Fear of the Fall

For such a common eventuality among horse riders, this is something I don’t see too many people talk about. This sport we do is pretty high up there in the ‘dangerous sports’ category – a quick google search of the most dangerous sports will show you that horse riding (or sports involving riding horses eg. Polo, jousting, racing etc) is always listed in the top 10. This doesn’t surprise me one bit and I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you.

In most other sports, people are putting their trust in their own abilities to complete the task they’ve given themselves. They train hard to build their strength and skills to ensure they can perform their job. Yes, we equestrians need to do the same for ourselves, but there’s an additional element that is unique to our sport. We are choosing an animal as our partner. These animals have their own minds and they’re not afraid to remind us of that. Our horses are athletes and they demand the respect of being treated as such. They require immense care along with strict training and diet plans to ensure they are given everything they need to perform the tasks we ask of them. This is the element of our sport that provides the danger.

Some may compare a horse to a race car and yes, in the sense that a vehicle can have an unknown broken part which can malfunction at the worst possible time, there is an element of risk. However, at the end of the day, a vehicle does not have feelings. A vehicle cannot be in a bad mood. A vehicle cannot feel that its back is sore. A vehicle cannot feel the nerves of its driver just before a race starts. Horses feel all of this and more and just like us humans, they have the freedom and right to react to all of this as they see fit. This is where, in my opinion, our sport has no equal comparison. To make matters even more dangerous, we put ourselves in the position where we’re actually sitting on this animal’s back, 5 feet off the ground.

I hope that by this point all you equestrians reading this are nodding your heads in agreement. I mean, when you look at all of this together you have to wonder what went wrong in our lives that we seem to have a death wish?! I’m not going to keep going on about the dangers of our sport, we all know that this hobby is a risk sport and we have consciously made the decision to partake in it. What I want to talk about is the fact that despite knowing all of this, we have decided to do this sport knowing there is a high chance we could die or, at the very least, end up in a wheelchair and yet, we continue despite having the fear of the fall. To be more specific, the fear of THAT fall.

We know that falling off is an inevitable element of our sport and a lot would argue that falling makes you a better rider and this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. The only way to learn is by making mistakes and unfortunately falling off tends to be the result of making mistakes while horse riding. The aim is to ensure you get back up and keeping going – something that is not always possible depending on how bad the fall was. But we know we at least have to try because we love what we do. Unfortunately the getting back up part is not always easy. Sometimes you physically cant because you’ve sustained an injury, other times it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back and we just can’t do it anymore.

Anyone who’s been following NBW over the last year or two will know that I’ve had my fair share of falls. From April 2018 to June 2019, I had fallen off Coco 6 times. Not all the falls were bad, for the first few I was able to get back up and keep going to an extent, but fall number 3 was particularly bad – enough for me to drag myself to A&E on Christmas Eve. This one really shattered my confidence and it took some work to build myself back up and to get back out jumping. Unfortunately after regaining my confidence, the falls just kept coming until my last one in June 2019 which resulted in a broken foot, and me being out of the saddle for an entire summer. By then I had reached a point where I realised I was no longer enjoying riding so I made the difficult decision to sell Coco.

Enter Cosmo.

Even though he was young, Cosmo was to be my brave companion. The first time I rode him ended up being the first time I jumped since the fall that broke my foot (which happened while jumping). I didn’t think that first time leaving the ground was going to be on a very green 4yo, but low and behold this gem of a horse took me confidently over a red roadblock and I made the decision that he was going to be my next horse. He’s been exactly what I wanted from a horse – brave, trusting and incredibly talented. However, being a 4yo (now 5yo) he of course still needs the correct training to ensure he becomes the horse I know he can be.

After my litany of falls the previous year, I was of course very aware that a fall from Cosmo was inevitable. I briefly mentioned before about the cause of a fall. A lot of the time, just knowing what caused the fall can be enough to get you back going again. If you know you did something that impacted your horse to make them stop at the fence then you know what you have to work on. Unfortunately not all falls have this explanation. Sometimes it’s just bad luck. Sometimes neither of you did anything wrong. And this is what happened to me and Cosmo a few months ago.

We were doing some jumping at home over some small cross poles and Cosmo went for an off stride and ended up tripping over the fence. He tried his hardest but he just couldn’t get his footing and we both ended up going down. I flipped over his head, landing quite hard on my shoulder and I needed to keep rolling to ensure I got out from underneath him. We were both pretty shaken but thankfully we both walked away with no serious injuries. While I was well enough to get back in the saddle a week later, it took quite a good 3 months before I could jump again (partly due to the pandemic to be fair).

This fall was the one that I had feared the most. I’ve seen so many other horse and rider combinations take similar falls and they are always horrifying to watch. I’ve heard so many awful stories that I always dreaded it ever happening to me. And then it did. And despite the fact that we managed to escape physically unscathed, it was just as terrifying as I imagined. The ‘what if’ of the situation is ingrained in me and the possibility that it could happen again sends a cold shiver down my spine.

Our horses are our escape, the silencers of our minds for the few hours we spend with them.

This fall really got into my head. It was only when I really thought about all of this that I realised what an impact my recent falls have had on me mentally. Most of us do this sport as our hobby and our way of decompressing. Our horses are our escape, the silencers of our minds for the few hours we spend with them. But when fear and anxiety set in and you find yourself no longer enjoying your time in the saddle, or constantly worrying that you’re not doing what you ‘should’ be doing, it can really take its toll on your mental health. Something that I grew to accept was that I may get to a point where I decide that jumping just isn’t for me anymore. And if I do reach that point, that’s ok. As I know if I do make that choice, I’ll be happier in myself.

I also know that I definitely haven’t gotten there yet. I have had a few lessons over the last few months which have shown me that I still love jumping and Cosmo is far too talented to not be jumping. I still have a lot of fight in me to push through these confidence issues. I’ve done it before and I can do it again and I’m too excited to see where me and Cosmo could go to give up just yet. But knowing that I can decide to take the pressure off myself and just enjoy my horse brings a sense of relief but also a sense of determination, when I realised that I’m not quite ready for that.

For anyone else who may be struggling with similar fears, doubts, anxiety; just know that you can decide to do whatever you feel is right for you. If that means giving up jumping for a while then so be it. If it means stopping riding altogether and just spending some quality time lounging in the field with your horse, then that’s ok too. Just do what you know is the best thing for you and you really can’t go wrong.

Thanks for reading,

ORLA