When you think of the dangers of riding a motorcycle you might visualize a mound of crushed steel, bleeding gas and oil over the white lines of a highway. But believe it or not, per capita, horseback riding is 20 times more dangerous.

In a landmark 1985 study, Dr. J.L. Firth estimated that while “a serious incident can be expected at the rate of 1 per 7,000 hours of motorcycle riding, serious injury rates exceeding one per 350 horse riding hours have been described, making horseback riding 20 times more dangerous than motorcycling. Effectively, horseback riding, motorcycling, and automobile racing are the three most dangerous sports.” As far as injuries go, horseback riding leads to more spills on average than motorcycling.

The odds a person will visit an emergency department due to a horseback riding accident in a year are 1 in 3,837. Most of these accidents are caused when a horse bucks or bolts, throwing the rider, and female injury rates are typically higher.

Trying to figure out which is more deadly isn’t easy as mortality numbers associated with horseback riding are unknown in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some speculate that there is a lack of publicity for horseback riding accidents because many horse accidents occur on private property and tend not to generate police reports.

Statistics on motorcycle deaths, however, are readily available and the numbers are stark. In 2006, 4,837 motorcyclists died in accidents, and a further 88,000 were injured. Compare that to 2,116 killed and 53,000 injured in 1997—in one decade, the number of injuries almost doubled, and deaths more than doubled.

The odds a motorcyclist will be injured in an accident in a year are 1 in 82.55. The odds a motorcyclist will be killed in an accident in a year are 1 in 1,488, about the same odds a person will be diagnosed with breast cancer in a year (1 in 1,506). And the odds a rider killed in a motorcycle accident in a year was not wearing a helmet are 1 in 2.39.

History bears out just how risky both motorcycling and horseback riding can be. Horseback riding has resulted in the deaths of such historical figures as Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, Ellen Church (the first airline stewardess), and, arguably, actor Christopher Reeve. Motorcycle accidents, meanwhile, have claimed the lives of astronaut Pete Conrad (the third man to walk on the moon), novelist John Gardner, and British military officer T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia.”

Ultimately, while motorcycles and horses occupy different spheres of injury-influence, arguments concerning their relative dangers will, with luck, end in a safety lesson.

After treating T.E. Lawrence’s fatal head wounds, neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, deeply moved by the experience, pioneered research that ultimately led to the widespread use of motorcycle helmets.

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