Monday Medical: Horse safety basics |

Monday Medical: Horse safety basics

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

There’s nothing quite like riding a horse through an Alpine meadow, with mountains peaks in every direction.

But just as with other outdoor activities, it’s smart to stay safe.

“Horseback riding is an awesome activity, and we need to encourage it in our valley as it’s an important part of our Western heritage,” said Dr. Michael Sisk, an orthopedic surgeon in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “But horses can be unpredictable. Just like with every activity here in town, from downhill mountain biking to skiing, there is some level of risk.”

Sisk speaks from experience: he’s been riding horses for more than 30 years, including decades of riding bucking broncos in rodeos. Below, he outlines his top safety tips for horseback riders.

Adjust your stirrups

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“One of the biggest complaints that I hear from riders is knee pain, and that has a lot to do with stirrup position,” Sisk said. “A lot of people have their stirrups too high, which puts a lot of stress on the inside of the knee.”

For Western riding, which is Sisk’s specialty, you should be able to stand up in the stirrups and just fit your hand under your bottom. Too much space means your stirrups are too short.

Find the right saddle

A poorly fitted saddle can cause hip and back pain, so take the time to make sure your saddle fits body and horse.

“A saddle that’s properly fitted can make a huge difference,” Sisk said. “A kiddie saddle on a draft horse is clearly not going to work out well.”

Secure that saddle

Several times during a ride, check the tightness of the girth or cinch, which keeps the saddle on the horse.

“When you saddle up some horses, they really puff out their chests because they know the cinch is coming,” Sisk said. “Then, when you walk away, they suddenly relax and the cinch is loose.”

A slipping saddle can make it difficult for the rider to balance and can lead to serious injury, including broken bones or worse.

“The horse goes loping along, the saddle slips and all of a sudden people are trying to stay on,” Sisk said. “It’s hard to jump out of a saddle that’s slipping.”

Choose the right footwear

For Western riding, that means cowboy boots.

“If you wear tennis shoes or hiking boots, which are bigger and clunkier, you’re asking for trouble,” Sisk said. “One of the worst wrecks you can get in is getting bucked off without your foot coming out of the stirrup.”

Wear protective gear

When Sisk started in rodeos, cowboys didn’t consider donning a helmet or protective vest or jacket. Now, many cowboys do.

“There has been an evolution in safety over the years,” Sisk said. “For pleasure riding, wearing a helmet is not a bad idea, especially if you don’t know the horse you’re getting on.”

Prepare for unpredictability

“Horses are just like people, they have good days and bad days,” Sisk said.

Even older, experienced horses can spook if they accidently walk into a hornet’s nest or step into a badger hole. If the worst happens, know how to fall.

“When you’re getting bucked off, that old adage of ‘tuck and roll’ is your best option,” Sisk said.

Go with a reputable guide

If you don’t own a horse and want to get out for a ride, choose a well-established outfitter over a neighbor’s horse that may not have been ridden recently.

“There are lots of great, reputable outfitters who will put you on a safe mount with good equipment,” Sisk said. “That way, you’re likely to have a great time.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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