If you ride horses, odds are you will also fall off a horse. Although it is certainly not something riders yearn for, it is almost like an initiation to the equestrian sport. Taking the time to think through what to do when a fall happens and preparing ahead of time will make you feel more confident in the saddle and can significantly reduce your risk of injury.
Taking the necessary preventative measures such as riding a horse appropriate for your experience level and wearing certified safety gear is very important for all equestrians, but a fall can happen to any rider and generally the best course of action when this happens is to:
- kick your feet out of the stirrups and let go of the reins
- look in the direction of where you will hit the ground
- tuck your arms, knees, and head close to your chest
- if possible, try to land on the upper back of your shoulder
- when hitting the ground, roll away from the horse
Horse Riding Injuries
About 80% of horse-related injuries occur during riding. Fractures, soft tissue damage, and head injuries are the most common types of injuries, with arms, legs, and head/face being the most common body parts affected. Head and neck injuries are the leading cause of riding accident deaths, but yet surprisingly high numbers of horse riders do not wear protective headgear when they ride.
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury caused by a blow or jolt to the head. The rapid movement of your head causes the brain to ‘bounce around’ damaging brain cells and creating chemical changes within the brain that can’t be seen. Symptoms of a concussion include confusion, headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, feeling sluggish and more (source). Left untreated, concussions can also have serious long-term effects on your health and life (source).
A study by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine shows that female athletes sustain more concussions than their male counterparts in sports where rules are the same for both genders. Their concussions symptoms are also more severe and have a longer period of recovery (source).
The FEI concussion guidelines provide a step by step process for assessing a person that may have sustained a concussion. If in doubt – always contact a medical professional or emergency service in your area.
Preventative Measures to Avoid a Fall
Although being thrown or falling off a horse is pretty much unavoidable during the course of an equestrian career, there are a number of things we can do to limit the risk.
Ride a Horse Suited to Your Level
Only riding horses suitable for our skill level significantly reduces the chances of losing control and falling off.
Ride at the Appropriate Level
Although pushing ourselves to learn and progress is important to many in equestrian sports, jumping ahead and skipping steps in the process can lead to dangerous situations where we are asking things from our horse that he doesn’t fully understand and that we may not yet be ready for.
Ensure all Tack is Intact and Properly Attached
We have seen a few falls caused by the rider forgetting to tighten the girth properly before starting a ride. Faulty gear such as partially torn straps or rains that snap during a ride can either spook the horse or give a cheeky pony an opportunity to end the lesson early..
Wear the Appropriate Safety Gear and Equipment
Certified Riding Helmet
Your first line of defense when falling off a horse is a safety helmet. The helmet should be fitted to your head as everyone’s head is shaped slightly differently. A helmet should fit snug enough that it does not slide from side to side or front to back. The chin strap should be snug and properly adjusted, so the helmet remains in place during a fall.
Helmets should also be approved by ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) or the relevant safety authority in your region. In the event a helmet does sustain impact during a fall it should always be replaced.
A higher-priced helmet does not necessarily equate to improved protection, but rather to superior levels of comfort in terms of aeration, adjustment options, and design variations.
Riding vests protect your torso and vital organs by dispersing the impact of the fall. It can also protect your body from the hooves of the horse should he kick or step on you. This is a mandatory piece of equipment for eventing riders on a cross country course, but also widely used by recreational riders.
Air vest is a complementary option to the body protector but serves a different purpose. As a rider becomes ‘detached’ from the saddle, a CO2 canister automatically inflates the vest in a similar manner to how an airbag in a car inflates during a crash. The air vest reduces the impact of the fall but does not disperse it like the body protector, which is why some riders (primarily competitive) opt to wear both. If you are in the market for an air vest, Horse Rookie has a great in-depth review of the Hit-Air inflatable air vest SV2 that she swears by.
Boots that cover your ankle and have a one-inch heel will prevent your foot from slipping through the stirrup and result in being dragged along with the horse if your boot catches in the stirrup when you fall. For more details, this article explains the benefits of using riding boots and what other types of shoes are and aren’t appropriate for horse riding.
Falling Off a Horse
When a fall is about to happen, many riders will try to do everything in their power to remain mounted. While this is completely understandable and mostly instinctual, it is not always the safest option and can sometimes make things worse. This is why feeling confident in your ability to perform an emergency dismount is so important because it gives you the opportunity to assess the situation and then chose the safest course of action (which is sometimes to let yourself fall off).
Being presented with a ‘recipe’ for landing correctly may look easy enough on the page, but in a situation where you have a mere split second to react, it is easier said than done. That is why preparation is so crucial and we strongly encourage any rider, new or experienced, to practice their falling technique using an old mattress or another soft surface. This will build up muscle memory and help you move more on ‘impulse’ when a fall occurs.
Use Good Falling Technique
Ok, so now let’s get to the actual act of falling and how to do so as safely as possible. Most of these tips are inspired by LandSafe Equestrian – a business dedicated to saving lives, reducing injury and increase safety education for horse riding.
Look Where You Will Land
Where the eyes go the body follows. Just like when on the horse, look in the direction you want to go, which should be away from the horse’s body.
Remove Yourself from the Horse
You are going to fall and your focus should now be on landing away from your horse in order to avoid additional injury caused by him falling or stepping on you, or kicking. To achieve this, release your feet from the stirrups and let go of the reins. Your safety is paramount in this situation and holding onto the reins can cause more injury to you or your horse from getting caught in the reins. Holding on can also cause the horse to stumble in its attempt to avoid stepping on you.
Tuck and Roll
Most people have heard about the tuck and roll, bringing back (fond?!) memories of elementary school tumbling instruction from the overly enthusiastic PE teacher. Using hands to support the force of the fall will often result in broken wrists or arms, so our recommended exit strategy is to tuck your arms, legs, and chin and rounding your neck and back.
