Thought exercise: who would be liable in an accident during an equitation class with switched horse-rider combinations?

As far as I know, these events have never actually happened, but here I am, up at night and unable to sleep because of this shower thought. I am hoping for the input of this crowd.

In equitation classes where the top x number of riders are called back for a test and the test asks that they switch horses, who would be liable for any vet or hospital bills if there was an accident during that test?

Assuming it is rider-caused (i.e. botched distance that causes horse to require serious medical attention), would there be any liability from the rider who was on the horse at the time (especially if it was obviously their error that cause the horse’s inury)? Or is it assumed that there is an inherent risk in entering these equitation classes, and one of the possible outcomes of these classes is that an unknown (though proven competent) rider may ride your horse?

On the flip side, if a horse were to suddenly behave dangerously and say spook, dismounting a rider and causing a human medical bill - is there any liability on behalf of the horse’s owner? I assume this is less probable, but I figure rider harm could just as easily happen.

I realize at the top levels of equitation medals, most riders/horses are so well calibrated, that the risk of an accident is SO minimal. But surely an accident may have happened before and it could possibly happen in the future? I mean, we are all human (and horses!) after all.

Some states have laws stopping liability lawsuits due to the inherent nature of horses and livestock and people at horse events and rodeos. Sign notice is required in at least one state.

I think these sorts of questions are the reason we rarely see horse swaps anymore. Heaven forfend that a rider can only ride their made horse or a horse has a green moment…

In a normal world, there would be some (likely written) understanding of the risk of adverse effects to either horse or rider, from making it to the “swap” phase of the class. But I’m guessing folks are generally too risk-averse for that these days. :frowning:


Oh yes, there are Equine Activity Liability Acts in 48 of the 50 states that would protect the venue for sure. But one could envision a personal suit against a rider who had a bad round (and “broke” the horse) or the owner of a horse that was more difficult to ride than its normal rider made obvious (and “broke” the new rider).

One can sue for just about anything. Winning, of course, is another story.


I think you’ve essentially hit the nail on the head for why they don’t do this anymore.
And I actually am not sure the liability law would protect the venue completely in this situation. It may be argued that swapping horses goes beyond inherent risk, and that refusal would have been met with the punishment of being eliminated, so the venue coerced the rider into putting themselves in danger.

1 Like

by the early 1990s the swapping of horses was pretty much eliminated in the breeds shows we showed, maybe even earlier. Three of our kids were Gold Metal Equitation riders, they never had a national class that required swapping of mounts

A few years ago at USET Finals, Charlotte Jacobs’s horse had an uncharacteristic stop or two during the horse swap. I believe they withdrew him and later found out he had tweaked something. I don’t think it was anyone’s “fault,” per se, and at the top levels, most of these kids have ridden all the horses they’re swapping onto anyway.


This jogged my memory and I went digging through old Finals threads here. It happened at USET finals in 2019, too. Dominic Gibbs swapped onto Sophee Steckbeck’s horse Itteville. They clipped the top of a faux wall and the horse came up hobbling on the landing side. Dominic immediately pulled up and dismounted.
The horse was led out and tended to. From what we could tell, there was no significant injury because Sophee was back on him for the awards presentation.

Unless there was some sort of blatant misconduct by the catch rider, I’m not sure if they could be held liable?

I would imagine this worry is somewhat mitigated by the fact that at this level, everything is likely insured. I’m certain most horses of that value are insured for medical/loss of use, and riders/owners with the resources to be competing at that level hopefully have additional liability insurance to protect their assets from a lawsuit (Honestly something that every horse owner should have. We all know accidents happen with horses, and any horse could injure a person or damage property at any time.)


Especially at the higher levels, horses are very, very finely tuned and adjusted to their regular rider to perform their best and safest, for that pair.

It is hard to see your horse you are so careful with now being ridden by another rider that you don’t like the way he treats horses or rides too aggressively and you know maybe is going to scare your horse, no matter how well prepared for it all.

In the old World Championships Jumping the top four horses were traded and it was always a crowd pleaser, but much anguish in the barns about the horses.

