Catch Riding… What are the Risks and Possible Protections?

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY LISA LAZARUS

TPH Editor ’s NOTE: This editorial is based on FEI rules. USEF language differs slightly and the USEF Drugs & Medication Hotline Department reported that catch riders involved with a horse with a drug infraction “will be treated on a case by case basis.” See GR 401.2.  

What is catch riding? 

When a rider competes in a show, on a horse they do not own or train, it is described as ‘catch riding’. Catch riders have little to no familiarity with the horse prior to being asked to show it. If they are lucky, they may have the opportunity for a few practice rides in the warm-up ring. According to the USEF Rule Book, a catch rider must have no influence with regard to the horse’s competition schedule, management, schooling, exercise, training, care, custody or control.

Why do people catch ride?

Riding an unknown horse on short notice can be challenging and requires a confident and competent rider. So why do people catch ride? Some do it to increase their riding and show experience. A catch rider can enjoy the benefit of riding and showing horses without having to endure costly expenses such as vet bills, show fees and the cost of feed. Catch riding can give them invaluable experience in competitive events. Some catch riders do it to push themselves to become better all-rounders.

Horse owners engage catch riders for a multitude of reasons. The owner may be unable to show the horse personally at the competition, due to age or injury. A skilled catch rider can increase a horse’s value ahead of sale, as it showcases the horse’s versatility and suitability for a range of riders. Horse owners may also engage catch riders to give experience to green horses, which the owner does not have the confidence to show.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Tips for landing catch riding roles

The majority of catch riding opportunities are established through trainers. Prospective catch riders should speak with their trainer and make their keenness to catch ride known. Their trainer should be able to offer guidance about local opportunities. Obtaining written references from trainers, grooms and owners will help riders impress their abilities on horse owners.

The market for catch riding is extremely competitive, therefore riders should be honest with themselves about their abilities and be open minded about the horses offered. Riding a wide range of horses will always help increase experience.

What could go wrong? 

There a number of potential pitfalls that a catch rider should be mindful of. The first of these is personal injury. As the horses offered to catch riders are often green, and new to the show ring, the inherent risks of riding them are even higher than usual.

So, if you as the catch rider fall from the horse and sustain a serious injury, who is liable? In short – it is likely that you are.

Courts have consistently recognised that horse riding is inherently dangerous – and that catch riders knowingly accept that danger. Can you sue the owner? Only in very extreme circumstances, where a horse has been found to have “unusual characteristics” which the horse owner knew about and which created the risk of serious injury.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

The second thing to consider is the need to comply with competition anti-doping rules. If the horse you are catch riding fails a doping test, it is you who will personally face a possible suspension and fine. Under the FEI Equine Anti-Doping Rules, the rider has a personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substances are in the horse. Trying the defence that you did not train or prepare the horse will not be accepted (or, at least, it has so far never been accepted).

This may sound unfair at first, and you may ask, how can a rider be suspended for the positive test of a horse they rode only once? This is part of the FEI’s strict liability approach. It is intended to (i) ensure a level playing field for all; and (ii) prioritise horse welfare.

The case of Qatari rider, Abdulla Mahmood Abdulla Darban, is a cautionary tale. Mr Darban was asked to catch ride a horse 8 days before the event. He was first introduced to the horse just before the pre-ride. The horse then tested positive for a Banned Substance and a Controlled Medication. Despite Mr Darban’s playing no part in the horse’s preparation – and explaining to the Tribunal that he trusted and relied upon the trainer to prepare the horse – he received a 2-year suspension and was ordered to pay a 2,000 Swiss Francs fine. While not specifically called catch riding, this is an issue that arises often in the sport of Endurance where riders frequently ride a horse for the first time on competition day. The FEI Tribunal has repeatedly confirmed that the rider is the Person Responsible under the rules even under such circumstances, although trainers are frequently sanctioned as well if they were involved in the violation.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Protection 

Riders can, and should, protect themselves through comprehensive rider insurance. These policies exist for those who don’t own horses – but do regularly ride. Check the small print, and make sure that the insurance covers your own personal accident expenses as well as vet’s fees for any injury the horse may sustain whilst under your care. Check also for third party liability insurance, which provides compensation if the horse causes injury or damage to someone else’s property.

With regards to anti-doping rules, get to know the horse owner and ask as many questions as possible. How experienced are they? Do they appear to have appropriate stable practices? Do they have a good reputation? Have they ever had a doping issue before?

Catch riding has many benefits – and is a great way to improve as an equestrian. It is, however, important to think about all of the associated risks, and protect against them, so far as possible. 


Lisa Lazarus, former FEI General Counsel, is Head of Equestrian Services at Morgan Sports Law which represents athletes. She can be reached at [email protected]