Safety systems

Pony Access has a new website, Please go there for up to date information. Thank you. Simon.

However,  this page is well worth reading as it is a detailed discussion of my philosophy but about 3 years out of date. It covers a number of important areas that I have not discussed in detail elsewhere.


Pony Access provides all terrain access for those with mobility issues. It will take anyone, in any wheelchair, anywhere. Pony Access also provides access to ponies for all those excluded from Traditional horsey activities, by location, or money, or by the inherently dangerous nature of traditional horsey activities.

For both these groups, Safety is central to Access, so Pony Access takes safety seriously. While Traditional Equestrian activities use danger to remain exclusive, Pony Access uses Safety to be inclusive.

To make an activity safe, one must believe it is desirable to make the activity safe, and that  it is possible to make the activity safe.

Without these two beliefs, the activity will be dangerous as indifference to safety and a belief that safety is impossible, are self fulfilling prophecies.

The traditional attack, “you can’t make anything absolutely safe!”  must be ignored. The statement is true, nothing is absolutely safe. When you go out to catch the pony, Skylab might fall on your head.

I admired the guy when an early Skylab was reputed to be going to fall on our heads, who sold “Skylab Early Warning Helmets”

These were replica German WW1 helmets with the spike on top, and he claimed that when Skylab hit this spike, it gave you 0.0000000001 seconds of early warning.

The minute we get into discussions of “absolute safety” the Skylab early warning helmets start to make sense. When they make sense, you know the discussion is going down a blind alley.

Pony Access is discussing safety in a real world situation and concentrating on real world risks. Therefore I must look at how, when and why the traditional equestrian establishment kill and injure participants, employees and innocent bystanders.

These threats are real, are killing people in the real world, and will kill Pony Access participants, employees and innocent bystanders if I don’t manage the risks and create a Safe activity.

Therefore I am concentrating on real threats, not the possibility that the pony thinks he is a crocodile and will start dragging people into the stream and eating them. I do have to consider the very genuine threat that the pony thinks the stream contains a crocodile, and that the pony will behave as if this is true.

This risk assessment hopes to cover every realistic possibility of risks in Pony Access operations. As with any worthwhile risk assessment, this is a dynamic process, and upgrading this document, modifying and improving it are part of the safety process. Tomorrow I will know more, and may be able to make it safer still. Anyone who understands Health and Safety is aware of the dynamic nature of Risk Assessments and accepts that no document is perfect, but is hopefully working towards perfection.

I am not going to do the common Risk Assessment trick, of which the Health and Safety Executive rightly disapprove, and spend all my time discussing Food Hygiene in the staff canteen, storage of noxious chemicals, safe use of photocopiers or precautions round farm machinery and quad bikes.

These are necessary topics, but can be added to any locations Risk Assessment as appropriate. If the primary risk is the horse or pony, that is the subject that should be covered exhaustively. In a cafe or restaurant, food hygiene is critical, in a pony establishment it is incidental, but the staff canteen should have its own risk assessment which can focus on the food safety issue.


Most  Horse based risk assessments start with the comment that horses are large heavy animals. Only Pony Access advises using the smallest, lightest animals that will do the job. If big and heavy is a risk, smaller and lighter is better.

That is why Pony Access is called Pony Access not Shire Horse Access.

Small size has many advantages for safety, but there are risks. Ponies are quicker to act, and I believe, quicker to think, than big horses. But the advantages easily outweigh the disadvantages.

If a pony treads on an adult foot, it hurts. With a horse, it can break the foot. Kicks by horses are more severe, and tend to hit you higher in the body which causes greater injuries. If a heavy horse squeezes you against a wall, the injuries can be severe. I have seen a 9″ block wall demolished by a heavy horse scratching its backside. Imagine what would happen to anyone between the Heavy horse backside and the wall.


Selecting for size is an obvious safety feature. Selecting for character is more important. Pony Access do not believe in selecting by breed, except to treat “pure bred” animals with extra caution. “Pure bred” animals are significantly more likely to have expensive health problems, and in my opinion are more likely to have behavioural problems.

Arabs, which were renowned for their gentleness and suitablity as “a ladies ride” in the late 19th and early 20th century are now considered to be tricky, flighty and dangerous. they are also prone to endless genetic problems, some fatal, as a result of the remorseless inbreeding for phenotype without considering behaviour.