Tucking the chin, which automatically rounds your neck and back, helps to prevent neck injury. Then, aim to absorb the impact with the back of your shoulder.
Roll Away from the Horse
As soon as you hit the ground (regardless of how you ended up landing), continue the movement by rolling away from the horse’s path to distribute the impact of the fall.
Stay on the Ground
Unless you are in immediate danger of being stepped on where you landed – don’t get up straight away. The adrenaline now pumping through your veins may prevent you from feeling injuries you could have sustained.
This video shows you the progression of a rider being trained by Keli and Danny Warrington from Landsafe and illustrates the falling technique they teach. You will notice that they also make some use of the arms and hands to support the rolling technique, which is fine to do when you have practice. If you don’t, chances are this will just result in more injuries.
And here are examples of falls in a simulator with commentary on technique and areas for improvement.
Checking for Injury – Initial Physical Assessment
The first order of business after a fall is to assess your physical condition. Adrenalin will be surging through your veins. Your hands may be shaking and your heart is beating fast. Adrenaline can mask any pain, so it is best to wait several minutes, ensuring you don’t feel dizzy, have a headache, or vision changes indicating a head injury, before getting up or moving around. Any of these symptoms or other concerns are best assessed by medical professionals.
After ensuring that you are OK, the next step is to try catching your horse and check him for injuries as well. He may be stressed and frightened after the incident, so give him some time to calm down.
Should You Get Back on the Horse After a Fall?
After clearing yourself and the horse, you then have to make a choice of getting back in the saddle or not. Some people will not be bothered by a fall and jump back on as if nothing has happened. Others lose a lot of confidence and feeling anxious about mounting the horse again is completely normal.
If you do not feel safe or there is any reason why getting back on will put you, the horse or others in danger, then, by all means, stay on the ground.
However, quickly getting back in the saddle means there will not be enough time for you to overthink what happened and for nervousness to build up until the next time you do ride. It’s a judgment call, but if you can (and feel the situation is safe), then we encourage you to get back on. Even if it’s just for a short walk before you get off again. Ask someone to walk next to you or even lead the horse if that makes you feel more comfortable.
Regaining Confidence After a Fall
The process of regaining confidence after a fall will differ from person to person and depend on the severity of what happened, if you sustained an injury or not, the reason behind the fall as well as your own tolerance for experiencing trauma.
Consequently, there is no one size fits all guide for how to overcome the anxiety you now may feel and it can take time to fully recover. Give yourself grace and patience during this process.
Here are our suggestions for things that can help you get you closer to that carefree ride again.
Invest in New or Different Safety Equipment
Given the experience, perhaps this is the time to think about investing in additional safety equipment? If it would make you feel more comfortable next time you ride, it is money well-spent.
Don’t forget to replace your helmet! Any helmet that has been impacted by a fall needs to be replaced.
Check your Tack and Equipment
Go over your gear (especially what you used during the fall) to check for snags or anything that needs mending, cleaning or replacing.
Analyzing the Cause of the Fall
Very often, the reasons for a fall are evident, such as when a horse spooks or stops before a fence. Yet other times it can be more subtle and not so easy to decipher.
Although we do not encourage anyone to obsess over finding the reasons if they simply cannot be found, figuring out what caused the problem by analyzing the events logically and objectively can sometimes be helpful and help you understand how to react and prepare in the future. Sometimes it may lead to a change in routines and processes too.
Helpful questions to ask yourself could be:
- was the
situation suited to you and your horse?
- Were you attempting something new that the horse was not prepared for (mentally or physically)?
- Is the horse generally fearful or in any physical discomfort that could have caused the problem?
- Are there things you can address with more training for you or more training for your horse?
- Do you or the horse need to acquire new skills?
These questions are not designed to place guilt for what happened but are there to help you find out if there is anything you can change or practice in the future to stop the same thing from happening again.
Plan a Way Forward
Identifying potential causes can be useful in forging a way forward and figuring out a plan to address issues or challenges. Try to pinpoint what kind of training is needed and break it down into small incremental steps for you and your horse.
Take it slow and build on positive experiences.
This might entail walking around the pen, revisiting groundwork exercises. It could be ‘spook training’ using towels, plastic bags and ropes to help the horse regain confidence with unexpected objects during rides.
Develop confidence by perfecting skills that you are already comfortable with (from the ground or while riding). If you are not quite ready to get back in the saddle again, here are 30 things to do with and for your horse when you can’t ride.
Focus on Positive Self-talk
Anxiety can make us berate ourselves. Try to shift the internal voice saying things like “I am a bad rider” or “I know I will fall again” to being supportive and positive. Speak to yourself as you would to a friend who just went through the same thing you did.
Utilize the Power of Visualization
Close your eyes, relax and visualize yourself having an enjoyable ride. Pay attention to the details, paint the entire picture. Visualization can be a powerful tool to help you build confidence and belief that you can achieve your goals, which is why it is also a popular practice among competitive riders.
Get Support from a Friend or Coach
Asking a friend for support can be a great way to help you rebuild confidence and at the same time keep you accountable for your plan and progression. Most experienced equestrians have already lived through a fall so they can easily relate to what you are going through.
If you feel you need a bit more follow-up and guidance than your friends can provide, then consider working with a professional coach. When I was working through some of my self-limiting beliefs, Megan Warren was an incredible supporter and helped me navigate my sometimes confusing thought patterns. I can highly recommend her and if you’d like to learn more, her website is www.meganwarrencoaching.com.
We wish we could be there to tell you – YOU CAN DO THIS!
Take the time you need, be kind to yourself (and to your horse) and use these tips (or find other ways that work for you) to get back in the saddle again.