Steven Smart: ‘Tailgating’ is a horse of a different colour

When a claim arises because of a car accident, the courts can turn to the Highway Code to assist with determining who was at fault. Guidance is provided, for example, regarding a safe distance to travel behind a vehicle in front, depending upon factors including speed and weather conditions.

Steven Smart is a Partner & Head of Glasgow Office, Horwich Farrelly

However, it does not provide such guidance for horse riding. How does a court determine whether a rider maintained a safe distance from the horse in front during a “hack?” Can someone be negligent due to their horse encroaching into the surrounding space of a horse in front, and the rider is thrown to the ground? These issues were considered in the case of Norma Cuthbertson v Murray Bain t/a Harelaw Equestrian Centre.

The Case

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The pursuer and a friend visited the defender’s premises in August 2015 to take part in a hack, which consisted of a seven-mile horse ride from the defender’s stables to Longniddry beach and back. The pursuer was an experienced rider and requested a steady and reliable horse. She was given a horse called Blaze.

During the hack, the pursuer said Blaze became tense, wound-up and “raring to go”. This seemed to begin after a delay caused by a horse which was reluctant to cross a small stream when heading towards Longniddry beach. The pursuer was subsequently riding along the beach when she became unbalanced and was unseated. She fell to her left on to the hard sand below, sustaining significant injuries and giving rise to a claim of considerable value.

It was alleged the accident was caused by the fault and negligence of the defender’s “head girl”, who was riding a horse called Scout. The pursuer claimed that as the hack proceeded along the beach, Scout encroached to within one horse-length, causing Blaze to suddenly divert course and unsaddle the pursuer.

The Decision

Sheriff McGowan had to consider whether a duty of care was owed and if so, what the nature and extent of that duty was. He accepted such a duty did exist. Both an expert witness and indeed the defender’s head girl agreed it was dangerous to allow a trailing horse to ride too closely to a horse in front. The trailing horse should not encroach within one horse-length, estimated to be 8-10 feet.

The Sheriff did not accept the defender’s submission that the pursuer had fallen from the horse simply because her foot had come loose from a stirrup. Although the witnesses had done their best to assist the Court, he was not persuaded this recollection was accurate. The outcome of the case therefore turned on whether Scout was only five feet behind Blaze prior to the accident, as the pursuer alleged. If that was proven, the head girl was negligent and the claim would succeed.

Based on the evidence before him, Sheriff McGowan was unable to reach that conclusion. The pursuer said Scout drew alongside the rear left-hand side of Blaze. She said she had looked around once, which it was held was likely a swift glance. The pursuer remembered noticing the position of Scout at a point some 200 metres from where she was eventually unseated. This recollection was problematic, as the expert witness said the sensitivity of a horse to another horse in close proximity would give rise to an immediate reaction. The lack of a reaction while Blaze continued for a further 200 metres was supportive of the head girl’s account that Scout did not encroach within a horse-length of Blaze. Accordingly, the claim failed.

Summary

A person driving too close to a vehicle in front in a manner whereby they cause an accident to occur can be held liable for the consequences. This case establishes that tailgating when taking part in a group horse ride can also result in such a liability. Organisers of such activities may wish to give consideration to instructions provided to participants and the extent, if any, of the control exercised over it.

It also serves as a reminder of the importance of collating and retaining accurate evidence when an accident occurs. Unsurprisingly, the memories of the witnesses were unclear on certain points, given the accident was a number of years earlier. As a result, the Sheriff was not only unable to conclude that the accident happened as alleged, he was also unable to conclude on the balance of probabilities how exactly it occurred. Documentation from the time of the accident proved of limited assistance.

Steven Smart is a partner & head of Glasgow Office, Horwich Farrelly