If you consider the ponies to be staff, the selection process is much easier. They have to have the right character for the job, but that varies with each job description. A pony suitable for working with young, recently disabled soldiers with amputations might be totally unsuitable with elderly patients with Alzheimer’s, and vice versa.

Henry, my first pony was perfect for almost any job, he had had an easy upbringing with no trauma. He had a few quirky ways, and irritating habits, but is basically a really safe, really nice, really easy pony.

Obama, my current pony, is much more of a problem. He does the job safely, but only because I know him, and his fears, and his moods.

Pony Access is not a pony rescue centre. As a basic principle, Pony Access would use suitable ponies, not try to make a difficult pony work out.

Obama is a special case. I designed the iBex round him, and I designed Pony Access round him, and I designed the training system round him. He is a founder member of the team with grandfather rights to do what he likes, but not to compromise safety.

I work round Obama’s limitations, and Pony Access will always have to work round the limitations of ponies. Staff members aren’t perfect. If a staff member has a phobia, you work round it, if they have jobs they hate, you try to work round it.

You just don’t take on staff with too many phobias and too many jobs they hate.

Ponies change with age and experience. A pony that starts with a specific problem may not have the problem in a years time. They can develop problems as well. Obama wasn’t afraid going over bridges when I got him. I made a stupid error and he was scared of going over bridges for a couple of years. Now he is pretty relaxed again.

Pony Access requires a Pony Personnel Officer, currently me, to ensure the pony and job match up. If they don’t match and there is any risk of serious harm, the job is re assessed to remove the risk.

Ponies are selected on character and size. they are continually assessed and changes noted. They may increase or decrease the areas where they are safe to work, and the types of work.

It is important that the ponies have some time out where they are not under strict discipline. If they only work in high stress environments with limited options, they become sour and unhappy. they need some fun time out, high speed and joie de vivre. This is also a very good opportunity to risk assess new environments.

I drive Obama in town, solo, from a wheelchair, for fun, because then, when he works in a school or nursing home, it is calm by comparison and stress free.

The role of Pony Personnel Officer is a dynamic process. It must respond to circumstances and learn from experience.

Staff selection, pony or human, must be based on safety first.

The personnel Officers job is to ensure that the Staff, pony and human remain safe. If necessary, unsuitable staff must be sacked if safety is to be maintained.

Safety must be the defining factor in any decision. The health and welfare of the staff, human and animal must always be secondary to client safety, but well above the profit motive.

Safety is the most important factor in the viablity of Pony Access. Without safety we won’t get clients or insurance.


Some basic animal handling rules must be understood by all.

Ponies are flight animals. Their first defence is to run very fast away from threats. This is not controllable. The word traditionally used to describe horses running away is bolting. Bolting means to run very fast, out of control.

If the definition of bolting is running very fast out of control, trying to control it is clearly pointless.

Pony Access accepts that Ponies and Horses bolt, and insists that they are given an escape route, or exit strategy. A pony that is surrounds or cornered is dangerous. therefore Rule 1, is Don’t surround or corner them.

Given the choice ponies will always run around obstacles and to open space, preferably with grass.

This is in itself a safety factor. If the pony runs to open space, it is away from people and any valuable objects. If the surface of the ground is a valuable object, like a bowling green, cricket pitch or golf green, it is not a suitable place to work with ponies, but still better than letting ponies injure people.

Fear is the dominant pony emotion and the response is flight. Being prepared for this, and allowing it to happen is central to Pony Access safety


The other major emotional drivers are sex, hunger and thirst.

No Pony that is thirsty should ever be used. Horses can go up to three days without water. This has been observed in feral Australian horses, radio tagged, which left a waterhole, and grazed traveling away from the only known water for 36 hours, before returning in a further 36 hours to the original waterhole.

A thirst horse has been seriously neglected. No Pony access horse or pony should ever be in this position. To check for thirst, offer water. Once they have finished, they are not thirsty.

Hunger is more complex. Ponies eat 18 hours a day plus. They can eat themselves to death. They evolved where lush grazing was not available, as they are creatures of arid pasture. A pony on lush grass will eat till Laminitis is a problem or obesity or both.

A pony that is kept at a healthy level of grazing will consider itself starved, and give a convincing impersonation of a starving animal.

A single starving pony is not a major risk, a group is.

Under normal circumstances, and in the wild, ponies do not compete for food. There either is grass, or their isn’t and it is spread over a huge area. No one animal can corner the market.

