Ride Safely

Whether you're a veteran or novice, show everyone just how brainy you really are by wearing protective gear every time you ride.
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Whether you're a veteran or novice, show everyone just how brainy you really are by wearing protective gear every time you ride.
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How's this for a bit of irony? experienced riders are more likely to get hurt than beginning riders. According to the National Injury Prevention Foundation (NIPF), equestrians with five or more years of riding experience are more likely to be injured than riders with less experience. What's more, in comparing recreational activities, the highest proportion of events involving multiple injuries are due to horseback riding accidents.

The American Medical Equestrian Association/Safe Riders Foundation states that 60% of equestrian-related deaths are due to head injury. The Consumer Product Safety Commission lists 14,218 reported head injuries in 2004 due to horse activities.

Even if you weren't aware of these disturbing statistics, you likely are aware that horseback riding is a risky sport. After all, we know we're climbing aboard a strong animal with a mind of his own. And even with the best training, sometimes our horses make decisions based on a strong instinct that tells him to run first and ask questions later.

We also know that freak accidents happen-things that no matter how many safety precautions were in place nothing could have stopped. Still, taking every available option to decrease our chances of getting injured or killed while riding is simply common sense.

Use Your Head
In some ways, the riding-helmet issue is like the seatbelt push 25 years ago. Drivers had an unlimited number of excuses for not wearing seatbelts, ranging from the senseless ("I'm only driving a few miles") to the irrational ("fear of being confined"). As seatbelts became law in more states, though, more people began to accept them-and got used to wearing them. Now more people automatically snap them in place before driving away.

The same thing may eventually happen with riding helmets. As more states and equestrian organizations begin to require that safety helmets be worn in specific activities or by certain age groups, more riders will give in. In some states, even young western riders are required to wear safety helmets when participating in certain events. This is a good thing. What would be better, though, is if all riders would wear helmets at home, too, not just at public events. Just for the record, more equestrian injuries occur at home than away.

If you've decided to use your head (and protect it), go to your local tack store to purchase an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet. Few places sell "apparel only" helmets anymore, but they are out there. Skip 'em. They're cheap, but you're just getting a hat. You may as well go riding in a sunbonnet.

Better Safe...

• Try on several ASTM/SEI certified helmets to find one that fits perfectly.

• Adjust the helmet so it wiggles your eye-brows when you wobble it back and forth.

• Replace the helmet (or send it back to the manufacturer) after any fall or impact.

• Ride in form-fitting clothing and outerwear, and consider wearing a crash vest.

• Wear boots or riding shoes with 1"-1½" heels, and low-to-no tread.

• Select stirrups with sufficient room for your foot to slide in-and-out easily.

• Always use stirrup hobbles on western saddles to keep the stirrups hanging straight.

• Wear bright, reflective clothing, tape and accessories when riding, especially in low-light conditions.

A true safety helmet is labeled as being ASTM/SEI certified, which means the manufacturer has met the standards for manufacturing safe equestrian helmets set forth by ASTM International (current standard is the ASTM F1163-04a). But ASTM only writes these rules. It doesn't ensure the helmets qualify. That's what the SEI does.

The SEI notation means the Safety Equipment Institute has determined independently that a specific helmet brand and model does indeed meet the ASTM requirements. In other words, when a helmet carries a label stating that it meets the ASTM F1163-04a standards, you don't have to take the manufacturer's word for it. The SEI does that for you. And if it's truly ASTM/SEI, it will always have a label in it verifying this fact.

You can spend anywhere from $30 to over $500 for an ASTM/SEI helmet. To date, there is no scientific proof by an independent testing facility that a $500 helmet is absolutely safer than the $30 helmet, as the SEI only certifies that a helmet meets the standard. It won't tell us if it exceeds the ASTM requirements. You may be paying additional money for colors, motifs, design details, manufacturer names and stripes, and for heavier shells that may be more durable than lightweight helmets. That's all fine, as long as it fits, too.

A helmet should feel snug but comfortable, with the chin strap in place. After all, if it's too tight, it will hurt and you're not going to wear it. If it's too loose, however, it won't stay in place during a fall. If you move a properly fitted helmet back and forth on your head, your forehead/eyebrows should wrinkle with the movement.

Many manufacturers sell helmets under the labels of small, medium and large. They usually include inserts that help you fine-tune the helmet fit by using a thinner or thicker lining. Some manufacturers still sell in 1/8" size increments, too, but they are a bit more expensive. Either choice is fine.

The important thing is to be sure it actually fits properly, which is why we recommend you purchase your helmet from an actual store where you can try on several brands and models. Each one may have a slightly different feel/shape, so you're going to want to find the one best suited to your own head. Then, you can pay attention to adornments, like stripes, colors and western motifs available from some manufacturers. (Yes, that's right, helmets aren't just for English riders.)

