Making Sure Your First Horse Ride is Safe

As a life-long horse-back rider, I frequently have the following conversation, or some version thereof, when first informing someone that I’m an equestrian:

Me:   I spend my time on the weekends riding.

Other person:  I haven’t ridden my bike in a while.

Me:    Well, actually I ride horses, not bikes.

Other person: That’s interesting. I rode a horse once. It took off with me/ bucked me off/ ran me into a fence/tree. I haven’t ridden since.

When I hear someone make these comments, it makes me a little sad, for several reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of safe animals for beginners to ride. My guess is that this horse, for a variety of reasons, was probably not safe for a novice. Second, this person could have gotten seriously injured. I would hate for any person to get injured while participating in a sport I truly love. Lastly, this person has not ridden since and, more likely than not, this first experience ruined riding for them for the rest of their life.

However, you can make your first riding experience for yourself or your children a safe and enjoyable one. There are several things you can do before your  first ride to ensure safety and fun:

1) Wear boots and a helmet. Most riding facilities that teach beginners will require you to wear a helmet which they provide. Helmets can be quite expensive and most beginners do not make the financial investment of purchasing a helmet before their first time in the saddle. Helmets for riding horse are not the same as riding bikes and therefore you should take advantage of the facility’s horse riding helmets. You also need to wear closed-toe shoes with a heel. Typically this means a boot. Why can’t you wear sneakers or flats to ride? For a very good reason- if you fall off the horse and your foot gets stuck through the stirrup, you could get dragged along or trampled by the horse. If you have a heel on your shoe, your foot can not slide through and get stuck. Trust me, it is much safer to fall off the horse and onto the ground than get dragged by the horse.

2) Ask when the horse was exercised last. Horses tend to be like young children- if they have been pent up for a long time or have gone a while without exercise, watch out! That first trip out will be an excuse to burn pent up energy. My guess is that when a person tells me the horse took off with them or bucked on their first ride, the horse may not have been ridden in a long time. A horse that is a little tired is less likely to look for excuses to run. For your first ride, you want a horse that is old, sway-backed and docile (assuming it is not lame). This is a much better mount for your first ride than something that looks like it is ready to run in the Kentucky Derby. If the instructor says that the horse has been used in other beginner lessons that week, it is a good sign. The instructor could also lunge the horse before it is ridden, just to make sure it has all the bucks out of it. Lunging is where the horse is put on a very long rope, called a lunge line, and exercised in a large circle, many times without a rider on it. If the horse is going to misbehave, most likely it will do so on the lunge line before it has the extra weight of a rider on it.

3) Look for a sign and a waiver referencing Florida Statute 773.01- 773.05. The sign and waiver are important for individuals engaging in equine activities because it limits their liability under the law. Without the sign and waiver, the person engaging in the activity opens themselves up to greater exposure in the event someone is injured while participating in the equine activity. To me, if someone is not interested in protecting their own business, they are not interested in protecting my safety.

4) Have fun! Riding horses is a great way to learn to cooperate with another being and makes you physically active. A horse can feel when a rider is tense, so relax and enjoy the experience!

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