25 February 2010

Legal Documents for Riding Instructors

Most people who teach riding or allow instructors to give riding lessons on their property already know the importance of legal protection in the form of lesson releases. Some have codes of conduct, but here I’m going to suggest that even these may not go far enough. I propose that those who give riding lessons should ask their students and the parents of students to read and sign that they understand a list of commonly used and/or idiosyncratic terms they are likely to hear during their lessons, their children’s lessons, or in discussions with an instructor about lessons. I’ve found from personal experience that horsemen without all three of these open themselves up to anything from bitter misunderstandings to serious lawsuits.


The bare minimum is a lesson release. Any rider, whether it’s his first time on a horse or her fourth Olympic competition, can end up injured or even dead. Ignorant survivors of the most ordinary sort of accident are likely to sue. Ignorant kin of those who've had fatal accidents are even more likely to sue.

Before I allow a human on one of my horses I require a signed release. I drew up mine based on my knowledge of riding, and I had my attorney husband review it before I presented it to anyone for signing.
Anyone teaching riding needs to be as bulletproof as possible because, even with a signed release, some people will sue. For example, here’s a unpublished--except on the Internet!--Vermont Superior court case opinion as an illustration showing what can happen. Click on the title for more. Here, I’ve edited a bit and cleaned up typos.

Ventura County Superior Court
2005 WL 3163537
Unpublished Opinion
November 29, 2005

Plaintiff Gorlin was injured during a riding lesson when her already bucking horse was caused to stop abruptly. Plaintiff fell when owner’s daughter ran at the horse shouting “whoa.” Court held that falling from horse was within those risks contemplated by the release.

Thankfully for Sweet Spot Farms, the judge in the Superior Court ruled in their favor, citing previous cases and adding, “The prospect that Gorlin's horse might encounter an animal or a person that would influence its behavior was something any rider could reasonably anticipate.”


However, even though the defendants were awarded costs, they had to go through a lot of time and agony. Furthermore, the plaintiffs were definitely out of pocket for the whole thing, and, most likely, they still think the horse should have been an automaton, not a well-trained horse who stopped on command.

Aside: Did anyone else reading this opinion wonder what the rider’s actual position was when the horse stopped? I’m betting she was neither sitting deep nor sitting back as she should have been on a bucking horse. How many times have I called out "Sit back!" and watched a rider curl forward? Sigh.


The second legal form I recommend is a Code of Student Conduct. For example, Serenity Farm of Texas integrates a section of Rules and Policies into their Lesson Contract.

Here are some rules of Serenity Farms:

3. Respect the instructor—no arguing.
13. No loud noises or running. These actions can spook a horse and cause serious injury/death to that horse and/or student.
22. Please be responsible and treat the horse and equipment as if it were your own
[I’m going to rewrite this one because some students really do treat the horse and equipment as if it were their own, and they’re wearing month old shoes that are already torn up. Much of my equipment is over forty years old and in exquisite condition. I want my students to treat my tack like I treat it.]

24. Failure to follow the rules and guidelines of Serenity Farms can result in removal from a lesson or permanently.
27. By signing this contract, you (student/parent) agree to adhere to the rules and policies set forth. However, instructor/owner has the right to remove student at any time if any infractions are made toward this contract including a parental conflict at any time.
Reading these points, I sighed deeply. My guess is that these folks have had some of the same experiences I have. Through my thirty years as an instructor, I’ve taught many wonderful people, children and adults. I’m still in contact with many by phone, in person, or by email, and those now living in other states often stop by if they are visiting my area. Unfortunately, it’s the few negative experiences that haunt me. My Swifthorse rant of 13 February 2009 details some of those.

Some unfortunate incidents are, of course, inevitable. It’s simply impossible to anticipate everything. However, I now suggest that there’s a new way to anticipate at least some of them: Add a glossary of terms to your list of legal documents.


Good instructors always explain the principles of riding and define concepts before, during, and after lessons, but not everyone hears or understands. To help prevent this, I suggest riding instructors prepare a list of possibly confusing horsey terms that students and parents are likely to hear from them during lessons or discussions. Sadly, I’ve discovered some ordinary words often mean one thing to horsemen and another to the rest of the world. This can lead to grievous misunderstandings.

