“If you fall off the horse, get back on.” As equestrians, we have all heard how important immediately getting back in the saddle is. Over the years, I have taken numerous falls – some quite impressive – and most of the time I was able to get back on immediately while the adrenaline was still flowing and before I had time to overthink what had happened.
But what happens when you are seriously injured and cannot immediately get back on the horse? This is when fear sets in, and this fear can be crippling. The mental recovery from these types of falls can take longer than the physical healing. These are the steps I took to regain my confidence and get my head back in a positive space after a serious fall.
In May 2006, I got into a spectacular – and very serious – wreck with one of my 4H kid’s horses. Just as a put my foot in the stirrup the horse bolted. I could not pull myself on and I was not in a good position to let go and fall off. The horse went around a corner and I went head-first into the steel arena fencing.
A trip to the emergency room and many months of chiropractor visits determined that I had permanent damage to my back. I was riding without a helmet, and if I had been wearing one the angle of impact would have snapped my neck and I would not be here today. I was lucky to have avoided traumatic brain injury.
Both the emergency room doctor and my chiropractor had kids in 4H, and both asked me when I planned on getting back in the saddle. I had the “all-clear” to start gently riding after about a week. I was still quite sore but well-prepared for the physical trials of riding again, but no one prepared me for the mental hurdles.
My own mare was pregnant at the time, so I had to ride a loaner horse. Even though I borrowed the gentlest gelding I knew, I was overwhelmed by fear and could not put my foot in the stirrup and pull myself into the saddle. I stood next to the horse crying for almost an hour because I just could not make myself do it.
That day was a fail, but I eventually got back in the saddle again. These are the steps I took to fix my mindset and regain my love of riding.
Ride Something Different
If you do not have the confidence to get back on the horse that threw you, ride something different. Because I was unable to ride my own mare, and I did not have the confidence to ride another horse that I did not know well, I started with a mule. I was still scared, but the mule was different enough that my mind did not associate it with the offending horse. I also rode in a different saddle. The wreck happened with my Western saddle, so I used my English saddle for my first ride. That helped as well.
Go Back to Basics
I had to go WAY back to basics. I had to have someone lead me on my first ride. This was embarrassing for someone who had been jumping four-foot fences just a few weeks earlier, but my mind was in such a bad place that I needed the extra security of someone else being in control.
Go back as far as you need to. Maybe your first ride is just at a walk in the round pen. Maybe it is a gentle trail ride through familiar territory. Walk/trot or hop over a few crossrails if you feel up to it. Only you know where your comfort level is. On the first ride, stick where you are comfortable. You can push your boundaries later.
Admit What Scares You
Naming my fears gives me confidence to face them. I had to say, “I am afraid of putting my foot in the stirrup and mounting from the ground.” Once my fear had a title it was not so scary. My mind could focus on what I needed to do to overcome it. Be specific when you name your fear.
Because I was afraid to mount from the ground, I mounted from the fence. I admit, I still have a little fear about mounting from the ground. Most of the time I choose the fence or mounting block, but because I started slow and worked up to it, I can mount from the ground when needed now.
Take the time to meditate before your first ride to get yourself in a positive mindset. If you have never meditated before, this is the method I use.
Choose a quiet area where you will be undisturbed for at least 15 minutes. You can play quiet music in the background or meditate in silence. The choice is yours. Meditation headphones keep you centered even with a bit of background noise.
Sit cross-legged on the floor with your hands resting on your knees. Keep your spine in its natural curve (no slouching). Use a meditation cushion for comfort.
Gently close your eyes. Breathe deeply in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Focus your mind on your breaths.
Imagine your first ride going perfectly. See the place where you will ride, smell the horses, feel the reins in your hand.
Use a meditation alarm to gently end your session. Move your limbs slowly and gently open your eyes. Remember the way you felt during your meditation and carry that positive energy with you to the barn.
Meditation is a good practice before any ride, and especially before competition. Meditating before your first few rides after a fall will keep your mind in the right place. If you get scared, you can even stop your ride and do a short meditation on your horse to re-center yourself.
Remember Why You Ride
I was a horse-crazy little girl who would rather be in the saddle than anywhere else. I had to remember who she was. I dug out old pictures of myself riding as a kid, and some more recent ones as well. I watched every horse movie I could get my hands on. Some of these movies have horse wrecks as part of the storyline, but I found that watching someone else get back on gave me the idea that I could, too.
Movies I Suggest:
I have a thing for old movies, and classic horse movies are my very favorites. Most of these are Disney movies, very family-friendly and have a positive message.
If you are in the mood to binge watch a television series, this is the time to watch Heartland.
Slowly my desire to ride came back. I was still afraid, but I was ready to overcome it.
Ask for Help
I am extremely independent, so this was hard for me. I had to ask a good friend to help me get back in the saddle and work through my fears, but I am glad that I did.
Fear is real, and so is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Seek help from a professional counselor if you need extra help working through your fear issues.
Just Do It
No matter how much preparation you make, the first ride will still be a bit scary. This is okay. This is normal. Some steps will be forward, others backward, but ultimately, you have to pull yourself into the saddle and take those first shaky steps. I promise, you can do this. I love to ride. Working through my fear was well worth it because I can’t imagine my life without horses. Take your time, but put your foot in the stirrup. You will be happy you did.
Welcome! I've been a freelance writer since 2002 and have numerous horse-related articles published in print and online publications. I have a Bachelor of Science degree from Rocky Mountain College with a major in Equestrian Studies and a minor in Business Management. My current business ventures include High Plains Arena and real estate investing.