The first time I ever fell off a horse was in the show ring, and I was 10 years old. It was a western event, and the first obstacle was to open and go through a gate while mounted.
I opened the gate and nudged my horse to go through, but I hadn’t opened it quite wide enough. My horse made it through but my legs got caught, and I slid right off his rump and into the dirt, spooking him and sending him loping around the arena.
My trainer’s adult daughter, Holly, caught my horse and brought him back to me at the gate. I was shell-shocked, humiliated, and crying. “Congratulations,” she said. “You fell off. You’re a real rider now.” She made me get back on and I finished the class. Holly was one of several riders who congratulated me that day, no doubt taking pity on my dirty little tear-stained face.
Thanks to their kindness, after the shock wore off I felt good about my show day. By Monday morning I was telling all my friends at school how I had fallen off and how I was now considered a real, bona fide equestrian.
Fast forward 25 years to a few weekends ago, and I got to cross another milestone off the ole riding fail bucket list: I got buzzed out for refusals. It was actually my first ever show ring refusal, quickly followed by my second and third, prompting the dreaded buzzer and “thank you, rider” from the announcer. I felt 10 years old again: embarrassed, shocked, confused at what the heck had just happened, not crying but strongly considering it.
We went back to the warm-up ring and regrouped and adjusted our strategy. My trainer had to remind me that I was riding a live animal. While she’s developing beautifully, she’s still an animal with her own thoughts and ideas. That means that no matter how well I ride, there’s still a chance that things will go wrong. I don’t ever want an “opinionless” horse (which has been discussed in COTH by those much more knowledgeable than I, and is a topic for another day). The point is, no one’s riding trajectory ever has been or ever will be a straight line. It’s a bumpy path with seriously substandard footing.
I learned a little bit later that my friend caught the incident on tape, and I pulled a pretty great screenshot from it, which I then posted to the internet with only a slight hesitation.
Why the hesitation? Well, I’m Southern, and I was taught that when something happens, you pull yourself together and fix your makeup immediately. I was taught there’s no sense in airing your dirty laundry in public.
But that was before social media. That was before we, collectively as modern day horse people, posted all our ribbons on Instagram and made long Facebook posts waxing poetic about our successes and effusively thanking our perfect horses, trainers, grooms, vets, massage therapists, acupuncturists, etc.
When one of my horses does something great, or I earn a nice ribbon, I usually announce it online. Taken together, my social media pages and blog posts form a sort of multi-media diary of my riding journey. With that in mind, surely the bad stuff should be listed too.
But I’m also protective of my horse, my trainer, and the rest of the team. I don’t want anyone to think my horse sucks, or that my trainer did anything wrong in our preparation. (You can read about how wonderful Aria is here, and about how brilliant my trainer is here.) To get around that conundrum, I’d like to suggest that we all start to look at riding disasters in a different light.
I humbly present to you my Top 12 Hunter/Jumper Rites of Passage, a list of crappy but common experiences you must have under your belt before being deemed a “finished” rider.
- Pick up the wrong lead or diagonal
- Lose a stirrup or drop a rein
- Chip a fence or go way too long
- Fall off
- Get bucked off
- Cry on horseback
- Suffer serious show nerves on horseback, with bonus points for throwing up
- Have a major tack malfunction, with bonus points if you completely lose bridle or saddle
- Go off course, with bonus points for jumping an oxer backwards
- Experience a refusal, with bonus points for multiple refusals
- Crash into a fence, with bonus points for actually damaging the fence, and more bonus points if you did it with your own body
- Take a walk of shame out of the show ring after falling, with bonus points if you have to do it sans horse because he got out of dodge after he unloaded you
Obviously some of these are level-specific. Wrong diagonal in your walk-trot class? 100 percent forgivable, and there’s a good chance that half your competition is being creative with their diagonals as well. Wrong diagonal in the 3’6” performance hunters under saddle? A little more embarrassing, but hey, stuff happens.
Now, I’m not advocating intentionally trying for these experiences. Like many of you, I am serious as a heart attack about my riding and about the progress of my horses. I have big goals and big plans. But it’s because of that, not in spite of it, that I’ve resolved to memorialize and share my epic fails, not sweep them under the rug. I truly believe that failure is a 100 percent necessary ingredient for success. Yes, perfect practice makes perfect. But screw-ups make you a better rider, a better competitor, and if you let them, a better person.
Let’s all stop looking at our riding mistakes as failures. Instead, acknowledge them as stepping stones. By all means, pull yourself together, fix your makeup, and pour yourself a drink. But then toast to your learning experience, and if you dare, put it on Instagram. Tag me @baysanddanes and I’ll raise my glass to you as well.
Lindsey Long lives in Southern California with her one tabby cat, two Great Danes, two hunter-jumpers, and a husband. She recently returned to riding after a 15-year hiatus and is desperately trying to make up for lost time while balancing a full-time job rife with deadlines. Her goals include winning pretty ribbons, finding appropriate distances with some degree of consistency, and not losing her breakfast at the mere thought of a hunter derby course. Read all of Lindsey’s blogs.