Note: Remember that helmets must be re-inspected by the manufacturer or replaced anytime a rider falls in them. A helmet cannot be guaranteed as still meeting the safety standard if it has been involved in a fall. You can't judge its strength by simply visually inspecting the outside of the helmet.

Body Protectors
Besides a helmet, the only other riding gear that has a safety-certification program is a body protector, sometimes called a riding vest or crash vest. Equestrian body protectors made by Charles Owen & Company, Eastwest International, Intec Corporation, and Polybid Ltd. meet the ASTM F-1937-04 standard for body protection while riding. Look for the same type of ASTM/SEI label in the vests as you do the helmets to ensure you're getting a product that meets or exceeds minimal safety standards.

Many vests are made to meet BETA standards as well or instead of ASTM. BETA stands for "British Equestrian Trade Association," and this association ensures that garments from manufacturers undergo testing regularly. The ratings for body-protector vests are from 1-3, with 1 being the lowest level of protection and most lightweight vest, to 3, which is designed for heavier-duty activities, like eventing. Either the ASTM or BETA standard is an acceptable choice. Steer clear of vests that don't include one rating or another.

Once again, comfort and fit come first. Try the vest on over lightweight clothing and be sure it fits under your show jacket, if that's an issue. The vest should fit snugly but not restrain you from any type of movement. Pretend you're riding your horse when trying on the vest by moving in normal riding patterns. You should not feel restricted by the vest.

Body-protector vests are used most heavily by three-day event/combined-training riders, although they're acceptable in any discipline. Rodeo riders also frequently wear vests. A vest won't stop all life-threatening internal injuries, spinal injuries or fractures. It also can't stop torsion-type injuries, such as a spinal twist. However, it will help prevent bruising from blunt blows from falling on the hard earth or hitting a jump on your way to the ground. It may lessen severe injuries received from being kicked or stepped upon and can offer some protection against soft-tissue injuries and shoulder injuries. It may even prevent some broken ribs.

You can get vests in a variety of colors, of course. And, as is often the case, today's vest choices are slimmer, sleeker and more comfortable than the original prototypes. Vests cost between $80 and $200.

Riding Boots
It's an interesting point that riding boots have never been held to a safety standard, although most riding instructors have personal requirements. Probably the most well-known footwear statement is "no sneakers." The no-sneakers rule is an old one that evolved from the belief that footwear without a heel and/or with a rubber bottom could more easily get caught in a stirrup during a fall, causing the rider to be dragged by the horse.

While we agree that a riding shoe should have a heel, we're a little more lenient about the bottom material (it's actually the tread design that matters). There are even riding sneakers on the market today, offering a lightweight and comfortable alternative to leather boots for pleasure riders. What riding sneakers do, however, is offer both a heel and ankle protection, which differs from most regular sneakers.

The bottom of the riding shoe should have a low-to-no tread. Should you part company with your horse, too deep of a tread may cause your shoe or boot to become stuck in the stirrup, which could cause you to be dragged. The tread design is especially important to inspect on winter boots, which sometimes have a thicker design. The riding shoe or boot's width should be narrow enough that the foot can slip in and out of the stirrup easily. If it doesn't, you either need a different boot or a wider stirrup.

When you choose a riding shoe, look for one that has a 1" to 1½" heel, fits snugly but comfortably (you don't want it to slide off your foot) and offers protection for your ankle bone. You can choose slip-on, lace-up or zip-up, with laces usually offering the firmest support and slip-on shoes the least ankle support.

The actual material of the boot is a matter of preference. Leather is traditional and remains most popular, but synthetics are gaining in popularity. A good pair of riding footwear will cost $40 to $50 and up. You can easily spend $750 or more for custom designs. Obviously, you're going to choose the riding shoe that fits your discipline, whether it's traditional western boots, schooling paddock boots, tall English boots or the lightweight paddock or the sneaker, which is preferred by endurance riders.

Commonsense: It's Priceless

You can purchase every item of tack and apparel with the term "safety" attached to it and still have an accident. Smart riding involves more than wise purchases. You need to ensure that you have basic good horsemanship in place, too.
• Use the correct saddle for your discipline and be sure it's in good shape.
• Check that all leather pieces are in good repair, with no cracks or worn spots.
• Be sure the saddle fits both you and your horse correctly.
• Check your girth/cinch snugness before you mount and again five minutes into your ride.
• The bit/bridle/hackamore should be appropriate for your horse's level of training, be positioned correctly and in good repair.
• Avoid wearing loose-fitting clothing that could get hung on tack.
• Adjust the speed of your activity for the terrain.
• Ride only a horse that you are truly capable of handling. Riding a difficult horse you aren't experienced enough to control is dangerous for you, the horse and anyone around you.
• Be certain that the activity you are trying is within the realm of reality for your level of riding.
• Keep at least one horse length of distance between you and the horse in front of you on rides.
• Do not attempt activities that the horse is not trained for or physically conditioned to handle. An over-tired horse can stumble and fall.
• Keep yourself physically fit. Riding is real exercise, and you need toned muscles to ride properly.

