The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is offering free high-visibility equipment to riders in order to make them more obvious to low-flying military aircraft. Britain’s 2.5 million riders are being invited to apply for the vests and sheets in the wake of the tragic death of novice rider Helen Bell, whose horse bolted away from a low flying helicopter three years ago.

An inquest jury subsequently found that the MoD was failing to protect the public by allowing helicopters to fly so low. The Ministry responded by raising the standard flying height for helicopters from 50ft to 100ft and launching a joint safety campaign with the British Horse Society (BHS).

A trial by the MoD last year found that reflective equipment is the best way of improving rider safety: “When we spoke to helicopter pilots they claimed it was much easier to see horses from a distance – the equipment is a very unnatural colour,” said Vanessa Depre from the BHS. “The aircrafts must see riders early enough for them to change direction – if they are forced to turn round they make a lot of noise.”

The BHS is offering 700 sets of reflective vests for riders and sheets for horses, developed by V-bandz. If there is too much demand, preference will be given to riders living in Dedicated User Areas and Helicopter Training Areas.

“A horse rider that can be seen in good time, can be avoided in good time,” Graham Cory, Chief Executive of the BHS said. “Properly attired riders and horses are visible in plenty of time for pilots to take appropriate evasive action, those which are not so attired are invisible until the very last moment.”

Novice rider Heather Bell, 38, was killed when her horse bolted away from a low-flying Chinook helicopter in Lincolnshire in June 2003. The mother of two was wearing a helmet but suffered brain damage when thrown from her horse as she hacked out in Market Rasen.

An inquest in October 2004 heard that the helicopter was flying just 30ft above Mrs Bell’s head when the horse bolted. Evidence revealed that the craft had clearance to fly down to 50ft.

Horse and Hound editor Lucy Higginson said the move is a good idea, but more can be done to combat the problem: “High visibility clothing is always a good idea, and if it helps pilots to avoid startling horses on the ground then it’s worth a go. But this alone will not be enough to keep horses and low-flying jets properly away from each other, and in the broad sense the challenges of combining planes and horses will still have to met.”

Reflective tabards and sheets are available from the BHS free of charge, including delivery. There are limited numbers available and anybody interested should email modviz@bhs.org.uk with their name, address and the size of their horse.

There is also a helicopter free phone advisory service on 0800 515554.

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