In captivity when being fed by humans, the situation is completely different.

Taking food into a group of hungry ponies is dangerous. They are aware the human is a source of food, and will squabble among themselves over the source of the food. This is a learned behaviour as a result of domestication, but no less powerful or dangerous because it is learned, not instinctive. To be the centre of a group of squabbling ponies is dangerous. Do not get into that situation.

The safe solution is simple. Throw food over the fence so that all animals have access to sufficient food to last them while you are in the field/pen or whatever. Ideally there will be one more pile of food than there are animals.

The belief that you can train them to behave in this situation is dangerous. maybe you can, but if one pony misbehaves and kicks a rival, or attacks with teeth, a melee will ensue and the results are unpredictable and dangerous.

Do not take food into a group of hungry ponies, feed them over the fence before going in.

Do not let novices or clients get involved in feeding till they have shown a high level of competence of pony handling. Feeding time is dangerous.

Sex. Do not get between two animals of almost any species, who fancy each other. It is dangerous.

Do not even think of trying to drive a stallion away from a mare or vice versa.

I advise using geldings for Pony Access. They are more predictable, and have a reduced sex drive. That does not mean they have no sex drive, and does not mean they are incapable of mating, or showing the behaviour patterns of a stallion.

A group of only geldings is probably the simplest and safest option. Mares and geldings together, who know each other can be totally satisfactory, but when the mares are on heat their behaviour can be unpredictable and “marish” and the geldings will be more unpredictable with a mare in heat.

Any sexually motivated behaviour must be seen as a warning sign and assessed. If the situation is safe, carry on. if doubtful, stop.

For this reason the all gelding option is preferable as sex is least likely to be a factor.

Stallions can be perfectly safe, even around mares in season, but the risk factors would require a permanent state of alert which would not make long term sense.

Overt sexual behaviour must be treated as a danger sign. Do not get between two ponies showing sexually motivated behaviour. Do not put any pressure on animals showing sexually motivated behaviour.

After Hunger, thirst and sex, fear is the main motivating factor in ponies and horses.


Ponies are a prey species whose defence mechanism is flight. If cornered, they will fight, if the predator is too close to run they may fight. They tend to use their feet against threats, and teeth against each other, but a cornered pony will use whatever is available, striking at threats with all four feet and teeth..

Therefore, don’t corner them. Don’t surprise them from close up. If they look scared or tense, move away.


Human fear is relevant as well. A lot of nonsense is talked about hiding your fear, not showing fear etc.

Look at how a pony or horse responds to your fear.

You see yourself as the lead horse in the herd. If the lead horse in the herd sees a lion, and says “I’m not scared of lions. I am big and tough and heroic.” then that lead horse is going to be a lion’s lunch.

Intelligent, long lasting lead horses, say. “Oh my God, a lion. Can it get me, is it hungry, am I safe.” If the lion is dangerously close, or charging, the amygdala cuts in and the lead horse is running before it has consciously thought.

So when a horse sees you are scared, it doesn’t sneer, it certainly doesn’t see weakness and attack. It thinks, “ah, how unusual, an intelligent human being.”

Human fear only becomes an issue if you believe that you have to dominate your pony or horse.

The cult of the alpha male, or the alpha female, does make showing fear dangerous, but for more complicated reasons.

Let us assume I am working with someone on a regular basis, and we have worked together since November and it is now June, and throughout that time we have worked as a team, helping each other. Now, at the start of the wasp season, when my workmate sees me, terrified of wasps, and frozen with fear, does anyone expect them to suddenly attack me. Of course not.

But look at the alternative scenario. Since November I have ruled the workplace with a rod of iron. I have made everyone obey my commands, and punished any show of independence or disagreement with my fists. My domination is absolute, and physical.

Now, when the wasp season comes, and I show fear, I can expect to be attacked.

A bully must maintain domination, and any weakness will be fatal to the domination.

If you don’t want your pony to attack you when you are scared, work with it as a team. Become a friend, don’t bully it.

A simple example happened when I was test driving a very silly vehicle I had designed. It is silly because it is dangerous to drive even when everything is going right. I was driving fast across a large area of grass when I had yet another of the inevitable accidents that are the result of driving the Floppy Drive. Due to various temporary modifications, I managed to get my leg trapped between two ropes, badly twisted, and generally very uncomfortable. I was holding Obama because the instant release had worked and released him from the vehicle but I still had the reins, but was unable to move.

