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Duty Of Care & Sunshine

Last week I had a parent become angry with me about the level of Duty Of Care that Sunshine Riding exhibits. As a parent myself I can understand the concern shown, but as a business owner I have to take into consideration a group larger than one. It is a tricky balancing act as what is appropriate for Child A is not always appropriate for Child B for various reasons which can range from the individual’s age to their involvement with Social Services. It is a challenge but one that I think we manage well at Sunshine.

With this in mind, I thought it would best for everyone (and I do mean EVERYONE) to know and understand what the Duty Of Care policy, position, and actions at Sunshine Riding are.

Sunshine’s Duty Of Care Policy was written in 2017 and revised by our lawyers in 2018 to reflect the changes in Employment Law that came about with the introduction of GDPR in May of that year. Our Duty Of Care Policy is broken into two sections: Staff and Clients.

Our staff section covers what actions we, the managers, of Sunshine Riding will take to ensure the safety, security, further education, illness and injury, and working environment for those who work and volunteer at the yard. We revisit and revise as necessary that policy each December in light of what challenges we have faced and what we have learned about our staff and our horses. As I have always maintained, safety is the primary concern I have as I know that equestrian facilities of all sizes are considered by law and insurance companies as a “dangerous working environment”. Having suffered a traumatic injury, I am perhaps best placed more than most to appreciate this. I do not want others to experience what I have for the last 4 years.

Our client section covers much of the same things, but we also must consider how the horse can present further dangers as the clients are not usually as experienced as those of us who work with the animals every day. The issue of Over Horsed and Under Horsed is discussed by staff on an individual basis for each client and an agreement is reached. Sometimes I do bend to what my teachers tell me even if I don’t always agree because I believe they do know their riders better than I do. I do not undercut their decisions because that would be a passive-aggressive approach to yard management and that is a bad thing. However, if there is a present danger I, as General Manager and Senior Teacher, will act.

What is “Over Horsed”?

This is a term used when a rider is unable to control a horse either from the saddle or the ground. If the horse is too big or too strong and is able to intimidate the human to such a degree that the horse is in control of the situation, the human is Over Horsed. The horse is doing whatever he or she wants to do. The danger posed is great as horses in general have little spatial awareness, some specific danger awareness, and are always looking to better their position in the herd hierarchy (remember that humans are the top of that hierarchy). Examples of being Over Horsed include being unable to groom and tack a horse without the horse trying to kick or bite; being unable to lead the horse to and from the field without them dragging the human; being unable to make the horse stop when in the saddle; being unable to make the horse go in the required direction when in the saddle. I do accept that these situations can happen to anyone as a one-off, but if the situation continues over several sessions and/or days, then it is clear that the person is Over Horsed and in danger. I, or any of the managers or teachers, must take action to keep the individual safe.

What is “Under Horsed”?

This term is used for when the rider is too large for the horse, or is asking the horse to engage in activities that are beyond the physical capabilities of the animal. For example, Pasha can carry up to 10 stone (140 pounds/63 kg) person, but putting an adult who weighs that and is over 5’5” is a case of Under Horsed. The adult’s balance will be compromised as there is too much above the saddle and the legs will hang too long below the saddle. Another example would be this: Pasha can jump to 70cm but his body build and weight make that height a danger to his feet and legs when he lands (his ideal jump height is 60cm), no matter who is riding him, this is an injury concern. Taking him to a competition and jumping him at 70cm will make the rider the target of some very unkind remarks and a possible complaint to the various governing bodies including but not limited to the RSPCA. And back to weight – it is a common complaint about a rider being too heavy for their horse. Damage to a horse’s back is usually completely avoidable, but once the back is damaged, it is permanent. There is no excuse for anyone riding a horse that can not carry their weight comfortably. A somewhat standard rule is big people ride big horses and little people ride little horses. This is why we ask you what you weigh when you book in over the phone. It is also why sometimes your horse gets changed.

It is from the point of Over Horsed and Under Horsed that many decisions are made. Just because you can ride a horse, doesn’t always mean that is the right horse for you. Yes, we all love Magic. She is an amazing Schoolmaster who has been there and done that in most ridden disciplines. Just because she makes you feel great doesn’t mean that she will be the ideal horse for your development. As she ages, I, as her owner, will start to restrict what she does so that she can have the best quality of life possible. This means that the riders will be given or placed on new more challenging rides. Because we move carefully, this will (hopefully) eliminate the Over Horsed problem while not creating an Under Horsed situation. We all love an easy ride, but growth is not easy. A comfortable place for most riders who jump is between 70cm and 80cm – high enough to be a challenge but not so high as to terrify or cause injury. This being said, I am not allowing Magic higher than 60cm for her own good.

