Everyone who decides to swing a leg over the back of a horse starts as a newbie, because while some of us may be more gifted in our ability to ride, none of us arrive here knowing how. Aside from the riding part, there are all of the aspects of horse husbandry that we also need to learn and be responsible for once we embark on this journey. For some of us, our journey begins at a very young age, in our childhood. We are given the opportunity to learn to ride and care for horses as an aspect of an activity our parents facilitate, guided by our parents, trainers, 4-H leaders, etc. Some children are taught via a riding program where they are taught on school horses, expected to learn some aspects of horse husbandry and are somewhat limited in the amount of time or exposure they have to both horses and barn life. For others, it starts as tween passion that eclipses cheerleading and love interests and often results in the ownership of a horse of their own and the resulting responsibility, although still under the guidance and bank account of their parents. For a large segment of adult amateur riders, it is a decision made as an adult, weighed on a scale of pros and cons, often after the children have grown and left, born from a beloved dream of someday being able to care for and ride a horse of our own. That said, the beginning point for all equestrians is that of an uneducated new-to-horses person.
When a person decides to ride, work with or own a horse there is, by definition, a lot to figure out. A new to horses person must learn to ride (because let's be serious here - the riding is the best part), learn to groom and care for the feet, learn basic first aid (because horses), find a safe place to keep the horse, learn about feed programs, hay vs pelleted food, supplements and salt blocks. Additionally, the owner should also expect to manage maintenance costs (feet, wormer, vaccines, Coggins). These are the basic blocks of knowledge and experience a owner/rider should have before embarking on a journey of horse ownership.
I think there is a real difference between taking lessons, leasing and actual ownership that some amateurs can't predict based on their foreknowledge, prior to purchasing their first horse. As a student, the rider may be expected to groom, clean feet, tack up, ride, cool out, untack and put away their horse (some programs they don't even do that much). The trainer or horse owner is responsible for board, feed, medical, feet, etc in the care and housing of the horse. If something happens to compromise the horse's ability to work, most trainers with school horses can easily substitute another horse so that the rider can continue to take lessons, regardless. A rider who has been taking lessons has some exposure to horse husbandry, but not the legal responsibility for the horse. Or the financial.
I think the move from "somewhat responsible" for a horse to the position of owner is often taken without the rider really recognizing the impending costs. There is a lot more than any sane person not completely in love with horses would undertake. The financial burden of horse ownership was the deciding factor in my twenties that forced me to relinquish horse ownership for more than twenty years. Between my idyllic, if painful, childhood/early adulthood and now has been a lifetime of experience not related to horses that shapes my understanding of the responsibility now. I knew prior to bringing home Ashke what kind of financial burden this would put on our family, mostly, from a budget and cash flow perspective. J and I talked about costs, financial and otherwise, prior to embarking on this journey together. I am, as an adult, completely responsible for the care and maintenance of my horse. There is no safety net of parents to fall back on and no free pasture to send my horse to in the winter. I am totally responsible for everything. It is a hard thing, but I know where the line is drawn in the sand financially, what we can afford and at what point we have to start making really hard decisions.
In some ways, horse ownership is easier today than it was in my youth. I don't have to worry about getting up at 4:30 am to feed and water my equine friend, nor do I need to worry about breaking ice out of their water tanks during the winter. I can pay a boarding facility to do so, and to clean up after them on the daily. I don't even really have to remember to worm or vaccinate, since most boarding facilities help their boarders manage that process with a local vet. Those are the extra things my board pays for every month. That leaves me responsible for any supplements I believe my horse should have, off cycle vet visits for injuries/colic/stupid horse stuff, farrier work and riding. From a responsibility point of view, my monthly money reduces what I need to worry about (hay, picking out the stall, adding or taking off blankets) and frees me up to spend my time doing the really fun stuff, like showing, riding and playing. I do think, however, this umbrella of care reduces the real and immediate responsibility of horse ownership.
Although it may look like you are paying to have the heavy lifting done, you are still responsible for your horse. From a legal and moral standpoint, you are responsible for what your horse does to other horses, people, facilities, etc. There is no grace period or learning curve allowed from a legal standpoint: once ownership transfers from one person to you, as the new owner, so does the responsibility. This governs handling the horse from the ground, sharing arena space with other horses, trailering, and riding on public or private trails. If you make the decision to buy a horse that is not completely trained or one that acts in an unsafe manner, you take on the burden of being responsible for the outcome of that horse's actions. No excuses. Whether you come to adult ownership with any prior experience or as a newly minted equestrian, the legal and moral responsibility is the same. Horses are dangerous animals with a mind of their own and faster-than-human reaction times. They come programmed to fight or flight. Every rider has the same level of responsibility to educate and improve their knowledge of horsemanship and horse behavior, regardless of prior experience in order to lower risk. The lack of knowledge is not an excuse for poor horsemanship and does not change an owner's responsibility.
Think of it this way: equestrians have the same level of responsibility to manage their horse as a driver has in handling their car. Both can be dangerous. Both can be deadly. Both require maintenance, feeding (fuel), caring for and learning how to handle them in every situation. An adult driver learns the rules of the road by instruction, learning the law before getting behind the wheel and learning how to how to handle a car. They must take classes and tests before being allowed to drive alone. A driver would not expect to be given a pass by a police officer at the scene of an accident because they are new to driving.
