Those that follow British news and politics will know that a government adviser, some would say expert, was recently sacked for suggesting that the illegal party drug ecstasy was no more dangerous than horse riding. This upset a few people, especially seasoned riders.
Professor David Nutt included in his report that horse riding in the UK accounted for 10 deaths and 100 traffic accidents each year. Ecstasy accounts for around 30 deaths each year. His main criticism is that the media is far more likely to report deaths caused by illegal party drugs than deaths caused by horse riding.
Horse riding is for many a fulfilling hobby and an excellent way to keep fit. Horse riding works the core muscles and thighs and is a great way for people to tone their midsection. It is also well documented to be a relatively dangerous hobby. Christopher Reeve, who played Superman from 1978 to 1983, was paralyzed in a horse riding accident when he was thrown from his horse during an eventing competition. Eventing is also known to be the most dangerous of all horse riding activities, simply because the horses are very large and the demands on the rider and horse are great. Inexperienced riders are the most likely ones to have a serious accident. So, how does horse riding really compare to ecstasy in terms of risk?
Horse riding does account for 3% of all spinal injuries each year, according to statistics from Stoke Mandeville Hospital, England. A report was published in 1991, “Hazards of Horse-riding as a Popular Sport” by Dr. Silver, a spinal injury expert. It was this paper that Prof. Nutt cited in his report earlier this year. Here follows part of the abstract from the paper:
“The increasing incidence of horse-riding accidents, which are often severe in nature, prompted a pilot study of a questionnaire designed to elucidate the cause of such accidents. The detailed analysis paid particular attention to the setting and to the experience and task of horse and rider. It was found that 70% of the 20 accidents could be thought attributable to the behaviour of the horse at the time, and seven of these were in the spinal injuries group. Rider error was a significant contribution in seven cases, and in two instances the rider was under instruction at the time. There was also inadequate experience of the rider in seven cases, of which five were thought to show inadequate supervision. The limited number of cases studied precludes significant observations, but, as the majority of accidents seemed preventable, a larger study has been initiated in collaboration with the British Horse Society.” J R Silver, J M Parry, 1991.
According to Prof. Nutt’s study ecstasy use resulted in approximately 30 deaths each year in the UK, with just 1 in 10,000 users experiencing “acute harm” compared to 1 in 350 horse riders being injured each year. Prof. Nutt also pointed out that the media played up the risks of ecstasy. On average newspapers reported 1 in 250 deaths from paracetamol, 1 in 50 for diazepam and 1 in 3 for amphetamine (ecstasy) use. Much of the fear of the drug is driven by the media. More people die after taking paracetamol each year than the class A drug (although many of these deaths are intentional).
So, was it right for Prof. Nutt to compare ecstasy to horse riding? Was it right for him to be sacked for making this comparison? The statistics are not solid, with such a small data set being used for the horse riding injuries. Although these statistics do not provide a solid basis for any argument, they do raise a very important question – why make a recreational drug illegal when other recreational activities pose greater risk to personal health? Why ban ecstasy when horse riding, cheerleading or rugby are all more dangerous? More importantly, is horse riding a dangerous hobby that should not be encouraged? It helps people get fit and extends life when done with care and adequate safety. How does it compare to hang gliding, skiing, sailing or motor sports? In one report 15 people die while rock fishing each year, and in the USA 20,000 cheerleaders are injured each year. Horse riding is the 3rd most dangerous sport in terms of deaths per 10,000, after lawn bowls and base jumping. Yes, lawn bowls is a dangerous sport that sees many people injured on the bowling green each year, and sometimes deaths occur. Maybe it is partly due to the demographic of the participants, we live in an anti ageist society, so we cannot take that in to consideration.
We would love to hear your opinions on this. If you are a horse rider or have used ecstasy in the past, share your experience with us.
- Hazards of horse-riding as a popular sport. J R Silver, J M Parry.
British Journal of Sports Medicine 1991;25:105-110; doi:10.1136/bjsm.25.2.105
Copyright © 1991 BMJ Publishing Group Ltd & British Association of Sport and Exercise Medicine.
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