How to regain mental fitness after a riding accident

Horseback riding accidents can be scary, and overcoming the fear you experience is easier said than done. These steps will help you get back in the saddle.

Have you ever had a severe riding accident or been badly frightened by a horse? Understanding what is happening to you in those moments is an important step toward recovery.

Current research into the Polyvagal Theory explains what happens to us when we suffer from a severe accident or extreme fear. Simply put, the autonomic nervous system, of which the vagus nerve is a major component, gets “stuck” in a disrupted pattern caused by the trauma. We become paralyzed, just like a deer in the headlights. After the danger has passed, we are designed to run – a reaction that would relieve the fear we just experienced. When we can’t run away (as with severe injury), normal vagal tone (see sidebar at right) is altered. This results in stress, which is often the source of disease.

4 simple steps to overcoming fear

1. Start with a simple question: “Am I safe?”

Think “gut check”. If you are not safe, your response to the situation will be autonomic: fight, flight, faint, freeze or fooling around. You can’t trick your nervous system by telling yourself “I am okay” when you aren’t. You can’t hide your response from your horse either – he is very in tuned with the safety of any given situation.

2. Take action by asking: “What do I need to do to feel safe?”

At this point, it is very important not to let someone else bully you into doing something that does not feel safe to you. However, you need to be honest with your response and act accordingly.

3. Give your fear a number

Use a number scale from 0–10 to rate your fear. Ten is when you are so over the top with anxiety you cannot function – like the feelings you experience during a panic attack. Zero is when you’re completely okay both internally and externally. Anything over a 5 and you need to take further action to get the number down.

4. Take steps to reduce your fear

Your ultimate goal after a riding accident is to gradually lower your “fear number”. Do not expect to go from 9–1 in one jump, as your nervous system needs time to adjust. Start with something as simple as moving your eyes, fingers or toes to help you unfreeze. Take deep breaths – exhaling slowly to the count of six or seven can reset vagal tone.

Keep this list handy in any situation where you find yourself in distress – at the barn, for instance. The more you work toward reducing your fear and strengthening your mental fitness after a riding accident, the easier it will be for you to enjoy the ride once again!