Sunday, December 7, 2008

When Horses Hurt Us



Several blogger friends have been involved in horse-related accidents recently so I thought it might be opportune to swap war stories. Could this innocent looking face ever have scared the daylights out of me, to the point where I could not bring myself to even put a saddle on his back let alone think about riding?

In a word, YES.

When I had owned my OTTB Montana for about 6 months, I felt confident enough to ride him all alone in the arena. So one day as I was doing this, trotting along all brave and proud of myself, a barn girl chose to run by the open arena door in a flash of white: white t-shirt, white sweatpants, white shoes, and a flying blonde ponytail to top it off.

This white vision Montana caught out the side of his eye and it obviously unnerved him so off we went at a sudden gallop, with sharp turns to avoid hitting the walls. I lost the reins and got them back, lost both stirrups and never even tried to get them back (no mental ability at that point), and eventually was thrown off on a sharp turn.

To her credit, the all-white girl came running back and caught him which was not hard, he was just standing around with his eyes bugging out. I had landed on my shoulder and head, tore a cruciate ligament in my right shoulder, and was shaken up to the bottom of my soul. Tears, fear, knowing I had to "get back on", nausea, desire to sell horse immediately, bitter regret that this is what my lifelong dream of horse ownership had come to, all boiled away inside me.

I got back on and we walked a little, with me no doubt telegraphing my emotions to him quite clearly. He looked like he felt sick too.

This was not the end but the beginning of my problem, because I had lost the desire to ride. Completely.

I went to the public library and got books on basic riding, and on riding after an accident, and on sports psychology. Being a book person, reading is always my safety net. I continued to visit Montana almost every day, but instead of riding I just sat outside his stall (sometimes crying if no one was around, sometimes singing to him), and with his door open so that he could reach out and snuffle my hair when he felt like it.

I decided to set myself the smallest goals possible, and count it as a huge victory if I achieved them. So, being able to saddle him and lead him into the arena, perhaps even mount up and sit there for a few minutes, was a huge victory. Being able to walk him in a circle: even more huge!! Kudos to me!! Ice cream time!! And that's how we worked it out over a longer period of time than I would like to admit. He was fine as long as I didn't seem nervous. I also decided that although horses are sensitive, they aren't psychic; it's OK to be nervous if you do everything in your power not to project. La la la! Laugh a little, even if it a tad hysterical sounding.

One device a sports psychology writer described was this: Build a mental space called "My Riding Resource Room". Imagine a room with everything you enjoy: it's your favorite color, has a comfy chair, has your favorite snacks and tea, nice lighting. Into this room you will permit only the positive things about horses and riding: a favorite photo on the wall, your favorite saddle. The horse himself may or may not be allowed to poke his head in the window, depending! In this room is your horse-related joy. Visit this room often in your mind. Visit your Riding Resource Room before you come near your horse. Visit it after a ride and see if anything good has been added.

I painted my R.R. room burgundy, and put an overstuffed chair in it, and an espresso maker, and pictures of beautiful thoroughbreds on the walls. The saddle made it but not the horse, not for a long time. Finally he was allowed to peek in the window.

These wonderful animals -- we love them to bits, and when they hurt us it goes deeper than physical pain. And the fear can be very hard to manage. I still visit the R.R. Room 7 years after my worst fall and having had a few other falls which weren't so bad. It still comforts me. And the idea of getting/staying in touch with the basic joy of horses still seems to me the most important thing.

30 comments:

Jocelyn said...

I was in a horrible accident 2 years ago. I bought my new Arabian MAre and we were out on a short trail ride. The teenage gal decided it would be a great idea to full gallopp towards home and Blu starting bucking and well I landed on my head. Ambulance, ER, and a new bionic neck I am all good. But it has taken almost two years, change of horse to be confident again. She continued her bucking and spooking so I sold her, I got my old paint mare back and we are starting over. She is steady eddie, but still needs lots and lots of work. BUT I trust her and have my confidence back when I am riding her. No one can understand that fear and anxiety that comes from a horrible accident. Kudos to you for taking control and getting back in the saddle. It's a long process, I'm still not 100%.

Flying Lily said...

