A new study has thrown a spotlight on the question of head protection when handling horses on the ground.

Hospital patients admitted as a result of horse accidents during a 5 year period at the University of Kentucky Trauma Registry have revealed that there were equal rates of head injury for both riders and handlers.

All 3 of the deaths recorded were handlers on the ground rather than riders. One was caused by a kick to the head, another a kick to the chest and the third after a fall from a trailer when loading a horse.

As a result of the survey, researchers have concluded the “findings reinforce the need for protective equipment usage at all times around horses”.

Accidents closer to home

The topic was highlighted last week closer to home (28 May) when Irish vet Gerard Long was killed after being kicked in the head while treating a mare in Co Tipperary.

The Irish Health and Safety Authority told H&H that it is investigating the death but a conclusion is expected to take “a number of months”.

There have been several other fatalities from injuries incurred on the ground in Britain in the past couple of years.

In 2011, 16-year-old Lauren Bryant from Scotland died after being found with serious head injuries having gone to catch her horse from its field.

The following October a bank manager suffered fatal head injuries while trying to calm a horse in the back of a lorry.

Olympic gold medallist Ben Maher was also in the news in 2012 after he was kicked in the head when a horse he was leading in at his yard in Essex slipped and fell on him.

The most dangerous times on the ground are considered to be lungeing, leading, loading and turning out. But, despite the horror stories, many riders are still reluctant to wear a hat when dismounted.

“I accept that having and handling horses comes with a level of risk,” said H&H reader Lucinda Waldron. “I’m unlikely to wear my hat all the time on the ground, but I am aware that it’s not always the sensible option.”

“While I always ride with my hat on, I definitely don’t always wear one while working on the ground with my horses,” added another reader.

Rules and regulations

Approved safety hats when mounted are compulsory for British Showjumping competitors, for British Eventing except for dressage and prize-giving at intermediate and above, and at British Dressage except for advanced and above. But there are no regulations referring to handlers on the ground.

In racing it is compulsory for all stalls handlers to wear safety headgear, but not for anyone else helping on the ground. 

There are no specific guidelines for registered farriers or vets about hats.

The Pony Club teaches that wearing a hat when entering a stable, turning out, loading and lungeing is “best practice”, but does not have a blanket policy.

Nor is wearing a hat when not mounted a requirement for many insurance policies for livery yards and riding schools.

“Our insurance has no requirement saying that hard hats must be worn while handling horses or on the ground around horses,” said Kathryn Herring from South Essex Insurance Brokers (SEIB). “We do however encourage the wearing of hard hats.

“We would also advise clients to carry out risk assessments to include where they feel it necessary to make people wear hard hats on the ground.”

Too hard to enforce? 

A spokesman from the Pony Club told H&H that there is no “over arching rule” because “given the scale of the membership it would be un-enforceable”.

Ms Herring told H&H that some of her clients suggest that it would not be safe to make employees wear hard hats all day in the summer because of the risk of fainting.

But despite the concerns raised, some in the equestrian industry say they would be happy to wear their hats more often. 

“I wouldn’t have a problem if an employer asked me to wear my hat when on the ground,” said H&H reader Jessica Fardoe. “I think it’s just a good safety precaution -— especially if you’re on a yard with fit and often unpredictable competition horses.”

Instructor Danielle Dawson said: “I make all the Pony Club kids wear them at all times doing horse care. I don’t think that it is health and safety gone mad.”

What do you think about wearing head protection on the ground? Write to us at hhletters@ipcmedia.com

First published in Horse & Hound magazine (5 June 2014 issue)