By Laura Crum
My son had his first fall off a horse not too long ago. After several years of riding independently at the walk trot and lope, and going on hundreds of multi-hour trail rides, some through pretty rough country, my little boy managed to tumble off Henry, his horse, while being led around the arena at a walk. Ironic, huh?
As those of you who read this blog know, Henry went through colic surgery at the end of January, and for two months was confined to a stall with hand walking as his only exercise. After the first month, Henry wore a belly band, to support his healing belly and prevent hernias, and I was given permission for my son to sit on Henry’s back while I walked the horse. This was great for my little boy, who really missed riding his horse. Sitting on the belly band was much like sitting on a bareback pad and my son got very comfortable with it. As instructed, I kept the horse on the lead rope and at the walk at all times. So far, so good.
The trouble was, as we neared the end of March, Henry began to feel pretty good. Too good. Being confined to a stall with just handwalking for exercise was turning my gentle bomb-proof kid’s horse into a pretty snorty character. Nonetheless, he seemed to know that he needed to behave when he had a kid on his back. And my son had a lot of experience riding this horse, and had stayed on successfully through many minor incidents. I had Henry on the leadrope after all. So I didn’t say no when my son asked to be put up on his horse one windy March day.
Of course, I had just mentioned to my husband that this was the wrong sort of day to ride. A storm had gone through the night before and the weather was chilly and unsettled, with sudden, vigorous gusts of wind whipping through the trees unexpectedly. Horses all act like asses on days like this, I said.
But Henry still needed to be walked. I got the horse out of his stall and he was prancing a little on the leadrope. I gave him a few jerks to remind him to pay attention, and he straightened up. I had definite misgivings when my son asked to ride him, but I legged him up on his horse with a warning to hang on, that the horse was feeling good.
Unfortunately, my kid was feeling pretty confident. I’m just leading him around the ring at the walk, after all. The day before he had ridden my horse, Sunny, and successfully loped him. Depite my many cautions on that day, he’d replied, “Mama, I can handle anything this horse can do,” and in fact, he did handle Sunny’s rather fresh behavior, including a crowhop, with no problem. (Mind you, both these horses are really gentle, safe horses, but all horses tend to show a little life in the spring.) So, my kid pretty much ignored my warning about hanging on.
Well, we only made it once around the ring before the wind blasted through some nearby trees and Henry jumped. It wasn’t much of a jump; I had him on the leadrope and could stop him. He just popped a foot and a half to the side. But my son wasn’t paying attention, and came off, landing on all fours in the soft (rained on the night before) sand of the riding track. I knew immediately he wasn’t seriously hurt. But boy was he upset.
Up until this point in his life, there had never been a downside to riding. He’d never even been scared. He’d seen others get bucked off, he’d had close calls, but somehow the absolute visceral truth that when you fall off these critters and hit the ground it can hurt and be seriously scary, well, that had just never really sunk in. Until now.
There were tears and complaints that his leg and arm hurt, and he stormed up to the house, insisting that he had to go to bed, if not to the emergency room. Since I had both seen his fall and checked him out carefully to be sure he wasn’t damaged, I was pretty sure we didn’t need the ER. And he walked completely sound as he headed for the house.
It took me the rest of the day to help him see that having his first fall was part of his progression in learning how to ride. And though I didn’t tell him this, I was actually pretty grateful. I had grown more and more uncomfortable with his level of confidence, which I felt was unrealistic, more like over-confidence. And yet, it was very hard for me to undermine him and tell him he couldn’t do this or that with a horse. Sure, I overuled him when I felt the risk was too great, but as much as I could, I let him try the things he wanted to try. But I dreaded him having a serious, scary fall simply because he didn’t understand the risk and felt there was no downside to what he was doing.
So, I am grateful that Henry taught him a simple lesson, relatively painlessly. You need to be careful around horses, you need to pay attention. They can hurt you. Without even meaning to. Henry had no intention of dumping my kid. He just jumped because he felt good and the wind startled him.
My boy rode Henry again that afternoon. This time he did not forget to hang on. Henry behaved himself. My boy is still a confident rider. But now, he’s a smarter confident rider. Because he understands the downside.
This is something that has been a big part of the decisions I make around horses for a long time. I’ve been bucked off plenty of times in my life. I’ve hit the ground hard. I’ve never been seriously hurt, knock on wood. But I realize that I might be seriously hurt if I hit the ground now. If I’d taken the simple little fall my son did, I’d have landed with a much bigger thud, and probably at least sprained my wrist or ankle and been laid up for awhile. At 51, I don’t bounce like I used to. The ER would be a very likely scenario. So, every choice I make about which horse to ride and what I’ll do or not do, is made in the light of the fact that I don’t think I can afford to fall off. I know the downside of riding. I’m glad my son knows it, too, and is in one piece to tell the tale. Thank you, Henry, for a very well-timed lesson. We needed it.