Page last updated at 23:33 GMT, Thursday, 19 April 2007 00:33 UK

Gloom lifts for riding schools

Ian Pollock
Personal finance reporter, BBC News, Stanton, Gloucestershire

Jill Carenza with daughter Emily
Jill Carenza, with daughter Emily on Madigan

Life is getting a bit easier for the owners of the country's riding schools.

Hundreds have decided to go out of business in the past few years, partly due to a sharp rise in the cost of public liability insurance.

That, in turn, had been driven up by the increasing claims being paid out to people who had been injured while out riding.

But recent court cases have started to reverse that trend, and insurers now say that well run riding schools should have no trouble getting a competitive quote.

"Premiums have stabilised now and in some cases have gone down a bit," says Bob Pluck of South Essex Insurance Brokers (SEIB).

"They won't have a problem getting a competitive quote these days."

High Court

In March, a leading riding school owner, Jill Carenza, won a case against her in the High Court.

She has been in business for 40 years and runs her school and livery shop in the Gloucestershire village of Stanton.

Riding, particularly riding in open country, is not risk free
Mr Justice Openshaw

Ms Carenza had been sued for 300,000 by a woman who had suffered serious head injures while out on a horse during a riding lesson in 2003.

The rider claimed the accident was due to Jill Carenza's negligence.

The High Court disagreed and said it had simply been a dreadful accident and had not been caused by a negligent act of the instructor.

"Riding, particularly riding in open country, is not risk free," according to Mr Justice Openshaw.

"Of course, an instructor must take steps to reduce the risk to what is reasonable and acceptable; I find that the defendant had done just that.

"Riders do sometimes fall from horses, even during riding lessons; it does not follow that the reason for their fall can always be identified, still less that the riding instructor is to blame."

Relief

The high profile nature of the Carenza ruling has been greeted with some relief in the horse riding industry.

Warning sign at Jill Carenza's riding school
Riding schools have to show they take safety seriously

Jill already has to pay nearly 7,000 a year for her insurance, giving her cover for claims up to 5m.

While relieved, she stresses that riding is still clearly a high risk sport.

"I've learned how careful we have to be," she says.

"I was pretty upset about it because you know you haven't done anything wrong.

"People do fall off. Every time you put your foot in the stirrup you're riding a live animal with a mind of its own."

After so long in business Jill has no intention of packing up.

But not all riding school owners have been so lucky.

Closing down

According to the Association of British Riding Schools, about 650 have shut down in the past four years, bringing their numbers down to 1,850.

"Insurance has been the biggest burden that riding schools have faced in the past few years," says the association's chairman, Julian Marczak.

"In many cases this is their single biggest cost."

There is still a general misconception amongst some lawyers and their clients that any accident involving a horse is not defendable
Solicitor Jane Phillips

For a while, things were looking grim.

In 2003, the House of Lords delivered a judgement in the case Mirvahedy v Henley of a motorist who was injured in a car crash.

A horse had escaped from a field and bolted across a dual carriageway, colliding with a car and causing the driver serious injuries.

The Lords' decision meant that owners are strictly liable for an accident involving their horse if it escapes onto the highway and is behaving abnormally - even if the owner has taken all reasonable precautions.

However the impression spread that claimants would almost always win a claim for damages involving horse riding accidents and that such claims could not be defended.

The result was that the number of claims rose, some speculative, and so did the cost of insurance.

The situation is now changing.

Solicitor Jane Phillips specialises in defending such claims and has done so successfully in 18 cases in the past three years.

"There is still a general misconception amongst some lawyers and their clients that any accident involving a horse is not defendable," she says.

Precautions

Riding schools can do quite a lot to improve their chances of defending a case.

Stables at Jill Carenza's riding school
Are stables now unsafe for learner riders?

The first is the most obvious - ensure that riders wear hard hats and body protectors and follow the rules laid down by local authorities for their licenses.

But the courts and insurance firms also advise paying close attention to paperwork.

The British Horse Society (BHS) recommends that riding school owners use

  • registration forms to record a rider's history and experience
  • horse assessment forms for the horse or pony
  • instructor assessment forms to record the experience and certificates of instructors.

"This gives a proprietor more weight to fight a case if a rider claims to be experienced when they were a beginner," says Chris Doran of the BHS.

"In the past, insurers have settled out of court; maybe establishments didn't have enough safety paperwork."

Drawbacks

So, good record keeping and a good risk management policy are very helpful.

But if you are learning to ride, handling a horse and building up your confidence is all part of the experience.

Ken Law, a professional health and safety advisor, runs a website aimed at the equestrian industry called Riding Safely.

He says all these developments have had an inhibiting effect on how customers are allowed to behave and what they are allowed to do.

"I think the problem is that some riding schools now are excluding some activities in order to try and prevent litigation," he says.

"For example, barring customers from stable blocks in case a horse kicks them, or no longer taking away stirrups, which they used to do to improve a rider's balance and feel for a horse."

And of course, higher insurance premiums have helped drive up the cost of hourly riding lessons.

Ms Carenza worries that a popular sport - more than three million people ride regularly - will be damaged.

"Riding itself will be restricted, and the young riders won't get the opportunity to ride and learn, because there won't be riding schools around and they won't allow them to do very much."

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