Two women are sitting on their horses, in an open field. Gorgeous mountains in the back. Looks like Colorado. Where I ride, in addition to all over the world.
Both women are completely engrossed in their phones. Trying to post Instagram shots, according to this national Verizon Wireless ad. Neither is wearing a safety helmet.
They are barely holding onto the reins. Maybe with one finger.
In other words, these PYTs are totally ignoring their 1300+ pound, wholly-unpredictable animals.
Lots of horse people (I’d be one) might watch this this television ad and wonder which moron on Madison Avenue thought up this pitch? Clearly, not an experienced rider.
Nobody at the wheel. As in the photo, above. Reins not even in hand.
Verizon ran this ad during fall, which is hunting season. When people fire guns, sometimes indiscriminately, sometimes on purpose just to raise hell, and sometimes to scare the crap out of people nearby. Like those on horseback, who might get in the way of their hunting party. It happens.
Here’s the spot:
TV Ads Normalize Stupid Behavior
We laughed at this out at my local stables. It’s funny. But then again, it’s really not. Television ads sometimes normalize really dangerous behavior. This is a classic example.
Those who own what they claim are “bomb proof” horses might also tell you that one well-placed wasp sting on the butt cheek could send said so-called “bomb proof” horse off bucking or at a dead run. Or both. What if a hunter- who doesn’t see or care about you- takes a shot at an elk herd across that same meadow?
Keeping your reins firmly in hand gives you a fighting chance to negotiate a peace treaty with a runaway horse-assuming you’re still on it- and allows you to (eventually) bring him to a stop. A horse that has been terrified and is galloping full tilt isn’t exactly considering your safety. In fact, getting you off as quickly as possibly could well be a high priority. If Mr. Pumpkin Patch is making a beeline for the nearest low branch, well. I can’t speak for you, but I’d like the option to at least suggest an alternative.
Loose reins can wrap around a running animal’s legs; he can trip. If you’re not attending the ground right in front of your hightailing horse he could step into a hole and break a leg, and you with him. You really don’t want to be part of that accident. Makes for great highlight video for everyone but you.
I Adore Horses But….
Horses can be smart, stupid, hilarious, silly, wily, fun, not fun, dangerous, annoying, stubborn, affectionate, brave, loving, unpredictable- you name the characteristic, that’s a horse. On any given day, a horse could bite or kick for no reason other than it’s just trying to kick or bite another horse. Whoops, whalloped you instead.
Horse: Um, sorry, man. Can I still have my biscuit? Nuzzle nuzzle. And the one you’re hiding in your pocket, too? We good, dude? Big eyes. Very big eyes.
You: OUCH. Here you go. Yes, I still love you. Turd.
I have a huge, crescent-shaped scar on my left upper thigh from this very thing. Sent me flying six feet. Over a biscuit, of all things. It happens.
There are No “Totally Safe” Horses
To assume they are perfectly safe all the time is reckless. Many of us know people who have owned and ridden horses all their lives and nothing has ever happened. That’s also true. Most of us who have spent decades around these animals bear the marks or we may walk a tad funny. Usually we can read body language and usually we can get out of the way in time. Most of the riders I know don’t text and ride simultaneously. My trainer would have my head on a platter for it. I think she’s right. If you think that driving while texting is moronic, try doing that on a massive animal, which is far less predictable than your car.
Even the mildest mannered of horses will respond instinctively to perceived danger- and woe to anyone standing in the way or not paying attention up top. I’ve ended up on the ground with a concussion with one foot stuck in the right stirrup. The horse was terrified of what was still pulling on him and he did his best to kill me off. Not his fault at all. He had been scared silly by the swishing sound of my jacket. He wanted me off, NOW. As soon as he had started to buck, I had done my best to work with him, calm him down, soothe him, but he was having none of it. This was a “perfectly safe” horse, owned by a competent stable. My guide caught him by the bridle before he could finish me off and I got away with broken teeth, smashed ribs, a smashed shoulder, cuts to the face and chin and one hell of a concussion. And I’m one hell of a good rider. Sometimes that makes no difference whatsoever. If anything it underscores how important it is to be fully present while riding, no matter how calm and dependable you think your horse may be.
The Truth About Traumatic Brain Injuries
Why is all this important? For one thing, 45.2% of all Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) in adults are from horseback riding (https://abcnews.go.com/Health/horse-riding-leading-sport-related-traumatic-brain-injuries/story?id=38090435). Not the NFL. A lot of them are from people like those in the Verizon Ad who refuse to wear safety helmets. Only about 20% of those who ride wear protective headgear. Why? It doesn’t look cool or sexy. You get hat hair. The best helmets are right pricey. Well forgive me, but I’d rather keep my skull in one piece. To me, that’s worth $350 or so. Here’s the other point: an equestrian TBI is likely to be far more dangerous. Sixty percent of equestrian head injuries lead to death. Just ONE incident can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, the illness made famous in the film Concussion.
What trainers, guides and those of us who go on international horseback adventures do NOT appreciate is a TV ad that normalizes unsafe riding practices: no helmet, no control of the reins, and attaching your face to your device while mounted (i.e. Riding While Stupid).
It doesn’t matter that lots of people do it. You can fire me off a thousand messages about this article claiming that “your horse would never do that” or “ I text all the time and I’m perfectly safe.” “I never ever wear a safety helmet.” “I’m a cowboy/girl and I’ll never wear a helmet.” “Nobody will EVER wear a helmet in this ranch family.” “I went riding once and I…” You can make emphatic arguments about the kind of tack, Western vs. English vs. whatever. We horse folks are nothing if not passionate. I like that about horse folks. I’ve been riding six decades. I get it. We’re opinionated as hell. I’m sure I’ll hear from plenty of horse folks on this one. But kindly, hold off a minute.
Look, if you’re a professional, this isn’t about you. You know the risks, presumably you know your horses. What you do with your noggin and your body is your business, although I’m not sure about the example for beginners, who are watching you very closely. You are, after all, the experts. Perhaps you’ve just been supremely fortunate. So far.
But I Saw it on TV….
This is about the hobby, casual or first-time rider who decides they’ve seen these unsafe practices validated on national television so they must be OK. No they aren’t. As an advanced rider who has been subjected to this idiocy on international rides where other people were endangered by rank rookies, I have no patience whatsoever.
Every equestrian facility in Colorado bears a sign stating that you can get injured or killed while riding because riding is inherently dangerous. The facility isn’t responsible. As the rider, you are. The law protects the stable and the trainers from their horses’ potential bad moods and riders’, well, just riders. When you’re riding it is your responsibility to calm a frightened, agitated or startled horse. You’re driving that animal, unless someone is leading you in a circle around the corral. That’s why you can’t afford to drop the reins or take your attention off your animal. There is no cruise control on a horse, which has its own personal agenda. And it may not at all agree with yours.
In fact, every state has a similar law ( https://www.animallaw.info/statute/co-equine-activity-liability-statute-article-21-damages). The state recognizes that horseback riding is indeed inherently dangerous, and if you do something jackass stupid like text while riding, then the owner, the stable, and nobody else is responsible. I heartily agree.
In fact, if you’re a rookie on a riding stable horse, I can almost guarantee you that horse will test you repeatedly to find out if you know how to ride, and to establish who’s boss. It’s a constant conversation. Your horse wants to eat while riding? NO. He’s working. He gets hay and plenty of other food at the stable after he’s earned it. Your horse wants to trot before you give him a signal? NO. He’s carrying on with out you. Your horse takes off at a canter or gallop when the command was to trot? NO. You get him under control. And so forth. You cannot do this while distracted, and it could be costly. Imagine if you’re riding next to a pasture where there’s a stallion and you’re riding a horse that this stallion doesn’t like. What if a fight ensues next to the fence and you’re still on board? NO. Get your animal away from trouble. YOU are in charge. I watched this happen on a ride in Croatia. The rookies had no clue and we nearly had a serious accident.
Most Horses Are Safe to Ride at Professional Facilities
Most horses you would rent out in America and at most professionally-run outfits are by all means very safe, well-trained, and absolute angels. I would trust most any of them. However, they could still startle if you raise your arm too quickly, or shy hard at a fox that runs across the trail. Or they will leap three feet in the air for absolutely no earthly reason whatsoever other than the dreaded blowing plastic bag. Or, because she’s a mare and, well, OMG it’s a puddle! Horses are flight animals- if they are scared they are likely to take off on you. This is particularly true with things they cannot see, that are above them, or on their backs. Their predators are creatures like pumas, and pumas attack from above or behind and go for the neck. This eons-old conditioning has taught them, if they are terrified, to get rid of anything that is on their backs just to make sure. However you can better calm a frightened horse by being calm yourself, which takes practice, experience, and many, many hours in the saddle. There is no pill you can take that will suddenly turn you in a pro rider. Just as there is no pill a horse can take that will absolutely guarantee it won’t shy or run. And, in some cases, if that horse wants you off, you are coming off no matter how good a rider you are.
Riding Life Today
When I’m riding near highways, which happens at times that you just can’t help, certain asshole semi drivers or guys in large pickup trucks find it entertaining to scream and blast their horns as they pass. Quite understandably that scares the crap out of both me AND my horse. Not a time to be on your phone or you both might end up in oncoming traffic. As we increasingly lose our safe places to ride, this happens far more frequently.
These days we riders must share our riding trails with runners, ATVs, mountain bikers, hikers. Many of them aren’t at all happy about horses, even though horses were in Colorado centuries before they got here. Housing developments have taken over many of our once-safe lanes and paved them. There is a park where people send illegal drones over the heads of cute four-year-olds learning to ride at our training facility. Horses are terrified of drones. These people know that. That’s part of the fun. This is the world we live in today. Stupid. Selfish. Self-absorbed. And damned dangerous.
