Taking the Fall

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In some admittedly hazardous sports, it’s not “if” but “when” someone will get hurt—it’s the nature of the beast, which in this case is a horse. Approximately one in five riders will suffer a serious injury during their riding career, requiring medical care and potentially, hospitalization (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20827097).

What you do or don’t do on the spot and immediately following a situation could mean the difference between a tidy outcome and one that’s prolonged, both financially and emotionally.

Many trainers and owners agree these steps work for a serious or potentially serious incident:

  1. Evaluate the injury and call 911 if you deem it to be more than “minor,” or if it’s a head injury. Of all the traumatic brain injuries incurred in recreational sports, riding incidents comprise the largest group, or 12%.
  2. Don’t move someone with a suspected injury, especially spinal. If you’re unsure, keep the rider quiet and comfortable until help arrives.
  3. Notify the rider’s emergency contact—a good idea with any injury, especially a child’s. This is why it is important to make sure your boarder/rider records are up-to-date.
  4. Open your gate for the emergency vehicle to enter, where your representative will meet it. When you call, it is wise to request an ambulance with both lights and siren turned off. You can also request other riders to leave the area.
  5. Put the horse away as the rider would.
  6. Leave the issue of whether to tell the news to other clients up to the injured rider or his/her family. Everyone has a different comfort level and both rider reputation and horse’s legacy—especially if it’s for sale—are at stake here.
  7. Call your insurance carrier. If blame may be laid, call your attorney, too. Don’t assume anything. Share all details as accurately as possible. And having an incident report form handy will help should an injury turn litigious. Read on for more on these forms.

I’m Fine, Really

According to latest 2007 data, 78,279 people visited the ER for equestrian-related injuries. Rider and family medicine physician assistant Charlotte Lemmert near Seattle, Wash., offers this advice from the medical side.

“Attending physicians, residents and I could always guess what sport a person was doing based on their X-rays, ct, MRI, etc.,” she says. “The worst sports-related permanent injury accidents we saw were riders first, then football players.”

Because of that, she recommends you make time to take, or get updated on, affordable Red Cross first aid and CPR courses. You’ll learn how to check for breathing and clear airways, or how to stabilize for neck and back injuries, say trainers who’ve learned those skills.

“Riders are notorious for serious head injuries that don’t declare themselves until either someone with excellent medical training sees them or later at home when no one is around. That’s not good,” she says. “Remember that rescue teams carry legal coverage for assessing a patient—and that patient can always decline going. But that’s where problems can start.”

That “I’m invincible” mentality gets some people in trouble, Lemmert says. “Ask the rider to sign a waiver that they declined medical care, like a ‘regular’ patient signs an AMA (against medical advice) form. People with head injuries, even minor, don’t think linearly or logically or generally know what happens if you ignore all the diagnoses riders ultimately get from falls.

“When a person is in a fall, accident or crash, the adrenal glands produce epinephrine (adrenaline) so that person doesn’t feel as much pain and might even run to escape the dangerous situation,” she says. “That’s partially why some riders get back on, saying everything is ‘fine’ and then they may fall off again.”

To read more about head injuries in the sport, check out this site: http://www.riders4helmets.com/.

So Sorry…

And here’s some final advice from an equine trainer: “Sometimes people DO feel that they are owed something beyond sympathy and an apology after an accident, whether or not there was any wrongdoing. Also, in our litigious society people sometimes have very different ideas about who is at fault.”

Even before the blame begins to fly—if it does—it’s wise and it’s natural to simply say you’re sorry, advises attorney Rachel Kosmal McCart of Equine Legal Solutions. As the rider’s pain builds, so can anger and resentment, equaling trouble for you.

“It’s not the same as saying it’s your fault, but offer to do something—act like you care and are a decent human being,” says Kosmal McCart. “The thing that makes people want to sue is feeling like they’ve been treated poorly. Mistakes and accidents can happen, but when people get inspired to sue, they really feel like they’ve been personally wronged. Go visit them in the hospital and find out how they’re doing.”

“I greatly appreciated it when show management called to check on me—whether it was to cover their butts or that they were actually caring didn’t matter,” says Elizabeth Gurskis, who rides hunters and equitation at Everready Farm, Leesburg, Va. “It really made me feel they cared for my wellbeing—not just my entry fees.”

Riders Weigh In

“My position is that the horse industry can benefit by taking the best ideas from other industries, says dressage and jumping rider Erin Hazen from Solon, Iowa.”

She works in manufacturing settings with very well defined safety programs and thinks “It’s mostly about instilling a safety culture and attitude.”

Safety incidents aren’t limited to falling off, she reminds us. “They could easily be something like a boarder using the manure spreader without permission or training, and getting her hand mangled. Or someone backing their trailer up and breaking a fence, causing a horse jailbreak.”

Hazen advises documenting the following details:

  • Date, time
  • What happened and to whom
  • Description of injuries or property damage
  • Names of others present
  • Weather and site conditions
  • Other contributing factors
  • Immediate actions taken
  • Recommended preventive actions: How do we prevent a repeat?

About photos, most people bristle at the thought of an iPhone snapping away at them lying in arena sand—so use your better judgment. Pen to paper will likely suffice.

An example of a complete incident report form can be found in the Stable Management Resource Guide: http://stablemanagement.com/resources/resource-guide/resourceguide.