January 04, 2023 3 min read
Many of the world’s top equestrian riders are thrill-seekers, risking their physical well-being for the adrenaline rush that comes with riding the fastest horse they can find. There’s a genuine sense of excitement whenever a horse trainer gets their steed to land a particularly difficult maneuver, or when they overcome massive obstacles through perfect coordination with their horses.
Not all sports are created equal, however, and some can be a lot more dangerous than others. The people riding horses in these events spend hours upon hours in horse training just to make sure that they and their four-legged partners are able to compete without getting hurt.
In this article, you’ll read about the following sports and sporting events that have competitors skirting with danger on a regular basis:
This list will only count sports that don’t involve acts of animal cruelty. Many countries have banned practices such as fox hunting or horse wrestling, and so they can’t be considered as widely recognized sports.
This spectacular sport poses a lot more risk to the rider than the horse, and it’s easy to see why. Trick Riding is, in essence, a combination of gymnastics and horseback riding, where riders pull off feats of balance and agility on the back of a moving horse. It’s not uncommon to see a competitor pulling off a handstand on top of their steed, along with other complicated maneuvers.
The risk of pulling off these moves is increased by the fact that you’re on a large moving animal—falls are simply more dangerous this way. Thankfully, organized events hold high safety standards for the competition, and the injury rate in Trick Riding is remarkably lower than in some of the other sports in this list. Without these standards in place, however, one missed landing could prove fatal to the rider.
It's always amazing to see trick riders in action.
This traditional sport from Kyrgyzstan is risky mainly because of the way it’s played. Two riders are positioned in the middle of a small ring and try to wrestle each other off of their respective horses. Points are scored for objectives like holding onto your opponent’s horse for 3 seconds, holding their arms behind their back, or altogether getting them to fall off the horse. The sport was developed centuries ago as a horse training method for close-quarters combat.
Not only is there an injury risk from falling off a horse, but the sudden movements involved in wrestling can cause the horses a fair amount of distress if their horse trainer hasn’t worked with them well enough. One wrong move could cause a horse to spook or accidentally trample a wrestler who’s fallen off.
Imagine rugby on horseback, and you’ve got a basic idea of what Horseball is like. The sport involves passing a ball to your teammates three times, and then tossing it through a goal. Your opponents can try to block the passes or wrestle the ball out of your hands. Because all this is done on top of running horses, there's a very real danger that you and your horse could get seriously hurt.
The sport has thankfully evolved to become a lot safer than its original version, the Argentinian game of Pato. Pato was actually banned for nearly two hundred years because of the danger involved, and it was only with the introduction of several safety rules that it was allowed to effectively return as Horseball. Despite these rules, however, injuries still happen, and Horseball is still considered by top equestrian riders to be a fairly dangerous horse sport today.
Riders move through a course they are pulled by horses in high speed!
This unique winter sport involves getting on a pair of skis and letting people riding horses tow you through an obstacle course. You’ll be scored on your ability to complete each obstacle—which usually include a few ramp jumps—as well as how quickly you finish the course itself.
The speed at which you and your horse are moving increases the risk of injury, especially if you lose control while you’re mid-air. This can happen a lot more easily than you might assume, since the snow being kicked up by your horse will often be flying towards your face, limiting visibility. Running through the snow can also be rough on the horse’s body, which is why most competitions limit each horse to two runs per day to help prevent injuries and shorten the time needed for horse rehabilitation in case an accident happens.
Sudden turns and stops at high speeds pose a huge injury risk, which is why these rodeo events are widely considered to be two of the more dangerous equestrian sports being practiced. While Pole Bending involves getting horses to slalom around 6 tall poles, Barrel Racing riders need to navigate their horses around 4 barrels in a cloverleaf pattern, meaning these two events itself involve a way-above normal number of sharp turns.
The momentum that these turns need to push back against takes a huge toll on the horses’ joints, and may lead to bone breaks, dislocations, or chronic pain issues. On top of that, there’s always the risk that the momentum proves to be too much for the horse to handle, leading to nasty falls and crashes.
