Most people realize that riding a 1,000-pound animal at high speed over obstacles comes with its share of risks. But they might be surprised to learn that a higher percentage of horseback riders end up in hospitals than ATVs riders, bicyclists or football players — and they have a higher rate of traumatic brain injuries than any of those groups.
During the past two years, in fact, a total of 213 equestrians were admitted to the University of Kentucky Hospital after riding accidents, the vast majority of them the result of falling off a horse. And given that Lexington bills itself as the "Horse Capital of the World," that seemed like a good reason for UK Healthcare to start a campaign to bring those numbers down.
Saddle Up Safely, a five-year strategy to raise awareness of rider safety and reduce injuries, will kick off Tuesday morning with first lady Jane Beshear, herself a long-time equestrian.
"If we're successful, we should see a decrease in some of these numbers," said Bill Gombeski, director of strategic marketing at UK Healthcare.
Saddle Up Safely will partner with a number of local and national groups, such as the United States Equestrian Federation, and 4-H groups. UK Healthcare is already providing all the medical needs for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park, so the campaign will be featured at the Games.
Gombeski meets regularly with a group of horse experts from around UK, such as Fernanda Camargo-Stutzman, a veterinarian and researcher in the animal science department who will be writing a blog as part of the project.
As Camargo-Stutzman points out, it's important for newcomers to riding to have proper instruction on the ground and on a horse. But, as she knows, experienced people often run into trouble because they take their safety for granted. Once, she said, she tied her very quiet and well-behaved mare to a metal fence instead of a pole or cross-ties. The mare spooked, pulled the gate off its hinges and it ended up on top of Camargo-Stutzman when she was in the stableyard by herself.
"Horses are horses, and I should have known better," she said.
As in any sport, common sense is key, researchers say. Always wear a helmet, wear boots with heels, don't ride by yourself, and don't try to do more than you or the horse are capable of. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Surgery found that 27 percent of injuries to riders were caused by riders asking horses to perform beyond their abilities.
Some more good advice: Don't drink and ride. One national study cited by UK showed that 19 percent of riders with serious injuries were under the influence.
Organizers of the Saddle Up Safely campaign are also hoping to get the message of rider safety out there without the prompting of a major accident. The last time horse and rider safety got big headlines was in 2008, when two horses died and one rider was hospitalized after the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. In addition, the filly Eight Belles was put down at the Kentucky Derby.
That week prompted many new initiatives in Thoroughbred racing, including a ban on steroids. The United States Eventing Association also hosted a big summit on safety in that sport, resulting in several new competition rules. The UK Department of Engineering is still working on a study of safer eventing jumps.
Advocates also praise the fact that the campaign will look at safety across equine disciplines, from racing to eventing to trail-riding.
"Awareness of safety is something you can't have too much of," said John Nicholson, director of the Kentucky Horse Park. "It is important that we act responsibly with horses. It is also important that we act responsibly with human beings who are involved with horses by promoting safe practices."