By Janet Rising
Warning! This feature contains descriptions of mild peril, personal risk and unhealthy scenarios!
The older I get, the more fond I grow of Health and Safety. There is only darkness at the end of the tunnel; I’m grateful to have lived this long. No, really, I can recall numerous occasions with horses (and donkeys) when I did some really, really stupid things, and (mostly) got away with them – makes me cold just thinking about it. If you’ve spent any time with horses in the dark ages of the 70s and 80s I bet you can say the same. I suspect, like me, they occurred when you were unsupervised. We’re lucky to have lived to tell our tales. Actually, we’re lucky to have tales to tell at all because, the way things are going, few modern young riders will.
If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your take on the modern obsession with Health and Safety on the stable yard? Are you, even now, turning red with rage at its very mention? Have you lost count of the number of times you’ve boasted that there was no such thing in your day, and that putting oneself in the line of danger was considered a habitual hazard undertaken by the truly dedicated, a ritual to be undertaken as initiation, of proof of your commitment to the cause of horsemanship?
Do you feel fortunate to have been taught by furious ex-military personnel who considered it their duty to instil fortitude in their white-faced young riders, encouraging them to ride with reckless abandon simply because the terror they felt for their instructor outweighed any concern for their own lives?
Or did you and your compatriots laugh in the face of safety rules, dismissing them as the ‘posh’ way of doing things, fit only for those of nervous disposition, or for those fortunate enough to own such luxuries as, say, saddles?
Except that Health and Safety has always been with us, hasn’t it? It just used to be called Correct Procedures or Doing Things the Right Way or even just Common Sense. Such procedures were initiated to avoid death and injury to stable staff (which might result in more work for those left still standing on the yard). No employer wanted their horses upset or put into danger by ineffectual, and quite possibly dangerous, handling. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind which was considered more valuable (clue: it wasn‘t the staff).
I mean, why not do things in a tried-and-tested way, benefiting from others’ mistakes? Not too daft a question (sorry, I believe it is now called a big ask). Didn’t someone originally figure out how to carry out stable work in safety, painfully learning from their mistakes so that subsequent horses (if not staff) could benefit? And it makes sense to learn these procedures from the start so they become second nature. After all, replacing bad habits in later life takes longer, if indeed you succeed at all. This is where the Pony Club is so valuable – grab ’em when they’re young. If you are a grown-up then taking a stable management course will help, but there’s nothing like instilling Correct Procedures right from the get-go. It’s touching base at its most basic. It’s Health and Safety in all but name.
I can’t help thinking, however, that the modern day interpretation of Health and Safety, as opposed to Correct Procedures, seems to be based on the idea that it might be safer to avoid the risk of teaching anyone anything altogether, rather than chancing clients getting trodden on, kicked or bitten, traumatised by equine face-pulling or bursting into tears upon being told they’re doing it wrong. And, of course, risk is always with us in a stable yard – you cannot guarantee riding and caring for horses in a totally risk-free environment, which some people seem to expect (see previous blog entitled Lights! Camera! Action! for examples of what might go wrong, proving I am anything but blasé about H&S, to the point of paranoia). If you start issuing trigger warnings there will be no time left for any of the practical stuff.
Risk assessment is now a necessity before doing anything at all. But children are poor assessors of risk. This is why so many play with fireworks, experiment with fags and give drugs a whirl. Never mind that totally absorbing yourself in the world of ponies leaves little time for any of these other, life-threatening pastimes, and we all know about the devil’s plans for idle hands. As a grown up you may acknowledge the risks involved in an activity and make an informed decision to engage in it anyway. We accept that road accidents happen, yet we still strap ourselves into our cars and drive. The risk is minimised by MOTs, driving tests and (the often creatively interpreted) rules of the road.
Risk for horse riders can be minimised by correct instruction off the horse, as well as on. Receive no instruction at all and you endanger yourself more by the need to free-style your horse care upon purchase of your own horse. Riding and handling various horses and ponies in a riding school teaches us to cope with the many different behaviours horses offer. Dodging anything new or challenging teaches nothing at all. Avoidance is a poor teaching tool.
The French, it seems, have recognised this problem. Potential horse owners in France need now to pass an examination to demonstrate their equine-care knowledge prior to purchase. That this has been introduced with the health and safety of the horse in mind, rather than the human, suggests the French may have their priorities right. It should be pointed out that the French equine industry receives state support (good luck with getting that here). Should we perhaps be following their example? Or is that a step too far, more red tape to tie us up in knots? And let us be clear (we shall now be drilling down, in case you were wondering), all new horse owners need practical knowledge.
