Every now and then, I’ve seen a horse run away with an inexperienced rider. Or rather, I’ve seen a horse dutifully canter around the ring while an inexperienced rider panics and eventually falls or winds up hugging the horse’s neck until he halts, confused.
It always seems to me that there’s a moment where the rider gives up. Their core collapses; their legs flop, and if their arms can’t save them they end up on the ground.
I never thought it would happen to me. By the time I’d become observant enough about other people’s riding to notice the core-quitting, I’d passed the point where unexpected cantering would discombobulate me to that extreme.
The problem with being a re-rider is that my body doesn’t remember the same things my brain does.
Here’s how I wound up on the ground in Canada, like a terrified beginner.
Yes, Canada, as in Ontario. I can get there faster from Northern Michigan than I can get to, say, Columbus, Ohio, so I planned a trip for the first weekend in June to try a couple of promising draft-cross mares.
I loved the first mare. I could tell I wasn’t good enough for her yet, but I was sure I could get up to speed to keep her happy. Bonus: some birds flew right at her face in the ring while we were cantering and she was like “Whatever.”
Oh man, that canter.
I told the seller I anticipated making an offer, but I had come all this way and would go check out the other horse. So I hopped in my car and zipped through the Canadian countryside, windows down.
The next mare was smaller, polite on the ground. I was warned she was pretty forward, but I wasn’t afraid of forward. Watched her go, thought it looked OK, decided to try her. Was going OK, so scooted her into the canter and promptly lost a stirrup.
Stirrup-loss has been a lifelong issue. My calves are always tight, and they’ve been especially bad lately because of some plantar fasciitis. It sucks, but losing just one stirrup is a non-event because I’m used to it. Except it was harder to get my stirrup back than I expected it to be. After years in forward-seat saddles and easily 120 lbs since I’d last regularly ridden in a dressage saddle, it wasn’t a simple “oops” after all.
So, my left stirrup is gone; the horse is still cantering, and yes, lord, she *is* a tad forward. I half-halt to get her attention. She doesn’t care. OK, let’s try a full “GOOD GRIEF, JUST STOP, HORSE” message. No dice! And woosh! There goes my other stirrup.
I’m a kid again. The constant humiliation I’m used to and hate—BOTH MY STIRRUPS ARE GONE FOR DUMB REASONS—evaporates my zen.
How long can I let the horse keep cantering without trying something else? I wonder. Do I even have the fitness to stay with her as long as she pleases? Do I have the energy? I spent a long time in the car today.
I can’t tell you what I decided to do next. I’d like to say that I very sensibly moved on to the pulley rein, but based on what hurt when I came to, I think either my core quit on me, like I’ve seen happen to inexperienced riders, or I tried to do an emergency dismount and got my leg caught on the cantle. Either way, I think I effectively rolled off the horse and landed on my left side.
The ER assured me the next day that I didn’t have a concussion, but I also don’t know exactly what happened.
Best guess why I don’t remember, my consciousness said: “Oh God, this is too embarrassing; I can’t look!” and then peaced-out for a few seconds. Then I had a panic attack. Fun.
When I could breathe again, I limped back to the barn, where the barn owner had already put away the horse and assured me that the mare was fine. I kept asking because I was worried she was fibbing to keep me from losing my marbles even more.
Everybody was very kind, and I was deeply distressed to put them out. I was also hurting too much to drive and not in any shape mentally to follow road signs, still being very much in the clutches of pain and panic. I called my husband—an ordeal because we use budget wireless providers without international calling—who rounded up my dad and came to get me.
As I waited in the hotel for them to arrive, I had what screenwriters call “a dark night of the soul.”
I messaged the first mare’s seller: “Hey I fell off the other trial horse and injured myself. I don’t think riding is in my future at all for a while. I am really sorry, am really heartbroken.”
I contemplated quitting this blog before I even started.
In early June, I was still waiting for my first COTH blog post to go up. I was already nervous about what people would say. If I copped to this fall, I would surely get a round of messages telling me that I have no business riding. I wondered whether I should email my editor and tell her I was done with horses forever and to forget about the whole thing. I couldn’t imagine trying to tell the story of being a plus-sized rider shopping for a horse and pretending it had been smooth sailing even though I was probably broken forever this time.
I really believed I was seriously hurt.
I’d been babying my body for so long after a series of injuries that I no longer knew what “being a little banged up” felt like. I thought I’d broken my hip.
But the doctors assured me I was fine. And for once, they were right. I was better in a few weeks.
Immediately after learning that I’d survived a fall without lasting damage, I was nearly euphoric. It turns out my body, big and fat, isn’t straight garbage after all. It doesn’t always betray me. It can handle hardships and survive. I can ride. I can blog for The Chronicle of the Horse.
I can trust my body.
But my trust in horses, however, hasn’t been the same. I’m afraid in a way I’ve never been afraid before, not even the last time I hurt myself.
I had almost no interest in cantering, and I love cantering. My new trainer coached me through exercises to build my confidence: lots of transitions, lots of circles, lots of leg yields at the walk.
It was working, but it was conditional. I trusted my lesson horse, but other horses? I didn’t know if I was ready for that.
Karen Hopper Usher is returning to riding after several years away. She’s sharing her perspective and experiences as a plus-sized rider with The Chronicle of the Horse. By day, she is a reporter at a small newspaper in northern Michigan. She is horse-shopping like it’s her second job.