riding after a fall

Getting back onto your horse after a fall can be challenging. Taking baby steps and a safe approach to riding again will help you rebuild your confidence.

One of many similar letters, Liz’s request for help following a frightening fall speaks for hundreds of her equestrian companions – as do her efforts to overcome her fear. Unfortunately, these methods usually only make the problem worse. Let me explain.

Natural Fear

Liz, I admire your positive attitude and your efforts to get back mentally to where you were before the original fall. But something very scary did happen to you. And it’s through no fault of your own that you still feel frightened riding, worrying that at any moment your horse may run off again. That’s how people who’ve had something bad happen to them react. They’re always feeling that the “bad thing” could happen again, that they must be on the lookout all the time. It doesn’t make for a relaxing ride.

Ironically, getting over this kind of fear involves accepting it and understanding why it can’t be wished away. First, it serves an evolutionary purpose: Eons ago, those cavemen who respected their fears survived the best. Of course, the dangers were a little different (rock avalanches, mountain lions), but our bodies are still pretty much wired the same way. Second, we have vivid memories; we remember the panic of the runaway, the pain of our injuries, the frustration of being laid up. And finally, as creatures with forebrains, we humans attach meaning to incidents and put them in a larger context. A fall isn’t just a fall but a month out of work, a month without income, a month with no one to muck or feed or tend to the rest of the family.

Pretending that something didn’t happen or didn’t affect you doesn’t work; the larger part of you always knows what’s true and what’s not. And visualizing yourself riding safely, Liz, won’t do a thing until you really feel safe riding again. A visualization can’t overpower a worry (and shouldn’t, in case it’s a “good” worry). I prefer you use visualization to enhance or enliven a feeling you already have.

Baby Steps

So, what can you do? I recommend what I’d tell anyone who suffered a trauma – and you did suffer one. You take a deep breath, pat yourself on the shoulder for trying to get back in the game, and become as supportive and patient with your own self as you describe your trainer and friends being with you. You start slowly, you take your time, you stick to gaits and exercises you’re comfortable doing, and you build from there.

In your case, Liz, the sequence of steps might be: With your trainer or a knowledgeable friend present as long as you need her, ride comfortably at the walk; ride on a loose rein at the walk; trot comfortably; trot circles at each end of the ring without worry; trot a serpentine of just two loops; then trot on a loose rein, trot a three-loop serpentine, and so on. Wait until you want to take each next step; when you feel ready and eager, take it and see if it’s OK. If you become nervous, back up; try again another time. Your trainer or friend can help you decide when to try, and can provide the encouragement you may need to get over the hump. How long should each step take? As long as it takes. Learn to value your moving toward goals as you value your attaining them.

This is the most dependable and safe way to get back to where you were; it allows you to heal naturally – always the preferred way. If you were a professional who needed to get back in the game fast, or a World Cup contender with upcoming grands prix you absolutely had to ride in, I’d suggest other strategies. But for you, for now, riding within your comfort zone will allow you to enjoy your horse while watching yourself return – gradually, securely – to your former self.

Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette is an equestrian sport psychologist and general family and adolescent psychologist practicing in the western suburbs of Philadelphia. She is author of Heads Up!: Practical Sports Psychology For Riders, Their Families, and Their Trainers and The Rider’s Edge: Overcoming The Psychological Challenges Of Riding. Janet was a consulting sport psychologist and columnist for Practical Horseman Magazine for eight years, and has spent the last twenty five years developing a philosophy of performance enhancement that departs radically from traditional notions of relaxation and imagery in favor of a permissive approach that allows people to accept their internal experiences and ride well in spite of anxiety, self-doubt, or negative thinking.

Janet is an accomplished hunter/jumper rider who competed successfully as a junior under the tutelage of Wayne Carroll. She continues to ride and show, and currently competes in the jumper divisions. www.headsupsport.com, www.janetedgette.com