So far, I have not found anything online like the glossary of terms I suggest. Basic lists of horsey terms are available, but many are rudimentary at best, for example, saddlery terms, gaits, that sort of thing. The list I suggest will be more specific, more idiosyncratic. Although many of the terms will be ordinary horseman’s jargon, some may be unique to one instructor; others may be terms used within a specialty field.

Since every instructor’s list will likely be different, I suggest instructors jot down any term they have ever had problems with in the past lessons or discussions. No instructor should assume riding students or parents of riding students will intuitively understand horseman’s usage and be on the same page. It’s more likely they don’t yet own a copy of the same book.

Sometimes even experienced horsemen work from different books. For example, several decades ago, I foolishly allowed a local “trainer” to ride my Arabian stallion. I watched in dismay as what should have been a simple circle went horribly wrong. I said, “Half halt” and waited for results. The situation got worse. Raising my voice, I said, “Half halt!” Instead of saying something halfway reasonable like “Which rein?” this “trainer” looked up from my horse’s ears, which were by now alarmingly close to the guy’s nose, and said, “What do you mean? Just stop for second?”

This situation was my fault. I failed to ask him if he was familiar with dressage terms before I allowed him to sit on my poor horse. If I had asked him, he never would have gotten on, and my stallion would have been spared a nasty few minutes.

So anyone who teaches or talks about horses needs to sit down and think both of specialty words like half halt and of even more dangerous words where everyone understands the standard use but is likely ignorant of a variant or non-standard use typical of horsemen. Preparing such a list may take a while, and most of us will be adding to ours over the days, months, and years. No matter how short or long, the list may come in handy.

I also suggest that anyone teaching children make sure parents read and sign that they’ve read and understood this personal glossary. Trying to teach students with highly protective, non-horsey parents creates a whole new set of problems for a riding instructor. For example, here are my definitions for two words now prominent in my glossary:

Monster: noun. Any person, place, or thing that spooks a horse; any action emanating from objects animate, inanimate, or imaginary that might spook a horse.

Recently, I saw a non-horsey father nearly shaking with rage because he’d heard an instructor had called his child “a monster.”

Actually, this term is not at all uncommon among horsemen. Anyone who’s talked to a few riders has probably heard stories about the plastic bag “monster” or the running child “monster.” In fact, here’s an example of the term in use. The source is the January 2010 Equus, page 53:

Respect: verb. To respond instantly and appropriately to a clear, established cue or command. Applies equally to horse and student.

A schooled horse shows respect by moving away from the pressure of a rider’s leg. A schooled horse shows respect by stopping upon hearing “whoa.”  When a frightened, clutching student loosens the reins in response to an instructor’s command, that student respects the knowledge of the instructor—and possibly avoids injury or even death for rider, horse, or both.

For an example, I again post a link to the YouTube video “Bolt.” I love this video because I teach using Thoroughbreds and Arabs--hot and hotter. My horses are kind and responsive. They are so because I try to keep students off their mouths. Even after months on a lounge line, most students will still be heavy-handed, so it's vital they respect my commands and loosen when I say loosen--lest they DIE.

As a further example, a couple of years ago, I dismissed a student on multiple grounds after several futile attempts to explain the problems to the mother over a period of months. At the end of my rope, patience, and expertise, and fearing my kindest TB was at the end of his rope—literally--I offered the mother the fundamental reason for the dismissal. I said, the student “doesn’t respect me.” I meant the student would or could not follow my commands and was ending up in more and more dangerous situations.  

The mother, however, replied calmly, “Of course she respects you. She quotes you all the time at home.” She then added, “Couldn’t she at least come out and ride [my kindest TB]?”

I just stood there flummoxed. It took me a long time to realize what caused the level of disconnect the two of us experienced. I like to think a glossary might have helped.

In any event, it can’t hurt to compile, hand out, or post such a list somewhere around the barn. The horse and mind you save may be your own. Better yet, make it a legal document, separate or part of your total lesson contract. The time and money you save could be yours, too.

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