Stirrups
Falling clear of your horse is a serious matter of safety. A foot caught in a stirrup on a runaway horse is one of the most dangerous scenarios in riding. Regardless of your discipline or skill, this is always a possibility, especially in the event of a major shying episode or a bucking horse when your balance may be jeopardized, causing your foot to jam deeper into the stirrup until you're finally thrown out of the saddle.

Western riders were the first to use protection against this situation with the tapadero-the protective leather covering you sometimes note on the front of the stirrup. This simple solution is mostly seen today on children's saddles and decorative parade saddles, but it works the same as its original intention: To stop the foot from going too deeply into the stirrup. Today, you can also find western-style stirrups with a leather-covered front "cage," along the lines of the tapadero, but without a full leather covering.

Most adult riders prefer a traditional open western stirrup. If that's the case, one of the best alternatives may be a quick-release stirrup that operates on a spring mechanism set to release when it feels tension similar to that of a foot caught in the stirrup. The release is at the top of the stirrup, where it connects to the stirrup leathers.

We have also seen western stirrups that have an open outside. The outside piece is attached to the bottom with a hinge and curls up over the rider's foot, rather than attaching to the top, so it will release the foot in an emergency. This style doesn't look traditional, but it should offer a better likelihood of release.

Another important safety accessory is stirrup "hobbles." These are leather straps that buckle around the bottom of the stirrup and keep the stirrup hanging straight. They prevent the stirrups from turning sideways and trapping the foot if the rider comes off, so he's not dragged.

For English riders, the choices are broader, including spring-release stirrups that release from the side rather than the top design seen in western stirrups. If you choose a release stirrup, be sure you choose one that offers a smooth opening that won't catch on any boot laces.

The original English safety stirrup is the peacock stirrup, which is a traditional stirrup that has the entire outside replaced with a rubber-band-like piece. The rubber easily comes off with even a small amount of pressure and is inexpensive and simple to replace. Like tapaderos, however, for some reason, these stirrups are considered for children.

The English version of a tapadero is the Devonshire stirrup. Often seen on pony saddles or in therapeutic riding, these stirrups have a leather cage built around the front of the stirrup to prevent a foot from sliding through.

Adults may prefer an S-shaped stirrup. This is a traditional hunting stirrup with the outside shaped like an S, so the boot can't become lodged between the side and bottom of the stirrup. It feels very much like a traditional hunting stirrup when you ride in it.

In Fillis designs, you can find stirrups made to flex at the sides and/or flex at the base, which are believed to reduce the chance of a boot getting caught because the stirrup has some give to it (it doesn't feel like it has give in it when you ride, however). There are also wide bell-shaped Fillis stirrups that are believed to be less likely to trap a boot due to their oversize shape and various degrees of offset eyes that set the stirrups at an angle perpendicular to the horse's side.

With all these choices, one might think stirrups have truly become "safe," but there is no scientific proof that these stirrups will definitely release your foot in a fall. They're simply designs that most horsemen think will reduce the chance of being dragged-and they are good ideas to consider adding to your tack collection.

Reflective Gear/Night Riding
If you're riding in the early morning, late evening or even at night-especially if you're on roadways-you should consider reflective gear for you and your horse. It's also an excellent idea if you're trail riding during any type of hunting season. Visibility is key in all these instances.

You can opt to go to the hunting section of your local sporting goods store and purchase a blaze-orange or florescent-hot-pink vest and cap (to place over your helmet, of course) for yourself. This may be the least expensive option. Most tack stores also have similar items in stock, including bright helmet covers.

You can also consider brightly colored reflective tape and add strips of it to your clothing, bridle, and saddle. We've even seen catalogs carry reflective fuzzy coverings for halters, which could be used on your bridle and bright saddle pads. You can get reflective brow bands, fetlock strips, stirrup ribbons, tail wraps and half chaps. They're all simply commonsense ways to increase visibility, much the same as cyclists use.

Bottom Line
Actually, what equestrian safety boils down to is commonsense. Accidents happen. But being prepared may make the difference between a small bruise and a lengthy hospital stay. No measure of vanity is worth the risk, and safety products don't have to cost the earth.