Rider rents a horse from a stable, instructor, or dude ranch. Rider falls and is hurt, allegedly due to saddle that slipped. Rider sues, alleging that the provider improperly secured the saddle on the horse.

What happens next? Who is liable? Over the years, numerous lawsuits have been brought based on equestrian injuries blamed on saddles that were allegedly defective or improperly tightened. 

In one Federal appellate case from Wyoming, the Court found that a slipping saddle qualified as an "inherent risk," and the stable was not liable. There, the plaintiff was a novice-level rider who took part in a group trail ride offered by a Wyoming stable. During the ride, all the riders dismounted for a brief lunch, at which time the trail guides loosened each horse's saddle. Before the riders re-mounted, saddles were allegedly re-tightened. Fifteen minutes after the lunch break, the saddle on plaintiff's assigned horse slipped, and he fell. He sued the stable.

Defending against the lawsuit, the defendant provider moved for summary judgment arguing that a slipping saddle is an inherent risk of horseback riding under the Wyoming Recreation Safety Act [that state’s version of an Equine Activity Liability Act]. The Wyoming federal district court dismissed the case, and on appeal the Federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. It found, among other things, that a slipping saddle was an “inherent risk” of horseback riding. The court recognized that the process of tightening the cinch or girth is somewhat of an inexact science. It stated in part:

Turning to the present case, we need to examine the risk at the level of specificity to which the facts lead us. The facts show that the saddle slipped. If this were the only fact with which we were presented, we would quickly agree with the district court and hold that saddle slipping is in inherent risk of horseback riding. The [plaintiff's] own expert testified that saddles slip for a variety of reasons including: stretching leather, the tensing or relaxing of a horse, the horse losing weight from sweat, the compression of certain types of saddle pads and loosening of the cinch due to the movement of the horse, or the rider failing to ride straight in the saddle. The expert further stated that a slipping saddle is always a possibility when horseback riding; that this was not the first time a saddle had slipped and it would not be the last. This evidence clearly indicates that a slipping saddle is an undesirable risk which is simply a collateral part of horseback riding. . . . Thus, a slipping saddle, with no other facts provided, is an inherent risk of horseback riding.

Also, in response to a comment made by one of the defendant stable’s employees that “if the saddle just fell off and was hanging loosely under the belly, then obviously the saddle wasn’t tightened enough,” the court stated:

As discussed above, it is inherent that a saddle will slip, and the plaintiffs’ expert testified that saddles will slip for a variety of reasons. The expert also testified that although there are dangers in cinching the saddle too loosely, there are also dangers in cinching the saddle too tightly. For example, if a saddle is cinched too tightly the expert testified that the horse may roll, which could also obviously result in injury to the rider. Thus, because cinching a saddle is done by hand, and not with scientific precision, a provider must make a judgment call as to how tight or loose to cinch the saddle. This imprecision in the cinching of the saddle is “characteristic” or “typical” of and therefore “inherent in” the sport of horseback riding. It is an undesirable risk which is simply a collateral part of the sport. When the cinching of the saddle can be too tight or too loose, and the cinching is not done with scientific precision, it is inherent in the sport that the provider at all times will cinch too loosely or too tightly. . . .

The case was: Cooperman v. David, d/b/a Wyoming Rivers & Trails, 214 F.3d 1162 (10th Cir. 5/30/00).

CONCLUSION

This case does not reflect the law in every state. The outcome of a saddle slip case depends on the applicable state's law and the facts. Properly worded and signed liability releases (where allowed by law) can potentially affect the outcome of saddle slip cases. Julie Fershtman has handled saddle slip cases for years. One example is an Illinois saddle slip case she won for her client several years ago after a four-day jury trial.