Riders hear it all the time: Falling from your horse is not a matter of “if” but “when.” I am in my fifties, and when I started riding a few years ago, I was all too aware that a fall from my horse could have devastating consequences. Young people have a built-in denial mechanism that can turn a thirteen year-old into a dare devil, but that mechanism seems to fade away as we grow older, and an acute awareness of statistical evidence emerges. We know that the odds are against us. We know that a fall is going to happen, we just don’t know when. And yet, as many hours of riding go by and we manage to get ourselves out of some sticky situations like our horse’s spooky reaction against the imaginary lion in the bush or the unexpected jump over a little creek on the trail, our confidence grows and we do feel more secure. We are almost at the point of believing that we have grown so close to our horses that we know everything about them, that we can read their behavior and reactions to the T and that we can trust our horse not to dump us, no matter what. I felt at that point after four years of riding Emma.
Then I had an accident. One day I was trotting Emma in the field behind my house and I noticed that she was a little unsettled. I had a hard time keeping her from trotting when we were walking and from cantering when we were trotting. She even did a little hop as if to say “Come on, let’s go, I have some excess energy to burn and I can’t deal with diddling around.” I decided to take her into the round pen and make her work in small circles. The first few rounds of trotting were fine, then she stumbled and I lost my balance. Unexpectedly, Emma added a little buck to her stumble and since my balance was already off, I was launched head and shoulders first onto the ground. In that split second in the air I experienced the proverbial slow motion that gave me time enough to think “I can’t believe this is happening to me. My horse does not buck. I don’t want to break my bones. Please, I don’t want to crash,” followed by the sound of the impact of my head and right shoulder with the ground, and my realization that I was breathing intermittently. I did not move. A friend who had seen me came rushing towards me . He asked me if I could move. I did so slowly and felt my shoulder hurting badly. I was able to squeeze my friend’s finger with the right hand and knew that I had no broken bones, but I was nauseous and hurting. Emma’s nose was sniffing me as if to say “What the heck are you doing down there?” The x-ray of my shoulder showed a mild dislocation and tissue swelling, but nothing that wouldn’t heal by itself. I also had a bump on my forehead, and my helmet visor was broken. I was grateful that nothing more had happened and that I had worn my helmet. My shoulder and rib cage took weeks to heal, but my emotions were another story.
My confidence and the belief in the unbreakable bond between me and my horse were shattered. One of the first things I did was cancel rides I had provided a little girl on my horse until further notice. I didn’t think it was safe to have a kid ride my horse anymore. After two weeks of not being able to move my arm and shoulder much, I ran Emma on the lunge line in the round pen. She did fine. Three weeks after the fall I mounted her again for the first time. I was a wreck. We started walking slowly, and every little indentation I saw on the ground was magnified in my mind and became a potential obstacle that could make Emma stumble and buck. She knew our routine – after walking a couple of rounds in the field we would surely start trotting, so I could tell she was waiting for my command. I started trotting, but I had to stop after a hundred feet. I just wasn’t ready. I gave it a couple more tries, and Emma pretty much stopped on her own since my whole body was stiffly planted on the saddle. Emma’s reading of my body language should have given me confidence that she was still in tune with me, but at this point fear was my primary emotion.
A few days later I decided to take her on a leisurely trail ride with six other riders. In spite of my own apprehension to take her away from the ranch, this turned out to be a good decision. Other horses, if they are calm, have a soothing effect on Emma. She adjusts and follows other horses’ lead. My heart was in my throat as we needed to descend a steep hill to go under a bridge, but she stepped gently down the ravine. A group of riders came galloping towards us and I had to ride Emma in small circles to not get her too excited and wanting to run off. We made it safely back to the staging area and I sighed with relief when I dismounted. This was a week ago. I have ridden her at home twice since then. I still have the jitters when I get on her, and I still do not want to ride her in my round pen. I just keep walking her around the property. I will need a lot more time to be at ease again. I just need to keep walking with her, and walking, like a beginner. Some day, I hope soon, we will be trotting around the field again, maybe even cantering, but not yet. I trust Emma, but I know that Emma can have a bad day. I need to get beyond the knowing and just trust the trusting. Soon. I hope.