The Manhattanizing of the West
Parts of the West look more and more like Manhattan or Los Angeles lite, just decorated with rather large speed bumps called the Rockies. People come out here for the romance of the Western culture and then they harass the crap out of the last of the true Western culture that exists. Ask any of my fellow riders who are screamed at by people who say they have no right to ride such a large, dangerous animal near the park. The park that separates our stable from our riding arena. The park that we have to ride by, in order to do our training in the arena that we own. People who are unpredictable, hit our horses with their cars, shriek at them, wave things at them all while we are riding them. While tiny kids are riding them. And then threaten to sue us if our horses scare them: these people and their kids with the illegal drones and their illegally off-leash dogs barking and biting at our horse’s heels. People built right up to the very edges of our stables, right to the very edges of our training ring, and blame us for riding there. I have difficulty understanding the logic but then I am not a city person. I am, and will always be, a ranch and horse person.
Defensive Riding Required
For these reasons, I ride as though I expect my horse to shy. Always with a safety helmet, always with my reins in hand, and always expecting a leap in any direction. This does two things. I’m rarely caught off-guard, and boy, have I got terrific legs. A rookie riding in my neighborhood and not paying attention might end up being T-boned by a car speeding by on a side street, not expecting a terrified horse, spooked by a drone, streaking though with a rider hanging on for dear life, reins flying in all directions.
This is stark reality. Today’s Wild West.
I Wanna Look Like a Star
The other problem is folks who have seen too many movies. Good riders, as in any other sport, make riding look easy. It depends. It depends on the horse, the weather, the tack, and your competence. It depends on a thousand factors. Every single day out on a horse is unique, which is why horse people love the sport. But if you are a complete rookie you are not going to leap on someone’s prize stallion and go galloping into the sunset like you see on the big screen.
I run into this all over the world. People look to rent a horse and they want the Black Stallion. I’ve ridden one of those-Valentino, below, half-wild black Arabian stud worth nearly $100,000- at a dead run across the desert in Hurgadah, Egypt. You don’t ride a horse like that unless you know what the hell you’re doing. Yet people show up all the time demanding to ride an animal like this because they want a selfie or an Instagram photo on a star-making horse. They have absolutely no concept of what it takes to be able to control, calm, manage, and direct such a creature.
GET THE HELL OFF ME
To wit: as soon as I mounted that stallion, he flattened his ears and roared as loud as he could. (Roar: This sound is a mix between a neigh, whinny and a squeal. It has the deep, hoarse sound of a neigh, the loud, imposing sound
of the whinny and the enraged scream of the squeal. Normally you would only hear this sound coming from a furious stallion.
Translation — Get out of here right now! You are trespassing on my territory! I will attack you if you don’t get lost immediately! -https://www.learn-about-horses.com/horse-communication.html)
His whole body shook with his fury. What’re you gonna do? Pee? Get off? Run like hell? I leaned over and made fun of him right into his right ear. Then we spent the next few minutes determining who was boss. No whip. No fighting. No yelling or beating or sawing on the reins. Just a quiet, consistent conversation during which he repeatedly tested me and I responded with kind, clear instructions. After that we had one hell of a great ride, but not for one damned minute did my attention divert from this magnificent animal. Text on top of this creature? Take an Instagram? Make a “guess where I am right now???” phone call? Are you out of your gourd?
I Want People to Ride…Responsibly
I want people to ride and appreciate horses. Functional words here: ride and appreciate. They are amazing animals and they deserve our respect. Please, I’m not saying be afraid of them. Too many people already are for wholly irrational reasons. On the other hand they aren’t tireless machines that gallop forever and ever. Horses can die from exhaustion, too. You wouldn’t appreciate someone’s beating you on the flanks to keep on running in the increasingly brutal summer heat after you’d run out of gas, especially if it hasn’t occurred to your rider to let you drink or rest. Out here in the West people are even hiking their dogs to the point were these poor pups have died from heat stroke and exhaustion. This is how far we’ve come from understanding living creatures.
Love Your Horse
Horses are powerful, marvelous, sometimes unpredictable, proud animals with personalities, preferences and attitudes. That’s why we love them. If you can’t handle that, don’t ride. And for heaven’s sake, if you do ride, please ride with safety gear, and please only use your phone to take photographs — to post on Instagram when you are in a safe place later.
Look, I’m not trying to spoil your fun.
I AM saying kindly please don’t behave like you’re on your Barcalounger and assume that nothing will ever ever ever happen. The way to truly enjoy your horseback riding experience is first, don’t fear your horse. Second, respect it.
You want to text? post Instagram photos? Watch television? See the game? Count your damned likes?
Please. Dismount. Go find yourself a nice hay bale and have at it.
Or, at least have someone hold your horse’s reins while you head off into LaLa Land.
Ride the horse, or ride the couch. Please. Because you and the horse could get hurt.