A complete stranger saw the accident and came over. I was trapped, unable to move, in pain and helpless. I had no fear that the stranger would attack. Any passing lion would have attacked, but humans have lost that predatory urge, so as he approached, I gave him my knife and asked him to cut me out, which he did.

But if I had been bullying this chap, day in, day out, would it all have ended so happily?

To be afraid of showing fear to your pony ONLY makes sense if you are bullying it. Therefore, to be able to trust your pony not to attack if you are scared, don’t bully it.


Fear is natural, and is what a horse or pony expects to feel. There is research to suggest that the absence of events that can produce fear will have adverse consequences and that prey animals will eventually spontaneously panic if external fear arousing stimuli are absent over a period of time.

The identification of signs of fear is a vital part of learning about horses for the participants. It is the first lesson for anyone working for Pony Access. Fear must be identified and if possible the source of the fear should be identified, but that is a much more complicated issue. We may assume it is something we can see, because we are primarily visual, but it could be a sound or a smell. It could also be a shape that to the pony looks predatory.

I am convinced there is a instinctive fear of a predatory face/shape.

Although it would help to identify the source of the fear, the only vital skill is to be able to identify fear.

When fear is identified it is important that people move away from the pony, and ensure it has a clear escape route. A breakaway link in any lead rope is a sensible precaution. When I work with vulnerable clients, especially with learning difficulties I insert a 5 kg fishing swivel into the lead rope. This gives control of the pony when things are going well, and ensures the pony can depart unhindered if anything goes wrong.


These discussions of risk are a part of staff training.

 “I didn’t have any training and it never did me any harm.”

Unfortunately this applies to me, Simon Mulholland, and it is demonstrably untrue. I am good at the safety part, because I am obsessed by safety. But that is as far as it goes.

When selecting human staff, as opposed to pony staff, what is needed are People people, very definitely not “horsey” people. Our clients are people, the clients are vital to the business, therefore personal skills really matter.

It is really easy to teach people people, pony skills. Teaching “horsey” people, people skills is much more difficult.

Assuming we have chosen a pony with a suitable character for the job, with safety the first criteria, and that we avoid conflicting with fear, hunger, thirst or sex as basic desires, and have suitably trained staff, what is the biggest risk?



Pony Access doesn’t do riding. It is not part of Pony Access activities. I have had loads of fun with ponies, travelled all over the UK, urban, beaches, mountain and moorland, forest and farmland, having a ball pony powered without ever riding a pony.

Riding has an appalling safety record. The main reasons are as folows.

The law of gravity states that if you put someone on top of a horse, gravity will be doing its best, which is pretty good, to see they hit the ground.

Any unpredicted action by the horse will reduce the riders balance making the law of gravity more effective.

The saddle design does little to keep the rider on full time, but just enough to ensure that if they fall, it tends to be head first.

The English saddle also has a knife like cantle, designed to cause maximum injury in the event of a rotational fall. The rotational fall is the chief killer and maimer of eventers.

Accidents happen and when riding tend to be serious. King George V visited the 1st Wing Royal Flying Corps during WW1 in Hesdigneul. Sir Douglas Haig loaned the King hiss crowd trained charger which was startled by the applause of the crowd, reared, slipped on the wet ground and came down backwards partially on the King, breaking his pelvis in two places. Royalty on Horseback. Judith Campbell p98 ISBN  0 283 98104 0

So a presumed competent rider, on a specially trained Fieldmarshall’s horse, doing exactly what the horse was trained to do, falls and breaks his pelvis in two places. The cantle was probably what broke the Royal pelvis.

The traditional equestrian establishment trains through pain and domination. A horse’s reaction to pressure is to escape if it can, fight if it can’t. Whips, bits and spurs cannot stop a horse bolting. By definition a bolting horse is out of control, therefore controlling gadgets can’t work.

Whips bits and spurs can make a horse bolt, or rear, or buck or shy. All these actions make a fall more likely, and more severe.

In the interests of safety, getting rid of the weaponry is vital.

Pony Access doesn’t do riding. We could make it safe, and will in the future, but at present, traditional riding is too dangerous.

The main activity with Pony Access, especially for beginners is driving the iBex. This vehicle has the Saddlechariot Instant Pony Release System and is therefore safe. The instruction manual makes it safe stating. “If you are worried, pull the release rope.”

