I have a friend who is a logger. He has a saying about those who work all day in the woods with chain saws: “It’s not a question of whether you’ll get cut, but when, and how badly.”
It’s the same truth with horses. Horses are big, quick and unpredictable, and they can get us. The best way to avoid being gotten is to deal with horses that are within our “octane” range. There are spookers, rearers, spinners, quitters and buckers, and there are “Steady Eddies.” We can fall off, get kicked or stepped on by a Steady Eddie, but we’re much more apt to get injured by dealings with horses that are out of our comfort zone.
So that’s “Rule No. 1” for avoiding injury. Avoid horses that make us nervous and even fearful. What’s the point? There are thousands of horses out there, so why deal with Old Thunderball when we feel so much more in control sitting astride Buttercup?
The second “rule” for staying out of trouble is to play it smart. Always wear a helmet with a chinstrap, but we already know that, and some of us will, and some of us won’t. Most injuries heal better than head injuries, but we know that, too. If our horse comes out fresh, snorty and “big,” we can stick him on the longe line. I remember Ronnie Mutch saying, “Better 10 minutes on the longe line than 10 weeks in a cast.” I keep a longe whip and longe line handy next to the ring. If it’s right there, I’m more likely to use it than if I have to trudge back to the barn for it.
We can stay within our skill zone. If we are comfortable jumping fences that are under 3′ high, we might want to avoid jumping 3’6″ before we get comfortable jumping 3’3″. If we haven’t galloped in big, open fields, we can trot in two-point in big, open fields, gallop in a more enclosed area, and then put the two together.
If the places we ride out are “fraught with peril,” such as speeding cars, loud trucks, sudden bicycles, flapping plastic garbage bags, perhaps common sense needs to prevail. We may need to avoid such places, even though it may circumscribe our riding options.
Easy Come, Easy Go
But sometimes, even if we do it right, we get hurt. Now what?
By “getting hurt,” I don’t mean the same kinds of minor aches and pains and bruises and lumps that we might get playing soccer or touch football, because easy come (the injury), easy go (the fear). I’m talking about the more debilitating injuries—broken bones, soft tissue tears, perhaps bad concussions, the kind of hurts that heal outwardly faster than inwardly. Because there are two kinds of recovery that need to happen after horseback riding injuries, and often the physical healing is easier than healing from fear.
Stephen Vincent Benet speaks to this in his Civil War epic poem, “John Brown’s Body,” when he describes Jack Ellyat’s recovery after the battle of Gettysburg, “The long, white, bloodless months of getting well.”
“He carried still Wounds of a sort, some healed into the scars And some that hardly would be healed awhile, Being in stuff few surgeries can reach.”
Not every injured rider, during the process of recovery, suffers from fear. There are plenty of people who can’t wait to climb back on even before their bones are fully knitted, who go galloping off as though that broken leg or arm or collarbone never happened. Probably most riders don’t go through the aftermath that, increasingly I think, we tend to call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m certainly not qualified to know whether the fear and anxiety that many riders face after a riding accident has a “title,” like PTSD, or is simply fear and anxiety, but in terms of starting to ride again after a serious accident, I’ve been there enough times myself over the last 60 years to feel that I have some valid opinions.
Working Through A New Reality
I’d say that the first step in the recovery is to give the actual physical injuries enough time to heal, and this will take as long as it takes. Then when the actual injury doesn’t cause much pain, don’t be surprised at how weak, unfit and out of shape this may have left you.
So get out and walk and start getting your overall “tone” back. Do this off a horse to begin with, but do it. So now you want to ride again, but you have anxiety.
DO NOT RIDE ANYTHING BUT A STEADY EDDIE. Read my lips. Repeat after me: “Do not ride anything but a Steady Eddie, the steadier the better.”
Some horses will barely go out of a slow walk, and if your fear is great, acknowledge that, don’t be ashamed of it, and start with a horse that doesn’t want to trot unless urged to do so. Walk until you are bored. If that takes one week, one year, or for the rest of your life, that’s what it will take.
Then try a slow trot. Get used to trotting again. Get your “sea legs” back. Start to regain your riding fitness, which may be different than your everyday fitness. Then, and only then, start to “up the ante.”
Again, take as long as it takes. You are doing this for you, not for anyone else. If you continue to have profound fear, you may want to get some professional help. We all recover in different ways; no “one size fits all.”
Whether a rider is groping back into riding after a riding fall, after some other type of accident, or after some debilitating illness, the process will be the same. There will probably be weakness where once there was strength and agility, and there will probably be anxiety where once there was confidence. These are normal aftermath realities, and working through them will require courage, patience and persistence.
If it transpires that our new reality means that we never return to our former levels of skill and daring, we will need to work through that as well. This may be the hardest challenge of all. In the Robert Frost poem, “The Oven Bird,” a question is posed: “The question that he frames in all but words Is what to make of a diminished thing.”
I hope that you never get hurt. I hope that if you do, you recover quickly and ride away with never a backward glance. But if it does happen that your riding must become a “diminished thing,” I hope most of all that you can find the courage and the serenity to cope with that. There’s so much more that defines courage than walking into the starting gate at Rolex Kentucky.
Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championships gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to the sport. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders, and he owns shares in stallions standing at other farms. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.