The popular sport of Polo is a lot more dangerous than it looks from the outside, and that’s already if you see it as a hybrid between golf, baseball, and horseback riding. Aside from having multiple horses running as fast as they can and taking sharp turns, there’s also the matter of having to dodge polo balls whizzing past you at high speeds. Even if you manage to avoid it, there’s always the chance that the ball will hit another horse, which could lead to a very messy situation.
One risk that many non-players overlook is the fact that the people riding horses in this sport are often leaning to the sides of their saddles in order to hit the balls with their mallets. This means that their riding posture isn’t as well-balanced as they could be, which increases their fall risk. One fall in this situation could lead to serious injury, either by trampling or accidental contact with another player’s mallet.
Cross Country comes with all the inherent risks of people riding horses at high speed—and adds the physical complexity of show jumping. Riders compete to be the fastest horse to complete a course that includes large, unforgiving obstacles. There are jumps, balance beams, trenches, and more—all of which could seriously hurt horses and their riders with a misstep.
Even if no accidents happen, the high intensity of the sport means that there’s a lot of stress being put on the horse’s body, which in turn leads to soft tissue damage. These increase the risk of more serious injuries over time, slow down horse rehabilitation, and could contribute to long-term health issues.
Riders feel the rush of adrenaline as their horses run at heart-stopping speed!
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that horse racing is on this list. In general, any sport that pushes your steed to be the fastest horse on the track comes with major injury risks. Keep in mind that these are large, heavy animals traveling at speeds faster than any human can reach on their own. Thoroughbreds, for example, weigh an average of 1,000 pounds, and can run at more than 44 miles per hour. Basic physics will tell you that that means there is a lot of force involved in racing, and more force means bigger accidents.
Accidents are especially risky for horses, since their bodies deal with injuries differently. A broken leg might mean a few months in a cast for people riding horses, but it might end up being fatal to the steeds themselves. In fact, some owners choose to euthanize horses with broken legs rather than let them die slowly and painfully from the complications that come with injuries that can’t be repaired through horse rehabilitation.
What’s more dangerous than horses running at top speed? People riding horses as fast as they can down a steep hill. The "Suicide" Race is one of the main events at the Omak Stampede, an annual rodeo in Washington. The race involves racing down "Suicide" Hill, across the Okanogan River, and past the finish line roughly 500 yards away.
Animal rights groups have been calling for an end to the event because of the danger it poses to horses. According to PAWS, an estimated 15% of horses who compete in the race die, and at least 24 poor horses have passed away from injuries incurred during the race within the last 30 years. Organizers at the Omak Stampede, however, say they test the horses for their ability to compete safely prior to the race, and only allow those they are confident can emerge from the event unscathed.
The most dangerous part of this ten-day endurance race isn’t the speed; it’s the elements. Racers in the Mongol Derby have to travel through 621 miles of unforgiving terrain and unpredictable weather, taking them and their horses through scorching deserts, torrential rains, and bitter frost—all with limited supplies. In order to make it to the finish line on time, competitors spend as long as 14 hours on horseback each day. It’s no surprise, then, that many of those who join the race find themselves quitting halfway because of health concerns.
Making the ordeal even more difficult is the fact that you’ll be riding a horse you just met. Racers must use semi-wild Mongolian horses provided by the organizers, with any prior horse training provided by local owners. While you’ll be allowed to select one from around 25 options, there’s no real guarantee that you’ll be working with a horse that matches your temperament, especially during high-stress situations. This has led to a few accidents in the past where riders were thrown off their horses, leading to injuries for both.
The danger that comes with each of these sports underscores the importance of a good horse trainer, as well as good equipment. Proper horse training helps horses develop the physical skills needed to compete safely, which having the right equipment for both horse and rider keeps them protected from serious harm. If you’re interested in competing in any of these events, feel free to check out our collection of horse accessories and riding gear to make sure you and your horse can stay safe and have fun.
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