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Rural Weekly: Horses more dangerous than riding motorbikes, Andrew McLean

RIDING horses is risky business.

According to new research, you are 20 times more likely to be injured doing an equestrian-based activity than you are riding a motorbike.

And even worse, horse accidents equate for 25% of all lethal injuries in children’s sport.

While they seem like shocking statistics, Eureka Prize for Science winner Dr Andrew McLean was not surprised.

The horse trainer and equestrian science expert said reports on the dangers of working with horses were regularly released.

“We can have 10-20 deaths per year here in Australia,” he said.

“The serious injury rate, which is most alarming, is there is one serious injury for every 350 hours of contact (with a horse).”

The statistics were correlated in a review paper that has been published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour.

While horses might not be an animal people associate as being dangerous, Mr McLean stressed injuries were common.

He agreed some riders may have become complacent.

“I hear of these sorts of accidents happening quite a lot,” he said.

“I have been to hospital myself a few times with horse injuries and when you speak to the hospital staff they are never surprised – they see them all the time.

“Just about every hospital in rural areas in Australia are well acquainted with horse injuries.”

Many of the serious accident happen from horse kicks.

“The majority of injuries are on the ground,” he said.

“They are kick injuries.

“It’s amazing the amount of people who get kicked.”

The report examined more than 30 different studies, but excluded information from the horse-racing industry.

Mr McLean explained people with less understanding of horse behaviour were more likely to be injured.

“These statistics are over the range of all people,” he said.

“There are a lot of people who have no clue of what they are doing.

“They may have been matched with the wrong horse or they might have a thoroughbred off the track that needs a bit of re-training.”

Dr McLean was quick to stress the problem lay in the hands of the handlers, not the horses.

He believes there is a lack of knowledge surrounding horse behaviour and equine science which would be driving the high injury rate.

“It is a common misconception that it is just the horse that needs to be trained in equestrian activities but in actual fact, riders need to have a solid understanding of equine behaviour – traditional methods don’t always work,” he said.

“Given that horse behaviour is linked to a high percentage of accidents, it is imperative that riders, both professional and enthusiasts, have a good knowledge of horse behaviour.

“We have been dealing with horses for 5000 years but there is quite a strong case that we still don’t know enough about them.”

Improving safety when working with horses was as simple as seeking further education, he said.

Dr McLean and his team at the Equitation Science International (ESI) in Victoria offer a diploma for equine science.

“What our research has shown is that the majority of problems with horses are to do with mistakes people make in the use of pressures,” he said.

“Behaviours like bucking, rearing, bolting, shying, biting, kicking, or separation anxiety to some extent, are direct results of the misuse of negative reinforcement,” he said.

“And the culture of getting it wrong can start from a foal.

“You know, so when you first touch the foal and he might do a little hump and run away, and you think nothing of it, but the horse certainly does.”