BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 10:45 GMT, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

How dangerous is horse riding?

The Magazine answers...

The sacked drugs adviser Prof David Nutt famously compared its risks with those of ecstasy. But just how dangerous is horse riding?

Zara Phillips competes
Eventing is one of the more dangerous parts of horse riding

There are dangers associated with horse riding. Anybody who has ever ridden will know that.

In hunting, point-to-point and eventing, often quite sizeable obstacles are jumped, opening up the possibility of a bad fall.

"It is one of the more dangerous sports, even though the safety equipment is very good," says Lucy Higginson, editor of Horse and Hound magazine.

"There have been quite a few fatalities in Britain over the years. Most people accept riding is a risk sport. The reward and the thrills more than make up for it."

In his paper earlier this year, Prof Nutt noted that riding in the UK was associated with 10 deaths and 100 traffic accidents a year. He coined the tongue-in-cheek "equine addiction syndrome" or "equasy" when suggesting it might be more harmful than ecstasy.

Dr John Silver, emeritus spinal injuries consultant, researched serious injuries in professional rugby union, gymnastics and trampolining, and horse riding, over a period of many years.

A complete statistical overview is not possible but a figure of 10 deaths a year has been cited
This is over 3-4 million riders
Many more suffer head and spinal injuries

He found many serious accidents resulted from a "mismatch between the skills of the participant and the task attempted".

"It wasn't necessarily that the task was too difficult for a top international rider. A lot were occurring in eventing, people were attempting cross country tasks against time and they couldn't do them against time."

Many other serious accidents happened on the roads.

"Cars, horses and riders are a lethal combination," he adds.

Higginson agreed that eventing was perhaps the most dangerous part of riding. Many television viewers will be familiar with the daunting height of some of the obstacles jumped.

"They are just very large, very heavy animals. If the horse falls over that's when it's most worrying."

But, she emphasises, accidents happen in more mundane circumstances.

Man competes in Horse of the Year contest
Competitors now wear helmets and, often, body armour

"It can happen to people out hacking [riding at a walking pace]."

Safety equipment has become more widespread with many riders not countenancing the idea of jumping without a helmet and chest protector. There are even air bags for horse riders which are strapped to the person's body and triggered by a release cord when a rider begins to fall.

In his paper Hazards of Horse-riding as a Popular Sport, Dr Silver cited a study from 1985 that suggested motorcyclists suffered a serious accident once every 7,000 hours but a horse rider could expect a serious incident once in every 350 hours.

Dr Silver also cites a figure from 1992 of 12 equestrian-related fatalities from 2.87 million participants. He also notes that in the period from 1994-1999, 3% of all spinal cord injury patients admitted to Stoke Mandeville Hospital were the result of horse riding. The majority of people admitted to hospital in such circumstances are women.

It is not easy to gain a complete overview about the dangers of horse riding.

The British Horse Society says there are no centrally collated figures on horse riding injuries. There is no obligation to notify the society about any incident.

And of course, to fans of the sport, many of whom regard it as as much of a way of life as it is a mere hobby, any recognition of the dangers must be tempered by the positives of the sport.

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A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

At the time Prof Nutt's controversial paper was published, the British Horse Society pointed out the health benefits of the sport, in terms of providing good exercise and therefore prolonging life, in its attack on the comparison to ecstasy.

Mark Weston, director of Access, Safety and Welfare said: "The health benefits of horse riding are well known, how anyone can maintain that taking a class A drug has such benefits beggars belief."

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