Driving the iBex is genuinely inclusive. The standard vehicle takes any wheelchair, including high lift electric wheelchairs. It also adapts for those who don’t travel with their own chair, and seating for two adults, three at a pinch is available.

The seat has a grab rail in front which means it remains really easy to get on or off, but giving complete security for those on board.

A radio control Instant Release system is available which simple adds another layer of safety as the rope operated system continues to work. In addition an automatic release can be fitted that cuts in if the iBex exceeds a specified speed, is turning too tight or leaning at an excessive angle.

I have driven the iBex in a wheelchair across a 1:1 slope. It isn’t comfortable, but it shows no siugn of tipping.

The iBex is safe because the behaviour of the pony makes no difference to the safety of the vehicle and any users of the vehicle. If the pony behaves, the iBex is pony drawn. If the pony misbehaves, the pony is released to misbehave elsewhere.

Releasing the pony applies the brakes, and the pony drawn ibex becomes static garden furniture.

In addition the floor is only 8″ off the ground, the three wheel design is incredibly stable, so even driving solo from a wheelchair is safe.

The safety features of the iBex have been tested over the last two years, and references can be provided from Special Needs Schools, Disability Groups, Care Homes, Private individuals and health and safety enthusiasts.


Interacting with ponies is important for many people. Some of the wheelchair access users may only see the pony as propulsion, to get them to places they want to be. that is fine, all terrain Access is what Pony Access provides, but it also provides access to ponies.

For novices, the safest, steadiest ponies should be used, or the ones the staff feel are most suitable. The staff know the ponies and the people, and should be best placed to get the best, ie safest combination.

With novices, safety is the over riding priority. I want beginners to have an absolutely safe first experience. With riding, the minute you are on, you can fall off, and falling off can break your neck. This is the main problem with traditional equestrian activities and why Pony Access is resolutely in traditional.

I want beginners to leave having had fun, totally unhurt. As they gain experience they can choose to take risks. The faster you go, the more likely you are to hurt yourself. Not injure yourself, but hurt yourself.

It is vital to understand that Health and safety does not ban people hurting themselves. It is dedicated to stopping serious injury. The reason there is a focus on minor injury is statistical at heart.

Industries that are dangerous, that kill and maim people tend to inflict lots of minor injuries, some major injuries and a few fatal injuries. With the exception of airlines where either you land or you don’t, and if you crash a plane, it tends to be fatal, the industries with high death tolls and high levels of major injuries, have lots of minor injuries.

If you drop endless things on peoples toes, eventually someone will be doing their shoelaces and the object lands on their head. That is why Health and Safety are interested in minor accidents, because they are frequently precursors to major injuries and death.

But to take a horsey example, if I take a group of children into a field with nettles and an electric fence, even if I advise that nettles sting and the fence gives a mild shock, I can safely assume that some, if not most of the children will get stung by nettles and some if not most will get a shock from the fence.

Neither of these risks escalate. 100 nettle stings doesn’t lead to ten wasp stings and one adder bite. The nettles are a finite risk. 100 kids getting a shock from an electric fence doesn’t mean ten are sticking metal skewers into mains sockets and one is climbing the pylon to the 10,000 volt wires.

These are finite issues, they don’t lead to more serious accidents. If I have a culture that ignores accidents, that is dangerous. If I assess the accident, establish that there is no risk of escalation to a more serious risk, I can accept nettle stings and electric fence buzzes, as long as I check that there aren’t a percentage of people who die from nettle stings or touching electric fences.

You can fall off the iBex. The seat height is 24″ It doesn’t get higher. If you fall off at speed you will be on a soft surface because I won’t let you gallop a pony across a hard surface. If you are going off a leading rein, Pony Access requires helmets to be worn. So the risk of a fall is from 24″ onto grass.

It will hurt, but in two years I haven’t fallen off an iBex yet. I have given up trying to tip them over.

If you take them high speed across rough ground, then you may bruise yourself,  but if you feel you are going too fast,  pull the ripcord. Unlike conventional horse activities, there is the ability to stop at any time, safely.

It is also possible for the operator to add remote control or automatic safety measures. Either an observer can decide it is all getting a bit hairy, and pull the plug, or an automatic over ride can cut in at preset speeds, slopes or turning g forces.

Pony Access is safe, and determined to get steadily safer.

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