The problem, of course, is that while you, as an adult rider, asses your personal risk and make a decision, your riding school proprietor is doing the same. Not only is he assessing the risk to you, the paying client, but also to his business. He may need more staff; his insurance may not cover it – recent litigation cases have resulted in premiums rocketing. And, sadly, this may render his risk too great.
Correct Procedures, when I learnt to ride, took the form of being yelled and sworn at when you did anything wrong, scathingly dismissed as the dimmest creature on the planet for good measure. You were then instructed on how to do whatever it was correctly in the same tone of voice, with a few threats of the dire outcome likely to have happened had you continued in your foolhardy manner tagged on for added effect. That the instruction – let’s call it that – was dished out over the heads of amused clients, other staff and all your friends as a form of entertainment ensured you took the advice on board, if only because you were dying of embarrassment and wanted the painful process to stop, never to be repeated. It concentrated the mind somewhat. You made sure you never did whatever you had been yelled at for EVER AGAIN!!! Horrifying examples of what had beset those who had ignored said advice in the past was spelt out, often with added sarcasm, which scared the bejesus out of you, and gave you all the encouragement necessary to follow Correct Procedures henceforth (which today is known as going forward).
I include a few examples – feel free to add your own:
‘The last person who tried that ended up with her leg broke (sic)!’
‘Don’t tie that horse up to that! Don’t you know that bloody stupid Sally/Judy/Fiona tied her pony up to a car bumper one day (when car bumpers were chrome and detachable) and when the pony pulled back it tore the bumper clean off the car, shredding its legs as it galloped off up the road. It had to be put down. Is that what you want to happen? Is it? IS IT?’
‘If you want your fingers ripped clean off by that lead rope, Miss, you’re going the right way about it.’
‘I don’t ever want to see you – or anyone else – kneeling down around that – or any other – horse’s legs – if that horse stepped sideways, where would you be? Squashed all over the yard, that’s where, and I can’t afford the time to run you to the hospital.’
‘You’ve given that horse enough rope to hang itself – and you. Short rack it, girl!’
‘How many times do I have to tell you girls that throwing the headcollar on the floor is not hanging it up! If a horse gets its leg caught in that….!’
‘No, NO! Not like that! You stupid girl….!’
(I am aware that this small sample goes some way to explaining why Health and Safety may now be such an issue, but I still think education rather than avoidance is the answer.)
Incidentally, this sort of thing wasn’t restricted to equine management. A friend of mine had cause to visit her gynaecologist during the 1980s and was unlucky enough to be examined by a trainee, overseen by her fully qualified trainer. All she could hear, as she lay back and thought of England, was the qualified practitioner talking to the underling in disparaging tones: ‘What are you doing… not like that… dear God… oh now look what you’ve done…’ The whole experience didn’t give her much confidence, to be honest. What? No, really, it was a friend. My tales can beat that one. As well as my other friend (I’ve only got two) who, fitting in a quick visit to the loo for a pee prior to her regular Sooty (other glove puppets are available) and using a tissue from her bag instead of the paper that wasn’t on the holder, caused the nurse to peer rather too closely at her nether regions, her eyebrows knotted together, as she muttered something about never having seen that before. When my friend, hardly able to ask for dread what the nurse meant by that, she was told she had a first-class stamp stuck to her.
Even worse, in days gone by, was behaviour that encouraged equine bad manners (we’re back at the riding school, in case you were wondering). Such as:
‘Tip the feed in the manger NOW and stop teasing it!’
‘Don’t show it you’re scared! Stand your ground!’
‘If you carry on doing what you’re doing, in the way you’re doing it, you’ll knock all the value off that creature!’
‘Make that horse stand still! It’s upsetting the others.’
Of course, nowadays you are not allowed to shout at people, even children. What? Oh, I mean especially children, of course. It appears that the sort of behaviour I was subjected to in my teenage years is no longer acceptable, but it did mean I learned something, and I considered it a fair trade. At least you knew where you stood – as well as where you shouldn’t – be standing. Being taken to one side later in the day for a discreet word in private would have turned me into a nervous wreck – I mean, deal with it now, don’t store it up for later! Besides, a sharp word can prevent an accident, and if the person being yelled at feels like falling through the floor well, think about it! Don’t talk to me about mental health when your physical health is under threat – a well-timed shout is designed to get you moving, to wake you up, to stop whatever you are doing in the name of safety – for you and the horse. That’s the bloody point!