Jocelyn, a bionic neck?! that is a far worse episode than mine. I'm so glad you have a truly trustworthy horse now. Isn't it amazing how long-lasting are the mental consequences? I don't think I'll ever be 100% though Gentle John gives me every assurance.

lytha said...

omy, flying lily, that pic of your OTTB does not look innocent. he looks like he's plotting his next move! he looks dangerous to me. i say this cuz i just spent 6 months with an OTTB that scared me to death until finally i just told her goodbye. i would like to write in my blog about it, and now that you brought it up, i will.

OTTB - bad news for lytha. i tried, i really did. i failed. and she never even put me in the hospital - but two other people ended up there with broken bones cuz of her. i just knew i was next in line, and couldn't fake her out that i didn't know so.

i have never gone though what you have, and i fear it. i fear the fear. awful, huh?

i have the place you described - the restful place in my mind. but so far, the horse was always there. i use the image when i'm confronted with big fears in life (public speaking). my gosh, i hope that the horse stays.

what - you use espresso to calm down (figuratively)? i rely on chamomile tea or milk and that is all i can take. i'm talking about real life, where i have a lot of other irrational fears.

~lytha in germany

cdncowgirl said...

Excellent post!
And I really like the idea of the "room"... might have to get one and decorate it myself.

I'll put up a post in a couple days with a war story or two of my own for you :)

ranchette said...

Good for you for taking your fear by the horns, so to speak.

I had a pretty serious accident with the Big Horse a number of years ago. I asked him to make too tight of a turn while cantering in poor footing. It was a bad call on my part; I had grown up riding catty small Arabians who were very sure of their feet.

I'll never forget the feeling of his hind end completely falling out from underneath me. I got as far as kicking my feet out of the stirrups & dropping the reins and thinking: "We're going down!". How having 1300 lbs land on top of my lower body didn't cause me to break anything I'll never know. Thank geeky engineers for safety helmets.

When I got my field of vision back I was in a slow motion panic asking DH, then my boyfriend, where my horse was. Poor horse was standing a distance away with his bottom lip quivering (what he does when he's nervous). He had the look on his face like "Oh my god! I've killed the alpha horse! What do I do now?"

I had my share of soft tissue injuries and a whopper of a concussion. The barn I was at at the time kind of good naturedly snickered at me as I become the "walk and trot girl" for the better part of 3 months. Partly because my head was still swimming and my back roaring; partly because I was afraid of him falling again. It's a long hard drop from 16'3".

I spent my share of days at the barn just coming out to brush, groom & feed treats too when I didn't have a ride in me that day too.

P.S. For anyone who doesn't know: Anytime you've had a bad fall that involved your helmet taking a good hit, replace your helmet before riding again. Even if the exterior appears unharmed, the blow could have collapsed the shock absorbing structures inside rendering it less effective the next time you need it.

ezra_pandora said...

Mrs Mom advised me to imaging the perfect ride after my mare spooked a few weeks ago. I discovered when I imagined my pefect ride, it was hot out (I was in a tank top) and my mare was still not super calm. I don't know why I can't imagine anything actually good. My trainer had to keep telling me over and over that my mare majorly feeds off my emotions because she was so nervous and self conscious herself. It took awhile for me to not be so nervous just because I had her almost 4 years before my first actual ride on her and I knew of all the incidents that happened and they freaked me out. What finally calmed me down? Singing. I would hum and sing really low to calm both myself and her and it actually worked. Now she will respond to "easy girl" pretty quickly. I will still hum sometimes if no one is around :) I talk low to her if there are other people.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Most of us have been there. When my guy Erik was around I fell off him maybe 4 times in the 15 years I had him. The worst fall in the arena happened when he decided to pull out from a jump and stop then jump the standard from a standstill. I went right off the back. I did get back on and finish the course, but I was hurting for a while after that and couldn't ride. It wasn't easy but I worked through it by taking smaller steps and jumping smaller jumps until my confidence returned. I'm glad I did because we always had such a blast riding.

Rising Rainbow said...

Oh have I been in this place. I am still trying to recover from an episode last year. I'm ok riding broke horses but the new young stock push all my buttons.....not to mention the horse that scared me this badly. I'm posting about him now and what a special horse he is to me. I'm going to overcome this fear......the only question is when?

I like the idea of the RR room. I'll have to see if that works for me.

cdncowgirl said...

Tagged you with the "6 things you don't know about me" meme :)

Jill Wiswall said...

