There used to be a time when the only all-terrain vehicles had four hooves and a tail.

Whether horse, donkey, mule, pony or ox, each had an additional quality that today’s wheeled ATVs lack -- a brain. Where a horse has a sense of self-preservation and the ability to balance itself and a rider over most terrain, an ATV is a machine almost completely dependent on the driver for input and safe maneuvering.

“Riding an ATV is not like riding a horse,” said Jack Boles, Extension/4-H instructor-ATV safety for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. “An ATV is a ‘rider-active’ machine -- unlike all the other equipment out there.”

And unlike a car, an ATV requires much more physical input than simply applying the throttle or brakes.

“The ATV requires the weight of the rider to move in sync with vehicle in order to maintain balance and remain upright,” Boles said, which is why it’s so important that an ATV is properly sized for the rider.

Riding an ATV safety requires a precise duet between the rider and the vehicle in order to remain operating properly. “ATVs require ‘controllable weight.’ When you start adding loads, such as extra riders, it throws the weight distribution off completely, increasing the chance for the machine to overturn.”

Boles said people tend to think of the ATV as the family pony and treat the machine and its active requirements very casually. “It’s that casual attitude that leads to deaths or injuries.”

In Arkansas between 2005 and 2009, there were 1,284 hospitalizations for ATV-related injuries. The average cost for these hospitalizations was more than $26,000 each, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. Nearly 30 percent of these hospitalizations were for Arkansans under 19 years of age.

Education is the best shield against ATV accidents. The Arkansas 4-H ATV Safety RiderCourse program offers hands-on and classroom-based sessions to help young riders better understand how different riding in ATV is from riding a bicycle or the family pony.

To enroll, or to find a RiderCourse near you, contact Jack Boles at jboles@uaex.edu or (501) 671-2352.

The program is co-sponsored by Arkansas Children’s Hospital, UAMS, Arkansas Farm Bureau, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, ATV Safety Institute and the Arkansas 4-H Foundation.