Rider Fear: When is getting back on not a good idea?


Everyone has heard of the old saying “If you fall off, you have to get back on that horse” as a metaphor for conquering a fear or failed attempt at something. When transcribed into literal terms however, there certainly are situations where getting right back on is not the wise idea.


For riders who are just starting out in their equestrian pursuits, falling off can be a scary experience. Sometimes it can be a simple slip after an exhuberant buck while cantering or an unexpected trip.  Regardless of age, to a novice rider, how they deal with the situation after the fact can strongly affect their confidence long after the fall has occurred. For more experienced riders, while prone to the same simple accidents, are often exposed to less experienced or “hotter” horses which occasionally are the precursor to more dramatic situations.


As most seasoned riders will tell you, falling off is inevitable at some point in your riding career. It depends on the capabilities of the rider, the limitations of the horse and sometimes “staying on” is just plain luck! Nevertheless, riders have to overcome their fear of falling otherwise horseback riding will become an unpleasant experience, in which some people stop riding all together.


If you have fallen off a horse, the most important thing is to do a self-assessment of your condition. Are you hurt? Do you feel dizzy or sick to your stomach? Is there any obstruction of your breathing? While at first you may seem okay, it is always best to have a knowledgable person to examine you for a suspected concussion or anything else that seems suspicious. If you are uncertain as to whether you can or should get back on, DO NOT GET BACK ON. It is always safer to put your horse away for the day and be examined by a doctor. 


Once you have done a self-assessment, the next most important thing is to examine your horse. Many horses, once freed of a rider, go for a bit of a run and then settle down to eat grass or find some of their equine companions. Assuming that you are in a riding ring, you must catch your horse in order to examine him or her. The most obvious step is to check for any external lumps or bleeding that could be a result of the fall. How is your horse’s breathing? Is he able to trot in hand without any mis-steps? Is he fully alert and excited from the freedom, or nervous and difficult to contain in hand? You must understand his condition before getting back on, otherwise you could be setting yourself up for another fall.


If it was a simple fall, in which your horse merely caught you off guard and you slipped off, you will most likely want to get back on under supervision of a coach or knowledgable person. If it is your own horse and this sort of incident is unlikely to occur on a regular basis, then it is best for you and the horse if you get back on and continue schooling.


If you are a riding school student and just learning the ropes, talk to your coach before getting back on. Discuss why you fell off, and if there was anything you could have done to prevent it. Your coach or instructor should explain things clearly and positively, which hopefully will show you a simple fall is par for the course. Exercises can be done to strengthen the lower body and improve balance so next time you will be more prepared.


As a more advanced rider on a green or “hot” horse, the first instinct is to hop back on to teach the horse that unseating their riders does not guarantee an easy trip back to the barn. Caution must be used to assess the horse’s condition, because getting back on a particularly unruly youngster or something that is pumped up after having it’s freedom could only lead to another sticky situation. If the horse really has his or her adrenaline pumping, it is best to hand-walk the horse or consider lunging him until he has “come down” a bit. If you still feel uncomfortable with his state of mind, it is best to find another rider (if one is available) that is more confident and can handle getting on an excited youngster. If you find yourself unwilling/unable to get on the horse, be sure to work with the horse on the ground for a lengthy period of time to make the horse understand that being free of a rider does not mean less work, it can mean MORE work.  If you do attempt this route, it is best to have yourself or another rider get back on the horse in the same day later on, or as soon as possible to give the horse a positive rider experience.      

The question remains: What happens when something goes really wrong? Even the most easy-going horse can have a bad day, get scared, injured or simply say “I’ve had enough” which can result in an accident whether hacking or a fall at a fence during a show. If you have been seriously injured or have a traumatic fall while riding, it is essential that you are not just physically able to ride but psychologically. 


For those people who have had scary or serious falls, the best person to talk to is your coach. Discussing your fears with a professional that you trust can go a long way to restoring your confidence, even before you get back on the horse. Before putting yourself back on the horse or in the situation you were in when you fell, you can try an alternative like borrowing a steady-eddy horse and just work on the basics for a couple of rides until you feel more comfortable, or staying in the ring and practicing poles before going back to jumping or off-property.  The key is to take small steps and stay within your comfort zone.  There does come a time when some riders refuse to go outside of that “safe” space, at which point your coach should encourage you to take small steps and expand that circle, which will ultimately restore your confidence if done properly.


As some riders do not have regular coaching, if you need assistance with the psychological aspect of “getting back on” (whether that be literally on the horse, jumping a fence or leaving the riding arena), an excellent book is “Heads Up!: Practical Sports Psychology for Riders, Their Families and Their Trainers” by Dr. Janet Edgette.  As a horseback rider herself, she has some valuable stories and mental exercises that you can gain a lot from on the road to regaining your confidence on horseback. If you want to learn more about her, you can visit her online at http://www.janetedgette.com