I have a photo at home of me on a horse. I was about sixteen and I was riding the big kind mare who I never owned but who the thought of spending time with twice a week got me through the stress of my leaving cert year. I am sat on her back without a saddle cantering around the sand arena with my arms outstretched and a smile on my face. It was pure trust and pure freedom but we can’t do that anymore.
We used to play a game in lessons called ‘bows and arrows’ pretending to be archers bareback. We used to jump without stirrups and without reins and if we were being particularly cocky and cheeky, with our eyes closed. We used to go to summer pony camp in the hope of having our ‘first gallop’ in the paddock. It was fun and it was exciting but we can’t do that anymore.
We had instructors who pushed us harder and took us further than we had been before. We had instructors who could tell us what to do and how to do it. It taught us hard work and determination. It made us work and achieve but they can’t do that anymore.
We used to sit at lunch time on a hot day with our feet dangling in the river eating lunch with friends. We took lifts off other parents to shows and training if our own parents couldn’t bring us. If we didn’t have our own horse or horsebox we rode anything we were offered, went anywhere someone would bring us and we loved it. It taught us hard work and how to negotiate but we can’t do that anymore.
Some days we fell off and most days we didn’t. Accidents happened both with and away from the horses. We didn’t spend our time thinking about who to claim off if things went wrong. We didn’t sue the riverbank or the land owner if we got a splinter when eating lunch. Our parents didn’t run to a lawyer when we fell off. They were not afraid to give a lift to another child. The instructors were not afraid to give rather than request an instruction in case it resulted in a court case.
Sure in rare cases serious accidents happened and court cases occurred and in some cases genuine negligence was proven but it didn’t result in astronomical pay outs and excessive insurance hikes. We did not have a lawsuit culture, we were not terrified to enjoy ourselves in case it went wrong. We didn’t need to check that we had an insurance policy on the rider, another on the horse, a third on the instructor and a fourth on the land and a fifth on the organisation. We didn’t have an ambulance chaser following us to the doctor’s office. We were not terrified to volunteer at our amateur sport.
2016 is the year where a hiker successfully sued a mountain because she fell when walking on a wooden sleeper. It is the year where another person is suing a riding centre because a horse slipped and she fell off. It is the year where each and every one of us who has a car will pay €200 extra on our insurance policy because the brokers are paying the price for the often extortionate amounts awarded in the ever increasing number of lawsuits. This is not an equestrian problem, it is a society problem and it is everywhere.
Sadly the genuine claims that we could be learning from and driving necessary change from (and there are genuine claims) are becoming lost in the waves of out of court settlements.
Where will it end? We have business owners terrified someone might trip on their premises and have a claim. We have packaging to tell customers that hot food and drinks are hot just in case they might get confused and claim. We have drivers afraid that if they clip the wing mirror of another car someone will have a back injury.
No one wants to take responsibility for their own actions anymore. If we decide to partake in a sport or activity, are warned of the risks, accept the risks, we might even sign a waiver detailing the risks but we can still sue everyone involved if the risk that was highlighted occurs and we can even claim negligence on the part of the person who highlighted the risk.
For our sport, my fear is that horse riding is at risk of becoming the elite sport it once was along time ago. I never came from an equestrian background. Never had my own horse until I was 21. I started lessons at the age of ten and was lucky to have parents that allowed me to pursue a sport that they couldn’t fathom my interest in. I was lucky to have yard owners who hired me a pony for competitions and training and pony club. I was lucky that I had instructors that pushed me just as hard as everyone else and helped me to succeed. I was lucky I got to compete and to feel just as important as anyone who had their own horses.
More and more now riding centres are having to worry about safety. In many ways this is a good thing as it has raised the standard of safety in the equipment and premises. However in many other ways these centres are having to restrict what they can do because the threat of a claim is always there. More and more activities are becoming restricted to people with their own horse to lessen this risk. There are already so many things we can no longer do and I fear that so many kids and novice adults without their own horse are the ones who will miss out.
Even for those of us with our own horse almost everything we do must now be supervised so that there is a witness. Our instructors can push us but have to be careful of how to phrase it. They cannot want us to jump a fence, they must ask us to do it if we would like to. We are afraid to let a friend ride our horse in case something happens. At competitions we must be aware of the rules, the revision to the rules and the new rules and the new limitations the insurance companies have had to introduce. We attend first aid courses but fret more about the possibility of being sued for doing the wrong thing than we do about having to help someone in a life or death situation. If we choose to volunteer for an unpaid position on a committee we must be aware that we are also at risk of being collectively sued at any point.
We used to be able to volunteer without any worries to help others to get started and to succeed. We used to be able to instinctively help someone without trepidation. We used to be able to teach passionately without having to carefully choose words. We used to be able to run shows without stressing about risk assessments and safety concerns. We used to trust insurance companies to protect us as clients and to act in our best interests but we can’t do that anymore.
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