In my last article, you might have noticed that I continued north while True spun away from a Killer Bird and went south.
On young horses, these things happen in about half a millisecond. I landed on his head after the first spin, then slid continually forward in slow motion until planting my face firmly in the dirt. It was an ugly fall… slower than I like and devoid of any panache.
But wait… falls?
Young horses go up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards, and in circular spins VERY quickly and without warning.
In addition, falling is part of committed riding. You can’t do one without the other. If you never fall, that’s because you aren’t developing your skills much. All the best riders fall—making mistakes and figuring out how to correct them is how we develop our skills. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
But what can you do to fall with fewer injuries and more capacity for education in both horse and rider?
- Consider footing
- Wear protective gear
- Match your riding to your skill
- Clear the area
- Check your age
- Learn how to fall
To reduce injuries, consider footing when on a young, green, or difficult horse. Falling into a soft bed of arena sand hurts enough. There’s no need to enhance your pain by begging for trouble on hard ground, packed trails, rocky locations, or roads and driveways. Lead your horse to a soft area and ride there until both of you are very comfortable with each other and your surroundings.
Plan for falls by wearing proper protective gear. Don’t mount without a safety-certified helmet. They’re made in English and Western styles now, and you can pick one up for 50 bucks. You think it doesn’t look good? Check out the head injury patients in ICUs and emergency rooms—does that really look so much better? I didn’t think so.
Sorry—as a brain scientist who has studied too many mangled noggins that destroyed their owners’ quality of life, I’m not gonna say it’s OK for anybody to hop on without a helmet.
Please, put the flip-flops away and wear riding boots with heels.
Wear a cell phone if you ride alone, so that you can call for help if you need it.
Avoid clothes that flap or hair that hangs over your eyes. When Lightning bolts for the barn door at supersonic speed, you’re gonna want to see the rafters so you can duck.
Think about wearing an inflatable vest. The newer ones are slim in form but expand in the event of a fall to provide a cushion of air around your body. That cushion of air could save your life, and it will definitely save you some pain.
Consider, too, the kind of riding you are doing and whether it is well matched to your skill. Everybody wants to jump or rein or cut or gallop bareback…but these disciplines require advanced skills that take many years of daily riding and professional training to achieve.
Training a young horse is even more demanding. Many people who are very good riders are still not ready to take on the training of a baby. Be sure you’re not expecting too much of yourself and your horse. It’s not fair to either of you. And be willing to hire good trainers and accept their advice when you sense a disconnect in the offing.
Look around your riding location for hazardous objects. Is that a pointed corner on a roof right next to the arena fence? A tree or a big rock inside your riding circle? A metal arena drag parked in horse territory? Cavaletti with pointed Xs, barrels, poles, or jumps that are never used? All of these are foreign objects lying in the landing strip. Select a location that is free of such hazards. They can hurt the horse as well as you.
A lot of people make fun of good equitation, but it will help you stay on. Develop an independent seat and enough balance to sit tight in the tack even when the horse makes a fast move.
When in doubt, take the back seat a little bit, rather than a forward position. Lower your center of gravity by dropping your weight deeply into your heels rather than on the balls of your feet. That’s why we trainers are constantly barking “Heels down!” at everyone. It’s much easier to stay on a horse if your heels are significantly lower than your toes in the stirrups.
Give a thought to your age. It’s an unfair fact that we older folks don’t have bones that bend like they did when we were 20. If you’re getting a tad long in the tooth, or if you’re not in flexible strong condition, pay even more attention to the suggestions in this article. Pad up, leave bareback riding to the grandkids, glue a helmet to your head, learn good equitation for safety, select the sturdy 15-year-old Quarter Horse instead of the feisty two-year-old Thoroughbred.
Finally, the fall itself. OK, I confess—I actually train young students how to fall. Starting with a very experienced school pony at a standstill, we have lots of fun, dressed in our grimy old “sand” clothes. They bail off and push away with their arms to gain clearance from what will become moving hooves. They learn to curl and roll when they land rather than sticking out a leg or arm to “catch” themselves. I show them how to grab mane when necessary for balance.
We have contests to see who can fall best. Everyone laughs uproariously during these sessions. And when the day comes that they fall in real life, they know what to do. They’re not scared. They’ve taken precautions and are skilled in this very real part of riding horses. They’re not immune to injury, but they’re better prepared to protect themselves and handle a fall without undue fear.
Next time, we’ll chat about the effect of a rider’s fall on a young horse. What happens in his brain and what does he learn from that experience?
- Chill Out in the Round Pen
- Working the Whoa
- Let’s Ride Already!
- Establish Pace Without Neural Fatigue
- Canter Departs
Brain-Based Horsemanship is a weekly column that chronicles Janet Jones, PhD, and her journey with True, a Dutch Warmblood she trained from age three using neuroscience best practices. Read more about brain-based training in Jones’ award winning book Horse Brain, Human Brain.
A version of this story originally appeared on janet-jones.com. It is reprinted here with permission.