approved vest when jumping.
  • Wear proper footgear and gloves.

In addition, if the horse is inexperienced or nervous, take the time to warm him up or longe him first, or show him his surroundings when possible. "The unique factor in equestrian sports is the unpredictability of the horse--minimizing the risk of shying or refusals is key in fall prevention for the rider," she said.

Havlik supports mandatory helmet laws. "Having seen the severity of head injuries and spinal cord injuries that can occur in riding, I think mandating helmet use would go a long way in further reducing head injuries in riders."

The study, "Equestrian sport related injuries: a review of current literature," was published in the September-October issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports.

This study is available on PubMed.

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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