Pony Ride & Trail Ride Safety Expert Article

This article describes industry-accepted best practices for conducting trail rides and pony rides. Riders involved in these activities often have limited knowledge and experience with horses. This increases their risk and vulnerability to falls and injury.

The safety and enjoyment of the novice or first-time rider is dependent both on the adequacy of the instruction, the assistance they receive, and whether the rider follows these instructions.

Pony Ride & Trail Ride Safety Expert Investigations

Pony Rides

Pony rides at fairs, carnivals, or other events hold their own standard of care that is different from the standard of care typically applied to an equestrian facility that conducts riding lessons. Pony rides are different from typical equestrian activities because they often involve very young children with parents who may not be familiar with horses.

As a result, they generally entrust an attendant to take their child 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 a Safety Equipment Institute/American Society for Testing and Materials (SEI/ASTM) approved helmet, 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. 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.

Pony ride sweep [image © bcgrote Flickr]

The person leading the pony should be positioned just forward of the horse’s shoulder throughout the ride. This places the handler in an optimal position to observe the behavior of both horse and rider, and to intervene if necessary. Standing too far forward reduces the handler’s ability to properly monitor the ride. It also extends the handler’s reaction time if the pony acts out.

Even following the best safety policies, it is impractical to think that 100% of injuries and mishaps can be prevented. Parents or guardians should make attendants aware of any issues or conditions that would potentially endanger the child, others in the area, the handler, or the pony. The proprietor of the pony ride operation must convey an understanding of possible risks to the child’s parent or guardian.

Although serious injury at pony rides are rare, any mishap involving a horse or pony and a child can prove catastrophic. Sufficient notice of the hazards intrinsic to activities with ponies must be provided to guardians so they can make informed decisions regarding their child’s participation.  

Trail Rides

Like pony rides, trail rides frequently involve riders with little to no experience with horses. Unlike pony rides, trail rides take place in open areas in varied environments.

The ability of the rider should be assessed to determine appropriate matching of the rider with assigned horse, the difficulty of the ride, and whether a guide will ride along. This introductory assessment should ensure that the rider is fitted with an ASTM/SEI approved helmet, and the rider is wearing heeled shoes or boots appropriate for riding.

Trail riding establishments should ask detailed questions about a rider’s experience. Many trail ride participants over-estimate their riding experience and should not be mounted on an intermediate or advanced level horse.

Discussions prior to mounting should focus on safely mounting/dismounting the horse, dealing with an anxious or runaway horses, proper techniques to maintain control and ensure safety of the rider, procedures to safely regain control of the horse, and horse behavioral dynamics (herd-bound and/or barn sour scenarios). Before setting off on the ride, the rider should be observed in an enclosed area, round pen, or corral to allow riders to demonstrate their ability to control the horse.

The rider must also be able to follow reasonable directions from the staff before, during, and after the ride. Communication is essential: if a rider at any point feels uncomfortable, scared, or unable to control their horse, they should immediately express this to the 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 condition. If a rider is unable to control their mount, the guide should take control of the horse and the rider should immediately dismount. An assessment can then be made regarding whether to continue the trail ride or lead the horse 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. Our experts have 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.

For more information, submit an inquiry or call us at 800.813.6736.

Featured Expert

Kenyon Conklin, Veterinary Expert

Kenyon Conklin, VMD

Veterinary Expert
Dr. Kenyon Conklin is a licensed veterinarian with over 20 years of experience in the private practice, corporate, military, and research sectors. She provides technical investigations, analysis,… read more.


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