Paralysed teenager succeeds in claim after falling from a horse

A teenager left paralysed in a horse riding accident will receive significant compensation after succeeding in a High Court claim against her ex-boyfriend’s mother.

In September 2012, Ashleigh Harris, then just 14 years old, fell from a horse she was riding near Chepstow, Monmouthshire and sustained paraplegic life-changing injuries. The horse belonged to Rachel Miller, the mother of Ashleigh’s then boyfriend, Kieran Miller.

Miss Harris had gone with Mrs Miller to view Polly Perks, a thoroughbred horse, on 15 September 2012. Both Miss Harris and Mrs Miller rode the horse briefly before Mrs Miller made the decision to buy Polly.  The following week, on 22 September, Miss Harris was invited to ride Polly.  Accompanied by Mrs Harris, her son and daughter, the group proceeded out of the stable yard, down a series of lanes and into a field.  Miss Harris rode the horse in the field, for the most part walking, and having turned around to head back towards the gate, Miss Harris fell off the horse and landed on her head, causing a serious spinal fracture.

Miss Harris brought a claim for compensation against Mrs Miller in negligence and under the Animals Act 1971 (for a summary of the legal issues involved in horse riding accidents, please see our earlier article on accidents involving animals).

HHJ Graham Wood QC heard evidence from Miss Harris, Mrs Miller and other witnesses as to the accident circumstances, and the period leading up to the accident. He also heard from two renowned equestrian experts, James Mackie and Charlie Lane.  The extent of the dispute between the experts was relatively limited, however the same could not be said for the factual dispute.  It was agreed that the question of liability would turn substantially (if not completely) upon which factual account the Judge preferred.

The key questions for the Judge to determine related to:

  1. Mrs Miller’s knowledge of Miss Harris’ riding experience;
  2. Miss Harris’s actual riding experience;
  3. The horse’s behaviour and characteristics prior to and during the ride;
  4. The mechanism of the fall from the horse;
  5. The exact location where Miss Harris became unseated.

HHJ Graham Wood QC considered the evidence and found:

  1. Mrs Miller had limited knowledge of Miss Harris’s riding experience, although believed her to have been riding ponies for approximately two years and possessed a greater understanding of horses than she did;
  2. Miss Harris had only ridden ponies, never a horse, and was considered to be a ‘competent novice’;
  3. Miss Harris found Polly difficult to ride when trialled prior to purchase by Mrs Miller, but did not communicate her concerns;
  4. On the day of her accident, prior to her fall, Miss Harris expressed a degree of insecurity (though not a wish to dismount), but received encouragement from Mrs Miller;
  5. Miss Harris lost control of Polly when it proceeded from a trot into a canter;
  6. Polly was a strong and wilful thoroughbred, difficult to control, uneducated and unresponsive, unlike any horse which Miss Harris had previously ridden.

In determining whether negligence had been established, the Judge said that it was insufficient to Miss Harris to rely upon the fact of the fall, the causation of her injury, and that she probably should not have been riding a horse which was too big or too strong for her; it was also necessary to focus on Mrs Miller’s knowledge, actual or constructive, of both horse and rider when considering whether or not in permitting Miss Harris to ride Polly she was in breach of the duty care owed to her as a young person for whom she was responsible.

HHJ Wood QC concluded:

In my judgment the factual matrix which I have found does indeed permit a conclusion that negligence has been established. The Defendant’s standard of care must be assessed by reference to that of the ordinary and reasonably prudent horse owner. Such a person would ensure that he or she is possessed of sufficient information about both horse and rider to be able to assess any risk from what is an inherently dangerous activity.

It is most likely, it seems to me, that the Defendant made a serious error of judgment in acquiring an unsuitable horse at the early stages of her riding hobby. She had undertaken insufficient enquiry and had failed to seek appropriate advice as to the type of horse she was after, a strong thoroughbred horse, trained, even if not successful, in racing. Being committed to this type of horse, and taking the step of acquiring Polly very cheaply, she has convinced herself that there were no problems with the horse, when in fact there were, and it should have been known by her as difficult to manage even for a competent novice rider. By positively encouraging Ashleigh Harris to ride the horse, and condoning if not specifically instructing a trot in an open field for the first time, she was exposing the Claimant to a risk of injury from a horse which could not be controlled in other than the most benign of conditions.

It was reasonably foreseeable, therefore, that the horse would be strong and difficult to control, and in certain conditions likely to unseat a rider who was not used to managing a horse bred to race and trained to gallop.

Lee Hart, Partner and Head of the Serious Injury team at Clarke Willmott, commented on the case:

Unfortunately, these types of incidents are all too common. The vast majority of riders acknowledge the risks involved in riding horses, and falls often occur.  Fortunately, the majority of falls result in cuts, bruises and dented pride, however life changing injuries can occur, such as those sustained by Ashleigh Harris. 

When considering the question of legal liability in these cases, it is important to look carefully at the facts of each case to see whether financial recompense for the much needed treatment, therapy and care can be recovered.

The case also highlights the importance of adequate insurance cover for horses. Mrs Miller admitted that her insurance indemnity is insufficient to meet the full value of Miss Harris’s claim and will therefore have dire financial consequences for her and her family.

If you have any questions about horse riding accidents and need advice about making a claim, please contact Lee Hart on 0345 209 1465 or by email