Friday, June 5, 2009

A lesson in equestrian safety.

Growing up riding at a hunter/jumper schooling barn, safety was firmly entrenched in my early lessons with horses. Some safety rules were directly taught. Some were listed on large signs. And others were unspoken yet always followed.

Be cautious around strange horses, especially when approaching from behind.

Travel the same way in the arena, or pass left shoulder to left shoulder.

Horses and riders having lessons had the right of way.

Lunge only when you had the space and permission.

When hacking while other people were jumping, always pay close attention and stay out of their way.

And the list went on.

One of the most important rules was the helmet rule. All the kids and jumpers (and most definitely the jumping kids!) had to wear riding helmets, no matter what. (Never mind that my early riding helmets were velveteen show pieces rather than safety helmets--once we knew better, the switch was easy).

I never questioned why I had to wear a helmet. I just did it. I never broke the habit--I can perhaps count on one hand the number of times I have ridden without a helmet. And I assure you, each of those rides was during the cool-down phase of a very long, very hot ride, with a very tired horse beneath me. Even then, fearing it was possible to fall and split my skull open as my sweaty horse moseyed along at a slug's pace, I would dismount after only a couple minutes. If I was really so hot that I couldn't stand to wear a helmet, then I wanted to be on the ground, not a horse.

The older I become and the more I read (a moving firsthand account in a recent issue of Equus comes to mind), see, and personally experience regarding equestrian safety, the more firm I am with my stance on wearing helmets. No matter what excuse you have, it's just not worth it to risk becoming a drooling, pooping vegetable that your loved ones need to change diapers for and hand-feed daily for as long as you live...if you can call that living.

Of course, while it's important to do everything you can to ensure the safety of your horse and yourself during rides, you need to also play a part in keeping things safe for fellow equestrians.

On Wednesday I saw a gross display that neglected both basic rules. The girl was a teen and mounted her tall, athletic gray without a helmet. I was riding Lim in the outdoor arena and was happy to have the company of another horse. Limerick had been behaving pretty well but was having some of her Ohmygosh what's happening over there?! moments. There had been no spooking but I had to work hard to keep everything easygoing and calm for the both of us.

The teenage girl on the gray promptly began to trot. I rode Lim at a collected sitting trot, mulling over in my head whether I should ask for the canter or not. My heart told me yes but my gut told me to wait a few moments. I'm glad I listened to it.

The girl asked her gray to canter after three minutes of trotting. She egged him on faster and faster. There was a ditch in the path along the rail on the western edge of the arena. Lim had to be cautious when trotting over it and, had we cantered, I was planning to go around the ditch.

The girl had her horse hand gallop over this ditch again and again, lap by lap, and I expected her horse to stumble at any time (in fact, he did once but quickly recovered himself). I knew that if he went down at that speed, her bare head would suffer severe damage on the hard arena footing.

She went faster and faster, leaning onto her horse's neck to encourage him to speed up. By this time I was resigned to walking Lim in the center of the arena; if I went anywhere near the rail we would be plowed into by the speeding gray. Lim began to get riled up. She started to dance and tense up and I knew that within seconds she would be running alongside the gray--hell, she would be passing him--totally out of control.

I am a quiet person and tend to keep to myself, but if I need to speak up then I never hesitate to do so. Now was one of those moments.

"SLOW DOWN!!!!" I yelled at the girl as she galloped by again, Lim grabbing at the bit and jumping forward beneath me. I can't always tell if my voice is loud enough to be heard but in this case, I had no doubt. The girl immediately pulled her blowing horse down to a walk. I half expected her to throw some angry words my way but she ignored me.

A hand gallop on a controlled horse is always fun. I hand galloped Lim in the same arena several times last year and loved every second of it. But I never did it with an unsuspecting equestrian in the arena with me. If I wanted to hand gallop and was with someone else, I would first ask them if a faster gait was acceptable.

And of course, I never, ever did it without a helmet. My barn is not known for excellent arena footing and a stumble was a very real possibility. That said, even if the footing was the smoothest, most perfect stretch of grass to ever exist, I would have my helmet securely on my head.

Like seat belts, helmets are ultimately a personal choice. If you ride with me without a helmet, I will not say a single word. But if you ride with me and disrespect the safety boundaries of my horse and I, then I will make sure you know it.

No one should be afraid to speak up for their own safety. If a deaf girl can do it, then so can you!


nightrider said...

100% agree ! The best way to lose me as a riding partner is to practice stupid riding behavior.

Stephanie said...

Yikes... That certainly was not a pleasant experience! I'm glad you said something to her... seems that no one else does.

Glad to read that you and Lim are enjoying your time together and that she has finally calmed down.