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The Guest Ranch Trail Ride
Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from Caution:Horses, Vol. 4, No. 3, Fall 1999]

We read recently where there was a multi-horse accident at a large lodge in the Grand Teton area of Wyoming. We have driven by that area where they were staging the rides on our way to another ranch in Montana. As we drove by we saw no helmet, many pairs of tennis shoes, people being mounted practically in the street and waiting with both reins in both hands which were also holding the saddle horn. While at our destination ranch we watched the head wrangler give a textbook orientation that begins each guest week and which is required for all participants in horseback sports.

Many people throughout the United States believe that to have a real “Western experience” one must get on a horse and head for the tall and uncut. Most of these people know little or nothing about horses except what they have seen in the movies. Those who hold themselves out to be “experienced” riders, those who “have ridden frequently,” or have “owned their own horses” often are not prepared for the rigors of the Rocky Mountains. Also, they often have had no formal training and tend to seriously overestimate their ability. Keeping these riders from hurting themselves through their own ignorance and lack of experience is often quite a job. It becomes the goal of the program to give the guests a good time and still not let them get hurt.

We are talking guest ranch where riding is one of several activities and does not involve working the ranch cows as in the movie City Slickers. The people at the guest ranches, for the most part, are assuming that all the horses are gentle and will not spook. They also assume that if they do spook, and the son, or daughter, or parent falls off that it will be just like the movies and all will get up with nothing worse than a bruise or a scrape. When you tries to discuss the times that serious injury has resulted from a fall from a horse standing still, they will seldom believe it. Most will think that the stories are greatly exaggerated – until it is their family member who has the accident and then it is their insurance company which wants to look for fault to see if it can avoid payment. How can the head wrangler protect him/herself and the ranch?

There are some simple guidelines to follow that will go a long way to insulating the program from lawsuits. The first thing that should be done is to have the staff trained and certified. Or at least the head wrangler needs to be certified, then run the program according to that training.

The next thing is to establish some rules for the rides such as no tennis shoes or loafers, but boots or tie shoes with one inch heels and no treaded boots or shoes, long pants only, and a notification that helmets are required for all minors and waivers are required to be signed by all adults who refuse helmets. (Frankly a notice that helmets are required for all riders and will be provided is far better.) If people are to sign a valid waiver, they must be offered helmets and there must be enough helmets to make the offer real. The rules should be written and sent to guests with their registration and waiver of liability forms or posted in clear view in cases where the guests are not resident or have not made advance reservation. People argue less with written or posted rules than they do with the verbal rule. Staff also respects written procedures more as well.

The next way the head wrangler can protect the ranch is to have an orientation which explains in detail the risks of horseback riding, how horses view the world and why we cannot train the horses not to be horses. Riders need to understand a horses instincts and also be aware that when the horse is under mental or physical pressure, the training is replaced by instincts. The riders must be made to understand about spacing on the trail, cinch checks, and the many other procedures for trail riding. Safety should be the obvious chief concern.

After the orientation on the ground, mounting and dismounting should be explained and the guests taken on an orientation ride where their skills are evaluated. The first riding introduction would be a skills test in an enclosed area. It makes no sense to have the guests ride to the enclosed area to test whether they have the skills to ride out of an enclosed area. It may make more sense to have the horses waiting in the enclosed area. Wherever the guests are mounted there must be room to do so safely. You cannot have an orientation that stresses the need to respect the horses’ space then mount the riders in an area where nearly all riders are walking in the danger zone of one horse or another. This is one reason that it is best to have an enclosure where riders can be mounted safely.

The most important thing that the head wrangler can do after all the above is to ENFORCE THE RULES. If the rules are not enforced, all your riders become witnesses to the fact that you only pay lip-service to safety. It also makes the wrangling staff appear to be untrained. The duty of the head wrangler is to get through the season without a fall. If a rider comes off on a ride, the head wrangler needs to investigate. If another rider comes off a different horse there needs to be serious investigation. If it both accidents were with the same trail guide then the head wrangler needs to go out and ride drag with that guide to see what is going on. There is no way for the head wrangler to run a safe program from an office, without enforcing the rules, or without going out on the rides periodically. Every guest and every rider is a potential witness. The last thing that we want to hear at trial is, “Well, yes, that is what the rules (or orientation) said but that was not the way the ride was handled. No one was ever made to keep up. The lead guide never turned around.” That case, as to the defense, has already gone south.