When Benjamin Franklin proclaimed that, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he was referring to fire prevention in Philadelphia.
But, this sage piece of wisdom is equally applicable to horses.
As equestrians, we practice prevention even if we do so subconsciously. We check our girths before we get on. We double-check gates are latched with tick-like frequency. We comb stalls and turnouts for dangerous things, understanding that if the horse can hurt itself on that piece of string, or that loose bit of fencing, they probably will.
Safety and injury prevention are things we often consider less frequently for ourselves, however. I was reminded of this as I limped back to my car after a relatively minor accident during a recent riding lesson. Moments prior, my angelic trainer had to help take my boots off.
“Eating dirt.” “Biffed it.” “Getting chucked.” Whatever we call it, falling off is part of the equestrian experience. It happens, no matter the horse, the discipline, or the rider. In fact, it is easy to tell how long someone has been riding by whether or not they can recall how many times they have landed on the ground.
For some, falling is even a badge of honor. A friend of mine had a naughty pony as a child who liked to dump her in the bushes. “Once you fall seven times, you are a proper jockey,” her mother told her. After fall number six, that friend said she excitedly looked forward to her seventh fall—and the promised “proper jockey” status.
Most falls, though always a bit nerve-wracking, usually result in a few colorful bruises and a slightly crunched ego. Still, the possibility of a catastrophe is always there. According to Land Safe, a company specializing in teaching riders how to fall as safely as possible, a severe injury is as likely as one in 55 rides. Dr. Barry Miller of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab noted in Chronicle of the Horse that novice riders are three to eight times more likely to injure themselves during a fall than a professional.
The good news is there’s much we all can do to decrease our chances of falling off in the first place and protecting ourselves from serious injury when we do.
Invest in safety equipment
The first and most obvious, of course, is to invest in safety equipment. Helmets alone have been shown to reduce head injuries by up to 70 to 80 percent. (There are amazing sales on right now for Helmet Awareness Week.)
Air vests, safety vests, and safety stirrups are also effective ways to prevent injury and vests specifically are becoming more and more accepted across different disciplines.
Catherine Winter, owner and founder of safety equipment specialist site Ride EquiSafe, likens vests to both trampolines and airbags.
Winter explained that, as we age, we stop being as resilient when we fall. “Vests act as a trampoline, allowing us to bounce better.”
And “like air bags,” which may cause injuries, “air vests prevent death, and no one is advocating for removing airbags from cars,” she continued.
One of the predominant arguments Winters hears against safety equipment is, “Humans have been doing this for hundreds of years. Why do we need safety equipment now?”
“Yes,” she said, “but we are also breeding for better performance.”
The jumps are higher, horses turn faster, as a result, the risk is greater, too.
Invest in a suitable partner
John Haime, performance coach and author of Ride Big: The Ultimate Guide to Equestrian Confidence, echoed the sentiment about the right equipment, noting that the right horse for the right rider is vital. Making sure we ride the suitable horses requires each of us to deeply reflect on our needs, personalities, and flaws. Picking the right one, though, could both catapult our success and keep us out of the hospital.
My friend Susan, who works in the livestock industry, recently had one of those wrong horse falls. The 19-year-old cow horse she climbed on was great with cattle, but had only been ridden a handful of times. The horse “dipped and dove, and I had a personal interaction with the frozen ground. He came and checked on me to make sure I wasn’t dead then went back to chasing cows,” she described.
The fall broke her ribs and punctured her lung; later, it collapsed. While at work, she caught histoplasmosis, a fungal infection common on farms. Usually, histoplasmosis is not serious, but because Susan’s lungs were already compromised, she ended up in the ER.
After spending months on anti-fungal medication, Susan is now back showing, taking lessons, and loving her pudgy but charismatic Haflinger. One of the marks of a horseman I have learned is those who admit their mistakes proudly.
“Competency and preventative measures both inspire confidence and can shift fear from unhealthy anxiety to healthy respect,” said Haime.
Invest in your education
One way to increase confidence is, of course, investing in as much education as we can get our hands-on. I know that all of the time and money I have invested in lessons over the last decade have prevented many mishaps.
Cross-training has also benefited my time on a horse, including in the instances when I have fallen. My years doing martial arts taught me how to tuck in my chin and bend my elbows to protect my face, a thing I now do instinctively when I fall. Swimming, which I still try to do at least once a week, has kept me fitter so that my strength and balance are more likely to keep me in the saddle.
Of course, will all the preparation in the world and the perfect horse, accidents still happen. I might argue that risk and uncertainty are part of why we ride horses. If we wanted something that only ever did exactly what we expected every time, we would have chosen another sport. Because when things do go well, which they usually do, the struggle makes it more worth it.