On the flip side, just because you can jump a horse at 85cm doesn’t mean that you can control the horse on the ground. This is where a very large area of our Duty Of Care comes in. When a person wants to join us as a volunteer or handler, the first thing they are told is that they will not be working with Charlie, Tango, Ben or Stanley. This is not because I don’t trust the human, it is because I know what these for boys can do. It takes a very deep level of confidence to work with them on the ground because they know how big they are. They know how to intimidate humans. They will bite, kick and drag because they know very few humans will stand up to them. Until a volunteer or handler has the personal wherewithal and confidence to take them on, these horses are not for them. They may look beautiful and jump like gods, but they are right little so-and-so when you don’t have a bit in their mouth. It our Duty Of Care to make sure that our clients, volunteers and handlers are not put in such a position that they are in danger. I had a handler who loved a former horse of ours, Mollie, but Mollie always bit her. I had to make the decision to stop the hander from interacting with Mollie for the handler’s own safety. I wasn’t popular. I did what had to be done. I wasn’t passive-aggressive about this. The human’s safety will always trump the human’s emotion. By the way, this is Old Mollie not our new, Barbie-pony, Molly.

Another area of Duty Of Care that we take very seriously is bullying. This is more often than not a problem with young people’s interaction, but it has also reared its ugly head with adults. Biting comments, snide remarks, cutting looks are a part of life that I don’t want at Sunshine Riding. We, the teachers and managers, work very hard to monitor any situation where this could arise. We try to talk honestly with the various individuals while keeping the actual observed incident vague so as to not appear threatening. It does work. As many of you are aware, we have children (aged 4-11), young people (aged 12-17), and adults (aged 18 and over) who are actively part of the Social Services system. It is important to us at Sunshine that we do not add to the individual’s issues and pain, but provide a place where they feel safe, secure and able to heal and grow. The general atmosphere of love and acceptance is, like safety, a primary goal at Sunshine. Bullying, racial or religious intolerance, sexual orientation and gender identity intolerance, will find the perpetrator asked to leave immediately. The most challenging thing we want our riders to face at Sunshine is a properly ridden 20 metre circle, a collected canter, a four loop serpentine, and a reveres. We want them to have the belief they can do that 75cm fence and the one that follows it. We want them to have the confidence to be the beautiful people they are.

The final, but by no means least important, is that the people who work with and teach your children, young people, vulnerable adults, are DBS checked. I do not allow random strangers on the yard. This has been a bone of contention for some people who think I am being “mean”, but it is because I care about the safety and security of the individuals here at Sunshine. All our sub-contractors are fully vetted and have the appropriate paperwork. No one is allowed to just walk around and look at things without a member of staff present. Our Duty of Care means that protection and safety goes beyond equine interaction – it does include human interaction. The staff have been trained also to look for signs of abuse, physical, mental and emotional, and how to properly and effectively report it. We care about our riders’ safety both here at Sunshine and in the wider world. If we can help, then we will.

Accident Reports

Accident Reports are not just a legal requirement. Accident reports help the staff analyse what went wrong in a ride. This is part of our Duty Of Care. I look at the reports, which fortunately is not very many, on Mondays (yeah I know it’s my day off) to see what work needs to be done with each animal. Sometimes the accident is just a fluke thing – a bird flew out of a bush and spooked the horse; sometimes it is an educational thing – the horse refused a jump because it didn’t understand it; sometimes it is a behavioural issue – the horse bolted after a jump; sometimes it is a health related issue – tack not fitting, undetected lameness, teeth, field injury, it’s a long list. When I have figured out the possible causes, I speak to Beowulf, Huw, Kat or Simon about how I would like the issue dealt with. This will make the horse safe for the next time a client works with it. It is vital that we document what happened and the possible injuries because what doesn’t hurt from a fall now, will hurt in 24 hours. It also means that the fall and any subsequent injuries appear on the rider’s file so that a teacher will know how to deal with both the physical and mental fears.

All of us at Sunshine Riding become upset when the rider or the teacher has an incident with a horse. You will never see me move (i.e. limp) so fast as the words, “We’ve had a fall”. I, personally, take responsibility for the situation that has put an individual on the ground because I want each person to enjoy a safe and happy experience that develops them. There is not an accident that should not be reported. It is hard to get young people to report an accident because they like to be “hard”, but this is a mistake. We can’t fix issues if we don’t know they are happening. Also teachers and mangers can not physically oversee each client, volunteer and handler personally the whole time they are here. We watch constantly, but we will miss things when other situations are brought to our attention. Staff, volunteers and handers have been told to report all accidents and incidents, but it is not 100% foolproof. We, Sunshine, are human and do try to do our best to achieve 100% safety, but we do also have rely on kindness of strangers to tell us things.

I do hope this clears up any thoughts you might have about how we operate with a view towards Duty Of Care. We take our responsibilities very seriously. We don’t just do this at a shallow level. We go as deep as we need to and as far as an individual will want us to, with an aim to be a part of the solution and not part of the problem. If you have concerns about our Duty Of Care, please do speak to me. If you have viable suggestions that will make Sunshine Riding a safer, more pleasant place, then again please speak with me. I am open to all suggestions. They may not be immediately implemented as they may need training and planning before being put in place. They may have already been tried and we have been told that we are not allowed to do that. Sunshine Riding is constantly evolving to become the riding school you can be proud to be associated with.