Horse activities are not usually regarded as an extreme sport, with a few obvious exceptions such as steeple chases, rodeos, and Olympic-level jumpers. Over-protective parents don’t hesitate to buy riding lessons for their 10-year-old daughters. Yet, they are, in fact, risky. According to research conducted at the University of Calgary, horseback riders are hospitalized at 350% the rate of motorcyclists. Most of those hurt are not neophytes but experienced riders. The typical victim has 27 or more years of riding experience.
By the early 90s, the diligence of civil suit lawyers was closing the doors of commercial riding stables pretty much everywhere in the nation. Liability insurance had become unaffordable. Other than by requiring boots and helmets, as nearly all stables did anyway, there was little that could make horseback-riding safer. Horses are live animals with minds and moods of their own. Ultimately, a 1000 pound animal will do what it damn well pleases, and that may include kicking, bucking, or running off for no apparent reason. Horses sometimes spook, trip, or fall down. People do not always walk away from encounters with horses. That is the nature of the sport.
Commercial stables were saved from extinction in the late 90s by specifically targeted tort reform. Liability was strictly limited in most states (including NJ) and stables posted warnings to that effect. The one in NJ is typical:
WARNING: UNDER NEW JERSEY LAW, AN EQUESTRIAN AREA OPERATOR IS NOT LIABLE FOR AN INJURY TO OR THE DEATH OF A PARTICIPANT IN EQUINE ANIMAL ACTIVITIES RESULTING FROM THE INHERENT RISKS OF EQUINE ANIMAL ACTIVITIES, PURSUANT TO P.L.1997, c.287 (C.5:15-1 et seq).
Efforts at a more general tort reform – especially in medicine – have stalled repeatedly at state and federal levels as trial lawyers warn us that civilization will collapse if reform succeeds. They are good at this. Making arguments is what they do, and they find a sympathetic audience among legislators, 60% of whom are fellow lawyers. Not only the continuing existence of civilization in less litigious Western nations, but our own domestic experience with the equine industry, hint that our current system may not be the last line of defense against barbarism after all. Riding is not any more dangerous today than it was before the reforms of 1997. If anything, riders today are motivated to be a bit more careful after seeing scary signs and signing scarier waivers. It’s just something to keep in mind.