Correct Procedures were taught in order to equip you for caring and looking after horses in safety (yours and theirs) from thereon in. You were expected to learn fast, without repeating the felony. Health and Safety, it seems, manifests itself by preventing clients from being anywhere near a horse if possible – going forward or otherwise – the risk of injury and litigation being too great. It seems rather ironic that Health and Safety is now preventing us from learning about health and safety.
Even when mounted things have changed – some riding schools daren’t ask their clients to ride without stirrups in case little Bethany bounces off and sues. I am unable to suggest how one might learn to ride without stirrups, unless one actually rides without stirrups.
But there you are. Many riding schools now refuse to allow clients on the yard at all. They must mount under supervision, in the school, handing their mounts over to grooms when their lesson is over, thus denying any further interaction and opportunity to learn how to handle horses, let alone stable management. Only the very dedicated decide to buy their own horse as the only way to continue their interest, with no practical experience in their horse’s care – terrifying. This is not progress; this is a backward step for all concerned. I’ve seen young (and not-so-young) pony owners demonstrating stable management practices that have caused me to hold my breath, and I am constantly amazed at how little some horse owners seem to know, putting themselves in positions dangerous to themselves and their horses. Correct Procedures were not invented as Masonic rituals, never intended to be despised by the untrained as unnecessary superior flag-waving. They matter because they encourage the very health and safety that now prevent new riders from enjoying furthering their sport and knowledge. Those who unwittingly put themselves in danger through ignorance won’t always get away with it. No wonder my old instructor was always shouting…
I’m greatly saddened by this current state of affairs – not because I think Health and Safety is a bad thing (I’m all for it) but rather poorly interpreted. I don’t blame the establishments – it’s hard enough for riding schools to make a living nowadays without the worry of being sued. Those which are determined to offer instruction in stable management are to be not only applauded but hailed as saints. Some even run their own pony-care clubs, and hurrah for them!
Because pony-mad children (and grown-ups) need nurturing; they need encouragement and practice under supervision with tolerant horses and ponies – and where will you find a greater variety on which to learn and progress than at a riding school? How many young clients who are no longer encouraged to engage with their mounts, no longer allowed to stay and form relationships with the ponies they love, no longer able to know the pure enjoyment, hard work and responsibility that caring for ponies can bring and foster, have taken up other interests in which they can fully immerse? In short, how many have missed all the pleasure and fun and laughter, hard work, satisfaction and knowledge they would have gained spending time around horses and ponies in as safe an environment as they can get? There is no squaring that circle.
Which is a shame. Not only for those individuals who are missing out, but for the industry in general. Let’s unpack this. Is riding in danger of becoming once more a sport for the rich, for those born into it, for those only with enough money to buy their own mounts? When I was a child those with their own ponies – whose parents supported their interest, who were members of the Pony Club – those fortunate riders lived in their own pony-filled world. But luckily there was another, secondary class of rider into which I slotted, who had access to a wonderful riding school where there were ponies to learn on and around, and a riding school proprietor who allowed us to stay and help, aiding and abetting us to fulfil our pony dreams and drumming correct procedures into our heads. Nowadays, that secondary class of rider is an endangered breed. The powers-that-be can virtual-signal with the buzz words accessibility and diversity until they are blue in the face but the real problem may be that without hands-on experience, those on lower incomes are becoming more and more excluded from equestrianism – apart from the few noticeable exceptions and establishments which the media fall over themselves to visit whenever the question comes up. Are the risks – and interpretation of the risks – rendering the sport elitist? The difficulties thrust upon riding schools have caused them to give up exhausted, too weary to continue, too worried and defeated by bureaucracy. Where will the next generation of riders come from? How will they learn in this new normal?
I cannot imagine how frustrated a young, pony-mad youngster must be by the shrinking opportunities on offer to get involved in ponies. But the more I thought it, the more I found myself circling back and doing precisely that – imagining how it might be – which is why my latest book features a protagonist frustrated by her riding school’s policy of refusing to allow her onto the yard and form a bond with her favourite pony.
What would I have done without my wonderful, accommodating riding school? How would you have faired without yours? It’s worth thinking about – if you can bear to. And thinking about how to overcome the problem it presents may be essential if our wonderful, unique sport is to survive.
The Peculiar Made-up World of Henrietta Marshall by Janet Rising is out now, price £7.99 paperback.