By Sara Goldsmith Schwartz
The nation’s attention will be turning to Kentucky, Maryland and New York for the triple crown horse races later this spring. While hoping that you may have the next National Velvet in the stables, we encourage independent schools to be aware of and effectively minimize their exposure to the potential risks that may arise from offering horseback riding programs.
Currently, all states, except California, Maryland, Nevada, and New York, have statutes that provide some level of protection from personal injury liability for an organization that offers equine activities. State laws vary quite a bit, however, in requiring specific wording for a release form, time periods for retaining such forms, and posting of warning signs in the stable and corral. For example, in Pennsylvania, signs indicating that riders assume the risks associated with the activity must be two feet by three feet in size. In Massachusetts, such signs must be in black letters, with each letter to be a minimum of one inch in height—we were not kidding when we said the laws are specific! Therefore, it is important that schools be aware of state laws and craft signage and permission and release forms to maximize their enforceability.
Furthermore, even a well-drafted release may not deter an injured student and the student’s family from filing suit against a school, so it is extremely important that schools take all appropriate measures to prevent injuries while students participate in high-risk activities, including horseback riding, through establishing and implementing appropriate risk management strategies. Has your school considered implementing baseline testing protocols to help prevent and manage concussions? Does your school have policies and procedures in place to make sure saddles and helmets are appropriately (and safely) fitted to horse and rider?
In an effort to minimize an independent school’s exposure to potential legal risks associated with riding programs, we recommend that schools take the following measures:
- Carefully evaluate applicable laws related to equine activities in the school’s home state;
- Implement appropriate athletic policies and risk management plans related to equine activities;
- Carefully draft signage, permission, medical treatment authorization and release forms;
- Ensure that all riding team trip forms are consistent with state-specific best practices; and
- Educate students, parents, athletic trainers, instructors and coaches regarding the school’s policies and procedures pertaining to equine activities.
Please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Firm’s Education Practice Group if you have any questions about this information or equine activity-related issues in general.