On Fear, Falling, and Horses


sticky moments along the way

I came across a really good post a few weeks ago on Facebook, shared by a page I follow, on fear and how it relates to horsemanship. The gist was fear can be a big obstacle…but it’s also an important emotion to recognize as it relates to self-preservation and keeping a modicum of common sense about us.

I’ve always been more of a “scared” rider. Maybe some of that is my own personality as a whole — I tend to be a somewhat cautious, careful person in pretty much all aspects of life. I play things safe, I’m not a huge risk-taker, and I don’t like to get hurt, physically or emotionally.

How am I possibly drawn to horses, and an extreme sport such as endurance riding?

Probably because as much as it scares me sometimes, it also pushes me out of my comfort zone, reminds me that life is meant to be lived, teaches me things can and will go wrong without it being the end of the world (thus far, at least), gets me outside of myself, and, if I play my cards right, rewards finding the balance between caution and bravery.

Granted, I’ve come a long ways. There was a time that, to get me to actually ride outsidet the safe confines of the area, my old trainer would have to clip a leadrope on Mimi and head out the gate, leaving me little choice but to clutch the saddle horn and whimper in futile protest.

Was my pony that “bad” outside the arena? No. On the contrary, she was actually super bold and liked to “trail ride” on the streets and canal banks near the barn. But she was “looky” and had a very fast reaction time.

And I have a very hard time forgetting or letting things go, so after the one fast spook-spin-bolt that resulted in a parting-of-the-ways, Ashley-getting-lawn-darted-onto-pavement incident, I’ve had a hard time relaxing in an “urban riding” environment…never mind that happened like 17 or 18 years ago.

Ummm…let it go much? Maybe???

Upon actually writing that out, even I have to shake my head a bit at myself. I mean, I wish there was some “sprinkle pixie dust, wave a magic wand, and poof, Instant Brave Rider” secret I could tap into and make all of those fears and self-doubts go away.

But there isn’t. At least, not the last time I checked.

But there is experience, a bit of “grit your teeth and do it,” and the positive affirmation of post-adventure survival. Sitting and being all cogitative and academic and thinking about all of the “what ifs” almost makes it worse — way too much dwell time. Getting out and doing something tends to produce a more positive mental outlook.

A couple months ago, I got lawn-darted. A complete accident on both the horse’s part and mine, but for the first time ever, I actually had a horse go completely down with me. I’ve had incidents of horses tripping and taking a knee, and even my own Mimi has always had a tendency to catch a toe on an underlying rock, a by-product of her daisy-clipping ways (and not always paying 100% attention to her footwork, especially in “easy” areas). So I tend to “ride aware” with good contact, always ready to catch/stabilize as much as I can. It didn’t help in this case. One second, we were trotting along on a slight downgrade, and the next second, I was skidding on the dirt.

If you’ve got to have a horse fall with you, this was seriously the way to do it. Physics worked in my favor and I got ejected clear of the saddle and ahead of the horse, and didn’t get fallen on or rolled on. My shoulder and arm took the worst of the impact, and then my hip and my head. (Yes, I was wearing a helmet. Yes, it has been replaced.) Given the fact I went skidding down a single-track trail comprised mostly of decomposed granite, I’m shocked and pleased my tights didn’t even suffer any rips. (Shout-out for the Irideon Synergy tights.)

Horse was fine, saddle was fine, I got a few bruises, but was fine. And, shockingly, not even particularly mentally shaken up, which is most unusual for me. Hmmm. Signs of bravery and acceptance of “you may get hurt along the way, but there’s an even better chance you probably won’t” possibly making an appearance?

I still don’t know what caused it — whether he was getting tired, maybe a bit footsore, or just caught the right rock or dip in the trail at the wrong time? But up to that point, we had a fabulous ride — covering some really beautiful, fun trail at a really good clip. It was the kind of ride that had really served to give me a good confidence booster and validation of my ability to ride, so maybe that’s why I was able to be more circumspect about the whole fall thing?

Of course, it didn’t exactly help that the next time I rode, the horse (a different one) I was riding did a very nice stumble on a downhill, but at least she caught herself. Twice in a row would have just been too much.

But it also got me thinking, and generated this subsequent blog post contemplating my own riding and being a possible contributing factor to these incidents.

For what it’s worth, I would also like to get back to taking some lessons in the future, especially with a new horse…I benefit from someone else’s eyes on me, and if I’m listening to someone else’s directives, I’m less likely to wuss out and “overthink” and more apt to just “go with it.” And I know I’ve developed some very bad “lazy rider” habits over the year that are going to take some work to correct.

I’ve been riding now for over 20 years…and there’s still so much I’m improving on and learning. Fortunately horses (the good ones) are a remarkably forgiving journey.

