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Common Deficits in Safety Knowledge of Riding Instructors Seeking CHA Certification

Printed in the Equestrian Medical Safety Association Newsletter

By Polly Haselton Barger

There are many areas of concern in the equestrian world in terms of safety, but perhaps none so important and far reaching as that of the safety skills of riding instructors. Any deficit in the knowledge of safety rules and procedures on the part of the instructor has an exponential effect as students and clients continue to proceed with ill advised safety protocol in their interactions with horses.

This includes safety as taught by the instructor, as well as those practices commonly demonstrated by the actions of said instructor. Students/clients are as likely to assume the personal safety habits they observe in their instructors as they are to adopt those taught. Therefore, both the routine interactions with horses, as well as the procedures practiced when conducting lessons are important to evaluate.

The Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA) conducts instructor certification clinics to evaluate instructors and assign them a level of competency as an instructor. Candidates for certification are evaluated in the categories of safety, horsemanship, teaching skills, group control and professionalism. Safety is the most important of these, and the only category in which a minimum score must be achieved in order to receive certification at any level. CHA does not certify new-found knowledge, but it is very common for participants to expand and improve their base of safety knowledge through the certification clinic process.

The majority of candidates for certification that present themselves at CHA Instructor Certification clinics are competent in their safety skills, usually developed by training or experience. All CHA certified instructors have met the minimum competency level in safety, both personal and instructional.

The safety deficits identified in this article come from a casual survey of CHA Clinicians. They in no way characterize the successful candidates for CHA certification, nor are they listed in order of frequency or importance.

Commonly observed deficits in safety awareness reported by CHA Clinicians will be categorized into two sections: personal safety habits and knowledge and enforcement of safety rules and procedures within the context of lessons or trail rides.

Most of the problems with personal safety habits stem from the lack of awareness of the horses’ “danger zones”, or a cavalier attitude toward working in close proximity to the horse. It is common for people who work regularly with the same horses to become careless in their movements and overly casual in their handling of these horses.

Indications of lack of awareness of potentially dangerous actions include, but are not limited to:
ducking under the rope of a straight tied horse to get to the other side passing directly behind a horse without speaking to and touching it facing toward the rear of the horse when reaching under for the girth or cinch placing own foot carelessly when picking up the horse’s foot failing to use a quick release-mechanism or knot when tying a horse carelessly having fingers in the loops of knots as they are tied standing directly in front of the horse holding the horse by the halter instead of a lead rope wrapping the lead rope or reins around a hand putting oneself between the horse and any immovable object, such as tie rails or walls having fingers inside of the latigo knot when cinching
placing the groom tool box on the ground where horse or human could trip on it

Other areas where best personal safety practices might not be demonstrated by instructor candidates involve:

  • approaching (coming at incorrect angle and not
  • watching out for other horses)
  • catching (grabbing the mane)
  • haltering (not putting lead around horse’s neck first)
  • turn out (not opening gate or stall door far enough, not going all the way through the gate, not making the horse turn and stand quietly)
  • leading (incorrect position in relationship to horse, leading more than one horse at a time, leading without taking the reins over the horses’ head, leading a rider without letting the rider have the reins, failing to run English stirrups up)
  • inattention to the horse while grooming (not noticing body language such as ear pinning, tail swishing, etc)


Other indications of lax safety skills might include:

  • inappropriate clothing and jewelry, including big earrings, loose bracelets or connected facial piercings
  • improper footwear (sandals, flip-flops, tennis shoes, etc.)
  • chewing gum while riding or in direct contact with horses
  • smoking while working with horses or around the barn
  • talking on a cell phone while in direct contact with a horse


CHA strongly promotes modeling excellent and consistent personal safety practices to instructors as the best way to instill good habits in their students/clients.

The second broad category of deficiencies in safety knowledge observed in instructors presenting themselves for certification by CHA involves rules and procedures in the actual instructional phase of their interactions with students/clients. There are some common areas of deficit mentioned by CHA Clinicians that include all segments of the lesson process, from pre-ride to post-ride. Some instructor candidates seem unaware of the factors to consider when assigning horse/rider combinations.

Beyond experience level of the rider there are such things as:

  • size (height and weight of both horse and rider);
  • under or over training of horse (i.e. a quiet but insensitive horse that is appropriate for the beginner might be frustrating for a more advanced rider and a finely tuned horse could be overly reactive to the less refined
  • cues from a beginner);
  • disposition and confidence level of both horse and rider, age of both horse and rider, etc.