Equestrians have the same level of responsibility in learning to manage their horse as they do in learning to drive, except it is up to the individual to educate themselves, since there is no test or license required. In my opinion, I believe trainers, horse traders and breeders need to be held to a higher standard when selling horses to untrained and inexperienced riders. If not legally, than within the horse community. Unfortunately, many new owners go into horse ownership with stars in their eyes, looking at the outside of the horse, rather than approaching horse ownership as a risk assessment. There are dangerous horses out there; horses that won't keep their feet on the ground; horses that have no problem with running over humans; horses that are bargy and aggressive; horses that bite. Those are all issues that stem from mishandling by humans (although I do think there are true outlaws - those horses are consistently vicious in my experience, with no redeeming factors.) Unfortunately, I think women especially are attracted to "good looking" or pretty horses, and lead with their hearts rather than assessing the risk in a non-biased way. And perhaps trusting that the horse professional they are working with has their best interest in mind, rather than just trying to unload a horse.
No horse is bomb-proof, which is why so many equestrians advocate wearing helmets 100% of the time. Everyone comes off their horse at one time or another. It is a part of riding. Being an equestrian means the rider must acknowledge the risk and assess what is likely to cause your horse to spook before it happens. This will help all riders be more safe in general, while limiting the damage the horse can possibly do to both humans and property around them. It will also limit the potential damage that can happen to your horse, because a horse in a panic is catapulted into flight, with no reason to stop. That risk assessment, evaluating the environment in which you are riding, evaluating possible threats your horse will view as threatening, evaluating the danger you pose to those around you, all need to happen all of the time.
The other thing that has to happen is every rider must ride every step. Mark Rashid, in one of his books, talks about doing a ride with the Old Man. He and the Old Man are out on trail and Mark is off in his own world in his head, thinking about school, the weather, every thing but the horse under him, lulled into complacency by the movement of the horse and the events of the day. The mare he is riding spooks and throws him. Mark gets up and asks the Old Man why that happened and the Old Man disgustedly tells Mark he shouldn't be surprised, since he stopped riding an hour and a half before that. The point is that we must be present in the moment every time we are on our horse, working with our horse, handling our horse. Our horses live in the Right Now. The challenge for riders is to meet them where they are and remain there with them. Not to day dream. Not to make to-do lists in our heads or think about the tasks we need to do the following week, the unfinished laundry or the bills that need to be paid. To be present. To ride every step.
In the arena, this means learning to ride in a way that does not endanger yourself or others. All barns have rules for arena riding, with minor variations based on barn manager or set up, but at a minimum learning to go left shoulder to left shoulder, learning to call out to the other riders when doing something different from just riding the rail (circle, cross diagonal, etc) and learning to make choices in gaits and direction in order to minimize interference with others is part of the risk assessment of riding in an enclosed space with other horses. The overall risks are lowered in an arena, but a rider must learn where the "scary" areas are: a particular corner or end of the arena where the boogie man lives; a wall that makes noise when the wind blows; obstacles or items that are stored in various areas; doors and gates where horses are coming and going. All of those things must be recognized and assessed even when riding in circles in the arena. The one thing a rider can count on, however, is that everyone in the arena at least has a passing acquaintance with horses or they wouldn't be there.
Out on the trail, the risks are magnified and the rider is called to be even more present, to ride every step, the entire ride. For one, an equestrian will meet other trail users: bike riders, runners, walkers, baby strollers, dogs, other horses, wheelchairs, kites, fallen trees, brush, rocks, gates, roads, and wildlife. All of those things and more can appear to be threatening to your equine partner. As the rider, it is your responsibility to assess the risk at every step along the trail, to do what you can to help your horse find both confidence and comfort in your presence. Additionally, the rider has a heightened sense of responsibility due to the presence of non-equestrians on the trail. There can be no assumptions. Bike riders can ride up behind the horse without alerting the rider to their presence. Little kids are drawn to horses and think nothing of racing over to pet whomever they meet on trail. It is the equestrian's responsibility to ensure they are mitigating the risk to others, themselves and their horse by being aware of their position and gait on trail. Make no mistake, if a person is hurt on trail it is the rider's responsibility both legally and morally. You are the one who choose to bring your horse out into a public venue and by doing so you are legally responsible for it's behavior. It becomes even more important to ride every step. To be present and aware every moment you are with your horse.
Risk assessment on trail is much more involved than in the arena. The rider must do a visual assessment of all fixed trail obstacles (rocks, fences, benches, bridges, bushes), offer support to the horse (adding leg, steadying the rein, talking out loud in a reassuring voice) before the horse reacts. In this fashion, a rider has the opportunity to tell their horse that the rider has assessed the situation, identified the obstacle and made the decision that it isn't an issue, thus increasing the rider's reliability in taking care of the horse's safety, from the horse's point of view. Then there is the risk assessment of mobile trail obstacles (wildlife, people, cars, strollers, bikers) that the rider must do. Mobile obstacles or other users on the trail are more likely, in my experience, to cause a spook or shy because of the unexpected nature of those obstacles. Even on familiar trails, the rider must be alert and assessing every step, because nothing is static and trails change (bright green iron benches get put places that bench wasn't the last time we came by.)
Think of risk assessment on horseback the same way motorcycle riders assess risk on the road: search, evaluate, execute. If a rider is paying attention, your horse will alert you to what is making them nervous on trail: an ear or hard look, slight hesitation in their gait, a raised head or tightening of the jaw against the rein. Their senses are more attuned to their environment than ours and they will alert you to what they see prior to you being aware. There are things that you can do to redirect your horse's attention. I like leg yields on trail, if the footing allows, or a very collected trot, with a change of bend every ten steps. That exercise can be done regardless of how wide the trail is. By redirecting your horse's attention from their environment to an exercise you have hopefully practiced in the arena, you can diffuse the situation before your horse explodes and you are on the ground, or worse.
The bottom line of being safe with horses is to be present, to pay attention, to use critical thinking skills and the risk assessment method of search, evaluate and execute to provide yourself with a game plan you should have in your back pocket before you ever take your horse out of it's stall. To do less, is a violation of the trust you hold between yourself and your horse. It is also a violation of your legal responsibility to the public.