Oh yeah, I was there recently after my mare decided the pony of my trainer's daughter was the scariest thing on the planet. She jumped out from under me, back under me, and then out from under me again. I remember having time to think some nasty names at her for that trick and then I was on the ground. I ended up with a concussion, soft tissue damage to my back and knee, whiplash and a major sprain in my hand/wrist which resulted in being grounded for six weeks. I wasn't at all afraid when it first happened - just chalked it up to riding a green horse. But during my time away from the saddle my fear really grew. I'm still reeling from it and some days I get on and think I'll just walk in a twenty meter circle and then get off if I feel like it. I really like the riding room idea. I'm going to try that. The thing that helped me the most was reading a book on getting over fear that said it was okay to work with your comfort zone for as long as you needed to-wherever that comfort zone was, and not to feel ashamed or guilty if you needed to come back to it.

Flying Lily said...

Lytha, That OTTB of yours makes me think: the expression "well-broke" is supposed to be said of horses not riders! I'm glad you got away from her unscathed. Strangely, I know exactly what you mean about fearing the fear. I've gotten away from my worst of it, and now I fear it being reinstalled through another 'episode'. I have fear triggers now that in my innocence, I didn't have before Ms. White flew by.

Flying Lily said...

CDNCowgirl: Looking forward to your stories and thanks for the meme tag! I'll git er done.

Flying Lily said...

RAnchette: Slip-n-falls are a big phobia of mine although the only time my horse has fallen was while longeing. But it looked terrible as the legs slid out from under and those big haunches came crashing down. He was being naughty but I was being careless so...my fault. At the height of your horse, that must have been a doozy of a fall. Good point about the helmets. I try to replace mine after every bad headsmack. For some reason I always hit my head.

Flying Lily said...

GreyHorse: he jumped the standard from a full stop?! Makes me heart pound just to think of it. What gets into their brains on these occasions?

Flying Lily said...

RisingRainbow: I'm looking forward to your posts about your new horse. Young horses are a whole separate issue and my hat is off to those who take the first dozen or so rides. this I will never do.

Flying Lily said...

Ezra_Pandora: That's hilarious about your visualization and your mare was still antsy! You have a deeply honest mind. When I try to picture a perfect ride, there's always some little wormhole at the edge of my imagination: but Mrs. Mom is so right that if can see it in our heads, we can approximate it in our lives. Plus it is something we can do when it's blowing snow and 10 degrees outside.

Flying Lily said...

Jill: That sounds like a lovely fall, with enough hang time to think of the names you'd like to call your horse! I have added your blog to my links and look forward to following your journey.

photogchic said...

Great post. Fear is one thing people sometimes refuse to acknowledge...it is great to face it like you did and come out better for it.

Susan said...

Oh my God, last night I duplicated your fall on my own OTTB, whom I've owned for 2 months, Mother McKree.
We were trotting around the arena when he just grabbed the bit and surged beneath me, and endless frightening surge, gaining in speed and stride till he turned sharply and I flew off, which was a bit of a relief as my stay on him was unraveling. Witnesses say he opened his mouth to evade the bit and just took over. We're both ok, I'm sore and bruised today. My instructor got on him for 5 minutes, then I did and cantered and jumped a cross rail, but today I woke up scared. I bought this horse and I have to get back on, but I am fearful. Thanks for sharing your story, I don't feel so alone and scared. I just happened to have the book A Sport Psychology Workbook for Riders, by
Ann Reilly, by my bed, for previous issues, fear & self criticism, too bad of a rider for this horse issues etc, and found it helpful, if anyone wants to try it, I recommend it... Thank you for sharing your story, feeling like rubbish and your story helps...

Flying Lily said...

Susan, I really feel your pain. It's an amazing experience to be on a suddenly turbocharged horse and hit the ground with g-force on a turn. Ouch. And the fear grows like spring grass. I will check out that book and meanwhile, take care of yourself. I so know the feeling of not being a good enough rider for my horse. That's ouch too. But in fact they just freak sometimes and it's not about us all the time! Do you know what it was all about? not that there's always a rational reason...

Susan said...