One of the more important issues clinicians find they have to address is helmet use. Many instructors don’t really know how to properly fit and adjust protective headgear to riders and some don’t understand the importance of ASTM/SEI ratings. Many have no idea of the importance of protecting helmets from abuse by dropping or improper storage.

Ineffective supervision of students/clients during ground work (grooming, leading, feeding, tacking, etc) is frequently akin to the instructors’ personal safety habits, i.e. if they have weak safety skills on the ground and are careless in how they move around the horse they will often be inattentive to the student/client.

CHA Clinicians stress the importance of comprehensive safety checks, and often find they have to be reminiscent with candidates to sharpen their skills in this area. Awareness of the riding environment is the first element of a complete safety check, including such things as:

  • weather
  • open arena gates
  • things hanging on rails
  • dogs/cats in the arena
  • spectators leaning on rails
  • extraneous equipment in the arena
  • unused jump cups projecting from standards, etc.

Secondly, the horse needs

  • to be carefully assessed:
  • is he acting normal or is he uncharacteristically listless, nervous, etc.?
  • is he traveling sound?
  • is he displaying his customary temperament?


Then the rider needs to be carefully checked. The instructor must take note if the rider is:
Unusually nervous, inattentive or over confident dressed properly in long pants, properly fitted and adjusted helmet and boots with a pronounced heel and relatively smooth sole body protector and/or gloves for some activities

The tack must be carefully checked before each rider mounts, as well as periodically during the ride, especially after a warm up period. The tack check should include all equipment, checking carefully for:

  • fit, both to the horse and the rider
  • adjustment, such as tightness of girth/cinch, chin strap tension, placement of martingale or breast collar, etc.
  • condition-any place that leather touches metal is a common site for wear, so buckles that are never adjusted
  • often are covering weak places


CHA also recommends riding with the stirrup bar on an English saddle in the open position unless
the hinge is well maintained removal of rear cinch strap, if not in use, as well as removal of cinch ring tongue if latigo knot is used use of stirrup hobbles and cinch hobbles on Western saddles

The next step in the lesson that CHA Clinicians find a lack of familiarity is the mounting procedure, especially the correct use of a mounting block. CHA suggests that for Level 1 and 2 riders that an instructor or assistant be right there when mounting and dismounting to provide any needed assistance in the control of the horse or balance of the rider. Many mobile mounting blocks are not as steady as they should be and need to be stabilized (with a foot on it) by the instructor/
assistant, and it must be immediately removed so the horse will not trip over it. Sometimes instructors with a trail ride background don’t realize the importance of unhitching a horse before mounting a rider.

Since CHA Instructor Certification is for group riding, some instructor candidates who are inexperienced in managing a number of riders have a lack of understanding about the basics of group control. Those who have primarily taught private or semi-private lessons haven’t developed effective strategies for:

  • gettin g several riders
  • mounted and moving
  • supervising safe spacing
  • traffic control (for instance when several riders are reversing or circling simultaneously)
  • using assistants
  • bringing the lesson to a close in an orderly fashion

Trail guides who have experience in taking just a few riders out at once sometimes don’t understand spacing issues, importance of order of go in terms of horse placement in the line and effective positioning of out riders.

Some instructors lack the ability to assess the earliest signals given by the horse which might indicate an action/reaction to the rider, environment and other horses in order to take proactive measures to prevent an incident.

Some examples of this might be the horse becoming inattentive or shifting his focus away from the task at hand or signaling displeasure with ear pinning or tail wringing.

CHA stresses the importance of emergency procedures and the importance of first aid training for riding instructors. Some instructor candidates have simply never thought about the consequences of not having a well thought out plan and action protocol if an urgent situation arises. In both the arena and trail, modus operandi should dictate securing the scene before any other action is taken. Some potential instructors don’t realize how quickly one incident can precipitate another if loose horses are not secured or other situations mitigated.

In conclusion, most instructor candidates at CHA Instructor Certification clinics arrive with adequate safety skills, but leave with greatly enhanced awareness. The deficits we see in instructors
attending certification clinics are of both the personal safety as well as instructional procedures. All candidates certified by CHA must achieve a minimum score in safety in order to attain certification.