Are you wondering how to stay safe while horseback riding? Horse riding comes with inherent risks. The best place to start is with safety equipment, including a helmet, footwear, gloves, safety vests, and medical alert devices. Here are some important things to know about picking out the right equipment before you run to the local tack shop and buy everything in sight.
Headgear – Helmet
If you haven’t discovered this already, helmets are controversial in the horse world. However, I think it’s pretty straightforward.
Wear the dang helmet.
Emergency rooms see more horse-related head injuries than motorcycle and ski accidents yearly. And, this is not older rider specific. Falls can happen to young, old, novice, and experienced riders.
Most barns require a riding helmet. Even if you are in a ride at your own-risk state, your insurance company will likely sue the barn to get its money back if you fall.
You should look for certified helmets approved by ASTM/SEL. These are international organizations that set safety standards for such equipment. New helmets that incorporate MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system) technology), which mimics your brain’s own protection system, are also becoming available.
As with any equipment, helmets can range from budget to very expensive. Before you buy a $500 show helmet, consider what type of riding you will be doing. Will you be showing at large, recognized shows? Most often, schooling helmets are a more reasonable option. Generally, if you plan to show at larger, recognized shows, a schooling helmet in black, brown, or dark navy blue can be worn.
Fitting a Helmet
There are many styles, shapes, and trendy designs for helmets. A helmet that sits nicely and flatters one woman’s head can look terrible on another.
Aside from design, the fit of the helmet is most important. The staff at your local tack shop can fit yours properly. There are also good videos on proper helmet fit.
The helmet should be snug enough to stay in place when you vigorously nod your head and turn from side to side. A too-loose helmet will shift around during a fall and not provide the head protection you need. On the flip side, a too-tight helmet will give you a headache after wearing it for a short period of time.
Except for your helmet, what’s on your feet is even more important than what’s on your body. Proper footwear is vital no matter what you are doing. Running shoes, trainers, and slip-on espadrilles are non-starters in the saddle or around the barn. Never wear open-toed shoes, flip-flops, or sandals—imagine what happens to your exposed toes when a horse steps on your feet!
Riding boots should be sturdy and have a low heel to prevent your foot from sliding through the stirrups in an emergency. You’ve probably seen people wearing muck boots or Wellies around the barn. These are great for barn chores but should never be worn riding.
Cowboy boots are a classic option for western riders. Cowboy boots come in pointed-toes and boxed-toe designs. I’d suggest looking for the box-toe design because it allows more room for your toes and any swelling that might happen during a long trail ride. Pay attention to heel height if you have back or knee issues—this can cause strain if you are on your feet for a long period of time.
English riders have more options, making choices more complicated! Depending on what you are doing, you can use paddock boots, all-purpose shoes, or tall boots. Paddock boots cover your ankle and can zip, lace, or pull on. Most riders will use chaps or half-chaps with paddock boots to help protect their inner calves in the saddle. All-purpose shoes look similar to hiking boots and are designed for endurance riding. All-purpose shoes are a great option if you are looking for comfortable, breathable boots. However, you can’t show in all-purpose shoes, so keep that in mind!
Some riders wear tall boots for daily activities, while others save their “good” boots for horse shows. Tall boots can get hot compared to other footwear options but provide excellent leg protection and support in the saddle. You really have to weigh the pros and cons for yourself and see what is most comfortable for you.
Although people often don’t think of gloves as essential riding wear, they are important to a rider’s clothing. Gloves protect your hands and give you a better grip on the reins. When buying gloves, consider their use and durability. Ranch gloves are generally made of heavy leather, while some gloves for dressage are very thin.
To find your glove size, measure your hand’s girth without the thumb, then use the manufacturer’s sizing chart. They should be snug but allow for complete movement of your fingers, thumb, and wrist.
Safety stirrups free your foot during a fall, so your foot doesn’t get caught. Most are designed with a breakaway feature on the side or top triggered by the rider’s weight during a fall. The design only frees your foot during a fall, rather than randomly releasing it while riding. Safety stirrups are great for trail riding, jumping, eventing, or endurance. Many options and styles exist—from sleek, show-appropriate stirrups to loud, crazy colors.
As a horseback rider, unexpected dismounts are bound to happen. Luckily, you can reduce the likelihood of serious injury by wearing a safety vest. The vests are practical protection for riders of all ages. They absorb the impact from a fall, providing some protection from broken ribs, bruised ribs, and depending on the model, cervical and neck injuries.
There are two styles of protective vests; hard-shelled and inflatable.
Eventers must wear a hard-shelled vest that fits like a clamshell around their torso. The interior is filled with shock-absorbing material.
More recreational riders prefer inflatable vests. These are tethered to the saddle by a strap or lanyard. When you start to fall, the tension against the tether activates the vest, which inflates like an airbag in an automobile.
Calling for Help
Often, we are in the barn, on the trail, or riding in the arena without others around. In the event of a fall, it could be hours before someone finds you. If you plan on using your cell phone for communication, make sure it is on you and reachable—not in the saddlebag or hooked to the saddle horn. If your horse runs off after you fall, your cell phone will go with it.
Many people carry cell phones and think this is a sure way to call for help. Unfortunately, there are many areas with poor cell reception. However, even if you do not have a signal, dial 911. If there are towers for other carriers in the area, they will route the call.
Over 450,000 people are taken to the emergency rooms each year, unconscious and without identification. Always carry some type of identification with your name, information, and emergency contact.
ROADiD offers a wristband with your basic contact information on the front and a line and telephone number on the back. That connects to a database with your pertinent medical and contact information.
You should also include ICE (in case of emergency) on your cell phone. This is a list of emergency contacts for first responders and medical personnel. Even if your phone is locked, the system allows access to ICE contacts.
A medical alert system will call for help if you are injured or have an emergency.
In an emergency, the basic medical alert system allows you to press a button on a pendant worn around your neck or a device on your wrist. A signal is sent to a dispatch center. These systems have two-way communication, but a short transmission range, so are often too limited to be useful at the barn or while riding
A smartwatch with a medical alert app is the most practical solution for horseback riders. They operate anywhere with a signal. You can summon help where ever you need it.
Other alert systems are specifically for falls. They send an SOS to a contact you have programmed into the device settings and track the horse’s location. Other systems monitor your movement. If they detect no activity for several minutes, the device sends a warning, and if you don’t turn it off, it contacts emergency services.
Not sure which system is right for you? I recently wrote an article for Horse Illustrated with all the features of the current medical alert devices. Read the full article.
Expiration Dates on Safety Equipment
Safety equipment doesn’t last forever. Safety vests and helmets should be replaced every five years or after a fall, whichever occurs first. Inflatable vests should also be returned to the manufacturer annually for inspection. While this may seem excessive, the protective materials within the equipment degrade over time and won’t provide effective protection when you fall. Technology also continues to advance, providing better and better safety options.
Looking for more tips as a senior horseback rider? Check out Riders of a Certain Age in paperback!