Thank you for your kind comments. I'm not sure why he acted as he did. I've been on him when he's spooked and bolted and I always got him under control in a few paces. However, last night was like nothing I've ever experienced, it was not a bolt so much as a gathering surge in strength, stride and speed. I've never been so out of control, he just completely tuned me out and took off. You said it brilliantly, the "fear grows like spring grass" so true, it's been building in me all day, though last night I got back on and was fine and even jumped. Too much time to dwell perhaps? I take a lesson at the barn where he's boarded one day a week, but right now I know I'm too scared to get in the ring without my instructor.
Part of the fear is that the ring is always crowded, if he hurts me that's one thing, if we hurt someone else, oh my, that would be awful. Anyway, thank you so much for sharing your story and for letting me type mine, it has been more help than you can imagine, sharing my story with other horse folks who have been through it.
Perhaps the answer to my problem can be found in one simple word: lunging? The round pen is outside and it was raining so I couldn't lunge him beforehand. Or maybe lunging is my Dumbo's Feather? Anyway, thank you so much for providing this place to express unbridled fear!!!! Hope all is well with you and Montana, you're my inspiration.

Flying Lily said...

Susan, if you want to email me off the blog we can be a little 2-person support group for OTTB owners in recovery! :) My email is

flyinglilies AT hotmail dot com

breaking it up to avoid getting spammed.

c2b said...

A subject close to my heart right now lol.
My worst ever injury around horses was caused when I fell off the mounting block, didn't even get on the bloody horse!!! very embarrassing, I was air lifted to hospital, damaged nerves in my back, my neck, dislocated my elbow and did all sorts of things to my knee.....
At least this time I had actually managed to get on board. Having a horse practising pole dancing round trees whilst rider having lost the reins is not to be recomended.
I need to be with my horse. She has done more for my mental (if not physical) health than any amount of drugs from the psychiatric dept.

Flying Lily said...

c2b: Read about your waltz through the woods and it sounded hairy. What got into the witch I mean sweetheart Zoe? Falling off the mounting block reminds me of the time I tried to mount by standing on my Jeep bumper on an icy day. Ho ho ho.

c2b said...

She had a temper tantrum because I wouldn't let her keep stopping to munch on the grass and kept kicking her on each time she tried. After about 8 times she threw a strop and took off. Normally I just let her go and gather up the reins as we go but being in the woods I was distracted by trying to avoid low flying branches and just stay on board. I had little steering and no brakes. Not a good combination.

Pony Girl said...

Good post. My sister went through something like this two years ago. Her confidence in that mare is still not the same, even though the mare has done nothing to make her feel like she is going to be thrown again (it was a freak thing, we think she was stung by a bee.)
Luckily I have not had a fall from My Boy yet. However, that doesn't stop my anxiety-riden self from worrying about it!

Flying Lily said...

PonyGirl, there's some old saying about how many falls it takes to make you a horseperson. I say, it is definitely possible to be a great horseperson and never fall ever. Hitting the ground is no demonstration of skill. :) and the consequences can be quite a setback for rider confidence, as PaintGirl and I can testify!

halfpassgirl said...

Just thought I'd mention a trick I use to get me back on track after a fall: I sit down and read a training article before heading to the barn. It gets me in the right headspace, and for some reason reading training tips makes me want to ride. I also focus on what I WANT the horse to do, not what I DON'T want her to do (e.g. instead of "Gee, I hope she doesn't spook in that corner," I think "Forward, outside rein, bend, and soften through the corner.")

3pennyjane said...

I meant to put this up a while back, but then life happened and I forgot. Mea culpa and all that.

It took me a long long time to understand that feeling an emotion isn't the same as being ruled by it. I've been lucky enough not to take a bad fall, but unlucky in having spent my share of time hospital-bound and miserable, and to this day the smells and sounds of certain places knock me back on my heels. I complained to someone about hating to be such a wimp, and she basically pointed out that you can never control your feelings of fear, only what you do to react.

A woman at my barn has had two extremely bad falls, and yet she still comes back. It's been such a joy to watch her work; she's very self-deprecating, and she has no shame about drawing her own limits--not going to trot today, not going to canter today, not going to even ride today--but she has gone from being too scared to go into a stall alone to being a happy, confident rider. She faces her fear every time she saddles up. But the difference is that although she's got no choice about letting the fear ride with her, she's the one doing the riding; the fear isn't riding her. Sounds like you're doing the same thing, and who gets to be brave without knowing what fear feels like?

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