I have never liked that practice.
If we want those classes, have designated horses for swapping, not be obligatory to offer the regular show horses that are performing so well for their regular riders.
Have different classes you can enter your horse for swapping at the end, separate from regular classes.


I have had the pleasure of hosting several clinics with one of George Morris’ former assistant trainers from Hunterdon. We had a conversation about switching horses at home. Students love it and it’s certainly beneficial to the rider, but he said they had a situation where a horse came up lame after riders switched in a lesson and it was a huge problem so they stopped doing it.

I’m of the same mind. As much as folks enjoy it, I’m scared to death that something would happen. I actually had a horse break a leg in a lesson after the rider (his owner) simply missed to a jump and he jumped awkwardly and landed wrong. I’m scarred for life.


We did switch students in regular classes, on school horses.
Not with private horses, too risky.

On a slight tangent: I’ve seen enough riders catch-ride/handle horses in various types of classes (and have done so myself a couple of times). I’d honestly say that liability has never crossed my mind. My only thought was to ride the class to the best of my ability and keep the horse out of trouble. Sometimes crap happens that can’t be foreseen.


I’d think there’s an inherent acceptance of risk when entering the class. I don’t do US law but in Canada I’d reference volenti non fit injuria.

In Pony Club testing at upper levels in the 90s/early 2000s we had to switch horses. Once I was riding a horse that was blind in one eye so he jumped with his head tilted and was very fussy (would flip his head up towards the rider) if you interfered with him. His owner requested he not be used in the swap for jumping, for everyone’s best interest, which we were accommodated for.


I had a wonderful time for a few years when three of us were taking dressage lessons from an off site trainer in the evenings after work. We all had demanding jobs and if we were stuck at work we would pay for our lesson and ask a friend or the trainer if they would ride. The trainer had a lot of fun with that I think. He rode sometimes and sometimes he would help untack and tack so we would ride in two lessons. My friends had really nice horses and were really nice riders. At least once, he had at least two of us ride together and swap horses. It was so much fun. Would get home so late and so exhausted and back to work in the morning.

I usually have 1-2 horses and get so accustomed to them and am wary of strange horses but those were the kindest most generous horses and owners and trainer. I feel so lucky and honored still to have had that opportunity.


On the topic of “tuned up for their rider” equitation horses at the highest levels: aren’t many of these horses leased just for the finals? Not always the horse that a person may have ridden all season to qualify on? Aren’t many juniors catch riding sales horses during the season? So, no, these riders are used to hopping on something new and riding it as well as possible for that round, that show. I think we assume a lot about those kids and those horses sometimes.


Those things certainly do happen. Especially if the rider needs a more experienced horse for the finals, or is coming from a long distance, so the logistics of shipping their own horse all that way for just one or two shows would not make much sense.

It certainly used to be much, much, much more common to see riders change horses in equitation classes at smaller shows. I actually changed horses for the test in a medal class the very first time I showed at 3’6” as a junior.

But that was long before the horses were so expensive and the society was so litigious. Now it only happens on rare occasions at the biggest shows, or when it is specifically written into the class specs for a final.

And they are still tweaking the rules about it. There was a rule change proposal on the subject after Harrisburg last year, when the testing process did not go well after they changed horses.

Interesting thoughts so far guys. In these events where the stakes are higher and horses are often one-in-a-million, well-broke, equitation marvels, it seems more likely to me that a lawsuit could come to play. It’s been a while (I think?) since the Maclay called for a rider-horse switch, maybe Jessica Springsteen’s year?

Jessica Springsteen won the Maclay in 2008, so I feel like there has probably been a horse change or two in that final since then, although I won’t swear to it.

Edited to add: It’s nice to see past equitation winners achieve so much success down the road, like Jessica Springsteen winning a team silver at the Olympics last year, and Brian Moggre representing the United States this week at the World Championships, among many others. Good for them!

I’m throwing in this link to past ribbon winners at the finals, since it’s always an entertaining trip down memory lane. Note how many of the horses are true equitation specialists who have won ribbons with multiple different riders over the course of years and years. Bless them.


[quote=“Lace, post:1, topic:775295”]
if a horse were to suddenly behave dangerously and say spook, dismounting a rider…[/quote]

Care to rephrase the question ? :grinning: