In this article, Equine Scientist and Animal Expert, Dr. Tim Potter describes industry-accepted best practices for conducting trail rides and pony rides. Riders involved in these activities often have limited knowledge or prior experience with horses and are more vulnerable to falls and injury. The safety and enjoyment of the novice or first-time rider is dependent both on the adequacy of the instruction and assistance they receive, and whether they follow these instructions.
Pony Ride & Trail Ride Safety - Expert Article
Pony rides at fairs, carnivals, or other events hold their own standard of care, with distinctions from that of an equestrian facility that conducts riding lessons. Pony rides are different from typical equestrian activities because they often involve very young children, whose parents may not be familiar with horses, entrusting an attendant to take them on a short ride. As with a riding lesson, the staff member or attendant should assess the skill level of the rider prior to mounting, and mounting/dismounting should be performed with the assistance of the attendant.
Despite the brevity of the ride and the proximity of the handler, the child must still be fitted with an SEI/ASTM approved helmet (unless the pony is attached to a sweep or carousel), and stirrups should be used and adjusted to fit the rider. If stirrups are not useable, a second person should be positioned next to the rider as a spotter throughout the ride. Pony rides should be given within a fenced enclosure. The ponies used should be mature in age, well trained, and desensitized to the surrounding activity and noise.
The person leading the pony should be positioned just forward of the horse’s shoulder throughout the ride, which places them in the optimal position to observe the behavior of horse and rider, and intervene if necessary. Standing too far forward reduces the handler’s ability to properly monitor the ride, and extends their reaction time in case the pony acts out and risks unseating the rider.
Even following the best safety policies, it is impractical to think that 100% of injuries and mishaps can be prevented. Parents should make attendants aware of any issues or conditions that would potentially endanger the child or others, and adhere to any reasonable requests given by the attendant.
Like pony rides, trail rides frequently involve riders with little to no experience with horses. Unlike pony rides, trail rides take place in larger, sometimes shared spaces such as ranches, municipal parks, resorts, and privately owned facilities.
The ability of the rider should be assessed in order to determine the horse they are assigned, the difficulty of the ride, as well as whether or not there will be a guide riding along. This introductory assessment should include ensuring that the rider is fitted with an ASTM/SEI approved helmet, and is wearing heeled shoes appropriate for riding.
Instruction before mounting should include discussions involving scenarios such as dealing with a horse exhibiting anxiety, runaway horses, and the procedures used to safely regain control of the horse. The rider should be made aware of the behavioral dynamics of horses that are herd-bound and/or barn sour, and utilization of proper techniques to maintain control and ensure safety of the rider. The rider should be taught how to safely mount/dismount the horse. Before setting off on the ride, the rider should be observed in an enclosed area, round pen, or corral, to allow them to demonstrate their ability to control the horse.
The rider must follow any reasonable directions from the staff before, during, and after the ride. Communication is essential: if a rider at any point feels uncomfortable, scared, or like they are unable to control their mount, they must express this to their guide. In the same spirit, trail guides should be alert to the horse(s) and rider(s) in their group and intervene if they identify a dangerous situation. If a rider is unable to control their mount the guide should take control of the horse, and immediately dismount. They can then make an assessment of whether the trail ride can continue, or if the horses should be led back to the point of origin.
INVESTIGATING TRAIL RIDE AND PONY RIDE MISHAPS
There are several factors to assess when conducting a forensic investigation into a fall or other injury that has occurred during a pony ride or trail ride. Dr. Tim Potter has the experience and qualifications to assess whether best practices were followed to ensure the safety of the rider, the appropriateness of the horse/rider pairing, and other variables that may have contributed to the cause of the incident.
Animal Scientist & Horse Expert
Dr. Potter is an Equine Scientist with experience in both the academic and corporate sectors. He provides technical investigations, analysis, reports, and testimony toward the resolution of commercial and personal injury litigation involving areas of equine science, including nutrition, reproduction, behavior and training, safety issues, facility design and construction. Nutrition work includes feed formulation and production issues, on-farm feeding management, and analyses of interactions between formulated feeds and use of supplementation in the total diet. Reproduction work includes evaluation of nutritional status and reproductive efficiency, manipulation of the estrous cycle and effects of stress and/or environmental factors associated with reproductive status. Behavior and training work includes behavioral factors associated with training, and evaluation of potential abuse issues associated in the training process. Safety work includes evaluation of factors and scenarios that are related to safety, including lesson barns, safety issues at horse shows and at private facilities, and determining on-site person(s) of knowledge.