Is horse riding really that dangerous?

February 17, 2007

by Neil Clarkson

Is horse riding really as dangerous as the statistics suggest?
© Horsetalk

Two reports released within a week of each other in New Zealand have highlighted the dangers of horse riding. Are riders really putting their lives on the line when they mount a horse?

The two reports, one an analysis of accident data published in the New Zealand Medical Journal, and the other a review of literature commissioned by the Accident Compensation Corporation, highlight areas of major concern.

Perhaps the Government will now channel more funding into education and safety in the high-risk sports identified in the medical journal study, among which horse-riding comfortably proved the most risky.

However, both reports have highlighted serious shortcomings in data collection on injury accidents in New Zealand.

Horsetalk, in a report six months ago on how to ride safely on the road, pointed to what would appear to be under-reporting of injury accidents resulting from falls on the road.

Accident documentation that refers only to a "fall from horse" gives no clue as to whether the accident resulted from a fall in the home paddock while schooling a horse, or being tossed because a motorist sped past too close and too fast.

The medical journal report noted similar shortcomings: "Limitations of the findings of the data analysis for adventure sport-related claims include the inability to identify a large number of cases that may have been adventure-related from the available data."

Glenda Northey, in her review of horse-accident literature, noted that the location of more than 70 per cent of accidents was not specified in the New Zealand figures, with the statistics showing farms at 6.3%, places of recreation and sport at 6.1%, streets and highways at 5%, and home at 5%.

The data, she notes, failed to specify important details about safety clothing worn, the location of the accident, and in many cases what injury occurred. "Linking injury outcomes with these details would enable researchers to more accurately identify areas for injury prevention strategies," she said.

Comparing the information from the two reports shows just how woeful the data collected thus far is, and its limited ability to help develop any front-end strategies to target the highest risk areas.

New Zealand, it would seem, is in desperate need of a more comprehensive and reliable system of data collection for injury accidents.

The study reported in the medical journal analysed information supplied by the Accident Compensation Corporation covering 40,000 cases for adults (16 and over) where the injury was reported to have occurred at a place for sport or recreation. The accidents covered a year from July 2004.

The study narrowed this down to 18,697 cases in which adventure tourism and adventure sports injury claims were identified from the data, across 28 activity sectors. The authors noted that under-reporting was likely among some of the sports because of the need to eliminate accidents with poor descriptions such as "riding my bike" or "walking down a steep bank" from the study.

The important thing to note here is that the study in the medical journal related only to those accidents reported at a place of sport or recreation.

The Northey report noted that, in the ACC figures, the location of 70 per cent of horse accidents was not specified. In fact, just 6.1% of horse accidents were reported to have occurred at places of recreation and sport.

What does this tell us? For a start, it would seem that 70 per cent of horse-related accidents never came within sight of the study in the medical journal because no location was ever recorded. In fact, on the Northey figures, it would appear the study only included 6.1% of horse-related accidents reported to ACC.

This is no way lessens the validity of the findings of the medical journal study. After all, it would seem likely that location would not be reported in accidents in other activities.

However, it does raise some questions. If these 6.1 per cent of horse accidents were at "places of recreation or sport", what are we looking at? Did most of these accidents occur during three-day events, show jumping, endurance rides, dressage events? Did they happen at pony club during games? Were they in the lead rein class at the local A&P Show? Are injuries to jockeys at racetracks occurring at a place of sport, or a workplace?

Classifying horse-riding as an adventure sport activity might suggest that injuries arising from commercial trekking operations might be among these figures. Would an accident from a trek have occurred in a place of recreation or sport? At the very least, we know that 70 per cent of horse accidents did not have any location reported.

The authors of the medical journal study, Tim Bentley, Keith Macky, and Jo Edwards, suggested improved risk-management practices were required for commercial adventure tourism and adventure sports operators in New Zealand if safety was to be improved across this sector.

There is sense in this, but it is important, in my view, to realise that the study is providing a small part of the answer to a very big question. The last thing any sport needs is a sabre-rattling Government to start imposing restrictions without the data to back it up.

The Northey report, quoting a 2002 overseas study, gives some insight into the nature of recreational riding injuries, and trekking does not feature prominently. The study suggested that riders received 1 injury per 100 hours for leisure riding, 1 injury per 5 hours for amateur racing with jumps, and 1 injury per 1 hours riding when participating in cross-country eventing. In the adventure and tourism industry it is suggested that the rate is as low as 1 per million participation hours.

The Northey report, which drew upon hundreds of studies and investigations that explored riding injuries and safety issues surrounding riding, found that the risk of serious injury from riding is greater than even car racing.

Should we be surprised by this finding? Car racing would be legislated out of existence if it could not demonstrate the highest of safety standards, from fireproof clothing, driver harnesses, safety cages, to scrupulous monitoring of vehicles and tracks.

Northey drew this figure from a 1999 study that compared hours of participation. It is a valid comparison.

The study in the medical journal related injury claims back to participation rate. Horse-riding topped the list with 28.6 claims per 1000 participants. Mountain biking was next, well behind with 14.8 claims per 1000 participants. The other 26 adventure-sports fell in line behind this, with most of them mustering not even 1 claim per 1000 participants.

Rock climbing, for example, could not muster 1 claim per 1000 rock climbers. Rock climbers were responsible for only 2.3 per cent of all claims within the study, compared with 20.4 per cent for horse riding.

To my mind, the claim rate per 1000 participants is of limited value because we cannot quantify the amount of participation.

Sport and Recreation New Zealand figures from 2001 showed that 5 per cent of New Zealand adults had taken part in horse riding and equestrian sport and leisure activities in the preceding 12 months. The figure rose to 9 per cent for those aged 18 to 24. Horse riding was included in the list of top sports and activities undertaken by New Zealand women.

It's a popular pastime. Certainly, some people may ride only once a year, but a good many would be riding every day, spending hundreds of hours in the saddle each year. Many more would be riding several times a week, or at least at weekends. Would a skydiver, a bungy jumper, a water skier, a wakeboarder, or a whitewater rafter rack up anything like those hours, even if they're a total enthusiast?

There is no doubt that safety is an important issue in horse riding. Northey, in her report, found that most of the information on accident prevention was anecdotal.

"The effectiveness of many of the injury-prevention countermeasures suggested within the literature has still to be scientifically researched," Northey wrote.

That is not good enough.

The first step is getting better raw data. Unless the country can gather reliable and consistent accident data, studies will only tend to provide an indicative picture.

Unfortunately, the responsibility will probably fall on doctors, who already complain about the volume of paperwork. But it must done.

The Americans are showing us the way, and, ironically, it's all to do with horses. The US racing industry is worried about the number of race injuries among thoroughbreds. They are moving towards a standardized national reporting system for thoroughbred injuries, so a clearer picture of the causes of accidents can be established. From that, it is hoped measures can be taken to reduce the accident toll.

If the US can establish a standardized reporting system among thoroughbreds across 50 state jurisdictions, you would think New Zealand could manage it for its citizens.