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Saddle Up Safely in third year of horse-riding safety training
Kentucky Correspondent

LEXINGTON, Ky. — In a state where horses are its signature industry, rider safety is a top priority among those in the equine community and health care officials. A program created at the University of Kentucky (UK) is focusing on informing the public of safe horseback riding and handling procedures, in order to reduce the number of injuries each year.

The Saddle Up Safely initiative is a collaboration of UK entities, the equine community and other community partners coming together to teach riders and handlers safety measures when it comes to horses. Bill Gombeski, director of strategic marketing at UK HealthCare and the Saddle Up Safely lead, said the idea came in 2008 after the announcement the World Equestrian Games (WEG) were coming to Kentucky.

“UK was approached by the WEG people primarily because they wanted our emergency medical services to be at the park and take care of the contestants, as well as spectators,” he said.

UK agreed, but the conversation didn’t end there. The school took the opportunity to do more.

“As we started asking questions, we looked at some of our internal data here. We see a lot of injured horse riders and horse handlers in our emergency department, and roughly about 75 to 80 each year go into our trauma service with really serious injuries,” said Gombeski.

“As we did some further background research, it turns out that roughly two-thirds of all horse riding or handling injuries are due to human mistakes and could have been avoided.”

That sparked the idea of educating people about safety, who would make their way to Kentucky for the WEG from all over the world. “As we started looking into what caused injuries and the different kinds of injuries, we recognized there was not a lot going on in terms of safety education,” said Gombeski.

That’s not to say there were no groups involved in safety information, because there are – but often that information is pointed only toward particular groups, added Gombeski. The plan was to raise awareness of injuries, reduce their number and get the injured riders back on horses.

As the project grew beyond the boundaries of the university, Gombeski said he found the horse community interested in the idea. “Everyone knew it was a problem, but no one was really addressing it or talking about it,” he said.

“So, we reached out and ended up getting many of the organizations in Lexington, over 40 members now, to partner with us. Saddle Up Safely is really a coalition of medical and horse-related organizations that really have gotten together to make a great sport even safer.”

Gombeski noted Kentucky First Lady Jane Beshear, an avid rider and horse owner, also became involved with the program and is a champion of the cause.

A real need

A national database that tracks ER visits to all hospitals in the country has shown those who show up for a horse-related injury have the highest potential of being admitted, according to Gombeski; 14 percent, to be exact. These are followed by motorcycle or ATV injuries, which stands at 11 percent, with football injuries accounting for about 2 percent.

“(Horse riding is) actually the most dangerous sport, in the sense of if you’re injured, you’re very likely to have a serious injury,” he said. “We have done all kinds of things to try and get that word out.”

Those include informational booklets for children and adults, brochures and a website that contains downloadable versions of the books as well as other information related to the program. Saddle Up Safely is celebrating its third year of existence and data collected are being analyzed to see how successful it has been.
“What we have seen is a drop in serious injuries, but some of that may be because of the recession and environment, where people didn’t ride as much,” said Gombeski. “I’m anxious to pull the data from this year because I think the economy leveled off and the horse industry had a little boost, and we sure had a lot more events here.”

Regardless of the numbers, Gombeski is positive the program has touched many people, with more than 75,000 brochures distributed, high traffic on the website and calls from various groups leaders or instructors asking for information to hand out.

“We know the word is getting out and we’ve seen that people are a little more sensitive to safety issues and they’re more willing to talk about them now,” he said. “That has been the most encouraging part.”

Gombeski noted the equine community has embraced the program, adding it helped with UK being the leader, to give them something they could all rally behind and not be worried about any negative effects of such a campaign.

“The most important thing is, we have this coalition of 40-plus organizations, many of them are very important in the horse community, and they have given us credibility and the expertise, and we have really benefited from our partnership with these groups,” he said.

For more information about Saddle Up Safely, go to www.saddleupsafe and a list of partners can be found at sponsors.aspx