6 thoughts on “On Fear, Falling, and Horses

  1. OMG…such a timely post for me. As you are aware I suffered a severe shoulder injury…what you may or may not know is it was horse related. My boy has never been super naughty (until the fateful day) but liked to yahoo once in awhile. He is not spooky…never reared or bucked…a little crow hop now and again but no big deal. There had been minor infractions of pulling back a bit when I was on the ground but again…not really bad. The day of the really bad shoulder injury was a 2 hour ride filled with 8 second hold on for your dear life…GET OFF ME moments. The cartilage and bicep tendon separated from the bone in my right shoulder. It took quite some time to get an exact diagnosis…I kept riding (in an arena) and round penning as I could until finally the pain was too much. My surgery was in March of 2015…and my shoulder still troubles me today. I have continues to work him on the ground but can’t seem to get up the nerve to get on. Scared to death…I need some serious courage to try again. Thank you for reminding me that I am not alone in my irrational fear.

    • I didn’t know all the details of what had caused your injury, so thank you for sharing. After something like that, I would *not* call it irrational fear. For me, at least, “naughty behavior” incidents are so much harder to get over, and so hard to be able to trust that horse again.

      Personal example: When my dad got his gelding (bought sight unseen as a green-broke 5-year-old), I was the first one to climb on him. All was great for the first 30 seconds, until he then exploded into a bucking fit and launched me. Wasn’t hurt, and climbed back on and rode the snot out of him…and proceeded to then put another 30 days on him before my dad ever rode him. But that kind of set the tone and it took me a while to ever be fully comfortable riding him.

      Not sure if that’s helpful or not…but it’s okay to be scared and to take the time you need, especially if your shoulder is still giving you trouble.

  2. “Lawn dart” makes me think more of a head first crashing impact into the ground vs. the way I usually hit the ground (other body part first). I’ve actually witnessed human lawn darts of the head-first variety at the ski resort…no bueno. No. Bueno. Makes 90% of horseback falls look tame!

    Quick reaction time – I know that. I know that too well! For me though, I know damn well the likelihood of me getting seriously hurt is really low down on the probability scale. I simply don’t like to keep testing it though – which with Q is something that is going to happen, she’s not going to get less spooky overnight. I’m going to keep sailing forward after she ducks and spins away in terror. UGH.

    It is definitely hard to get comfortable doing things you know may cause you pain/discomfort. Fo sho! Lessons are fabulous though. Having eyes on the ground is a very awesome thing.

    Great post (yet again). I look forward to hearing more about your lesson pursuits in the future.

    • I really, really admire the amount of time you spend on the slopes and your ski talents…it’s something I’ve enjoyed the times I’ve tried it…but always, it’s that fear of falling (and I’ve done it enough) that keeps me from relaxing and being comfortable with it.

      Ugh on Q’s duck-n-spin — that’s the pony’s signature move and it is near-impossible to stay on. I agree that the rational part of my brain knows that serious injury is a less-likely occurrence…but like you said, no reason to keep on testing gravity…we know it’s there and hasn’t changed.

      For the future, I would like to be able to do lessons with Liberty when she’s closer/more accessible to me. (She currently lives about 3-1/2 hours away, but I’m hoping that will change in the not-too-distant future.) I think she’s got enough potential where it would even be fun to dabble in some shows with her — she’s 1/2 Arab, 1/2 Shagya, so eligible for AHA Half-Arabian registration and the Half-Arabian division of shows, and I think she’s got “Half-Arabian Sporthorse” potential. We’ll see. At the very least, doing some small open shows is great brain/exposure training for an endurance pony.

  3. Kuddos for you to keep on trucking along and facing your fears. A lot of people would have given up after a nasty fall. It is also good to know yourself and your boundaries. I have a friend who is terrified of riding, but wont really admit to it. This in turn makes every horse she rides a big ball of nerves and isn’t doing anyone any good.

    Gem can be a dirty horse and I have come off her many a time. I’m not the boldest or bravest rider and for me lessons were counterproductive in our early relationship. I tend to shut down when being pushed by an outside force (ie: instructor) to go beyond my comfort level and it was making things worse. I figured out early on that the best method for me was to continue doing what I was comfortable with and then one moment I would just decide “huh..lets canter today” and it would go well because I had made the call and I felt comfortable in that moment to do so. Now that I am more solid and aware, I think I am ready to go back into lessons again.

    Merry Christmas!

    • Thanks, Sara! And Merry Christmas to you and yours! Wyatt looks like he’s at the age where Christmas is really fun. It sounds like you and Gem have really figured each other out…definitely wise to recognize the best method for yourself and work with that. Something to be said for being able to do things on your own time and comfort level.

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