Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Falling Off

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.


mugwump said...

I think we all need to remember we can splat.The upside is we learn to be careful. With kids I think that's all that happens, (when it's handled right like you did here). With us oldsters it turns into a balance between being smart and letting fear get in the way.

Laura Crum said...

I agree, Janet. I'm not sure if I'm letting fear get in my own way or not. I do know that I choose to ride only mature, broke horses these days and don't feel confident enough to climb up on the green ones any more. But I'm not really drawn to riding green horses any more, so its not like I'm frustrated and feeling my fear is holding me back. I'm actually really drawn to riding a broke horse down the trail and enjoying myself--that's what I love to do. If I fall off, and I could, I accept that its a risk I chose. But as you and I both know, my odds of staying aboard (after a lifetime spent on horses) are pretty good if I stick to reliable, broke horses that I know well. And that's the choice I'm making (unlike you), big chicken that I am.

mugwump said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mugwump said...

I am not calling you a chicken. Maybe a goose.........

Heidi the Hick said...

Yeah, I always tell my kids they've missed out on all that glorious falling off I did as a kid. They've grown up riding once a month or so rather than daily, and they've worn helmets and ridden mostly mature horses.

Although I did sort of arrange for both of them to fall off into a nice deep layer of fluffy snow... sounds so cruel but I'm glad I got it over with...

Laura Crum said...

Heidi--I was so happy that my son got the falling off experience without getting seriously hurt--I can't tell you. We all have to fall off. At fifty-one, I don't any more think I have to fall off again. Is this stupid, cowardly...etc?

Fantastyk Voyager said...

I used to ride as a teenager and fell off all the time. Luckily, I never got hurt. Now that I'm older, I have gotten hurt although I don't fall off so much. When I do, they're worse accidents, so maybe that's why I get hurt...

My daughter learned to ride when she was five. When she was seven or eight, she had her first (and only) fall from a spooked horse. The horse was a "safe" horse but it was just one of those rare times. She didn't get hurt except emotionally. She couldn't believe that it happened! I sometimes wonder if we shelter our kids too much knowing what falls can do to a person. I say this because she started riding at such a young age that I only let her ride easy, well trained horses. She has not gone through her share of falls that most teen riders manage to have.
Now, at 20, I don't consider her a capable enough rider to handle a difficult horse and I wonder if it's because she never got challenged when she was younger.
We don't want to cause our children to get hurt but they do need to learn. Where should we draw the line, risk free riding that limits their horsemanship skill building or challenge and improve their riding skills at the risk of getting hurt?

joycemocha said...

Aah, at 51 you're young. Granted, I'm not skiing black diamonds this year, but that has more to do with being out sick and injured for six weeks of the ski season than the Fear.

And I'm back to trying to jump my reining horse. Especially since she's recently told me she likes it, and low-level jumping is easier on her hocks than sliding and other stuff...and I've gotta find something to keep her mind busy.

A lot of it is mental. I don't necessarily mind greenies, but I do mind crazies. And I still ski slowly compared to my contemporaries who took it up in their youth, instead of their late 40s....

FD said...

I used to have to consider falling off as an economic decision too. Used to balance it with the fact that turning horses away was also an economic decision. I'm thankful that I no longer need to do that. There's something to be said for the desk job eh?

I'm glad your son got that 'Oh' moment and that it was so painless, relatively speaking.
Dunno if anyone else has found this, but I've found (mostly boys) some kids need a fall or two before they'll accept that their teacher does actually know what she's talking about with all this safety stuff.

Poor Henry - was he startled? He sounds like a genuine soul. I had a kid fall off in halt once, and I swear it unnerved the gentle old pony they were on.

Pony was standing in the centre, half asleep, while I fixed stirrups two ponies over. One of the helpers swore a bug flew up the pony's nose, but anyway something made him do the sudden-sneeze-fart thing, and the kid just went eeek-flaily-slow-motion-topple-off-the-side-splat, and landed howling. Poor pony didn't shift an inch while I picked her up and calmed her down and plopped her back on, but I swear to god he kept turning his head and touching her foot with his nose at intervals throughout the rest of the lesson. Like he was checking she was still there.

Laura Crum said...

FD--Henry stared down at my kid with a very puzzled expression, that's for sure. He didn't mean to dump him.
Thanks everybody, for your comments. Learning to ride has been such a positive thing for my kid so far--I hope it stays that way.

HorseOfCourse said...

Laura, when I read your story I agree with you that maybe the outcome wasn't that bad?
Childrens confidence can so easily be shattered. I remember when my daughter was around four yo, the old shetlands pony that she was riding shaked himself vigorously.
And that was very scary, even if she didn't fall off. She was apprehensive for a long time afterwards.
Later she has fallen off more times than I can remember, including getting a concussion that kept us at the hospital over night. She has always been riding with a helmet, and also a safety vest when she was younger (she is 14 now).
If our children are to ride, they will also fall off.
As you mentioned, as long as all went well this time maybe it prevented something more scary to happen, caused by overconfident riding?
I believe that if the first falls aren't too bad, the kids kind of accept it and don't get too frightened anymore.

I am 46, I still fall off. Common cause is a loose cinch and an instant 180 degree turn. All my fault.
I was very close yesterday out on trail. I was walking my horse on loose reins and my mind was elsewhere (that's when it happens you know!). Suddenly some snow falls from a high mountain side in front of us and my horse is the next second galloping down the slope that we just had been riding up. Luckily I had tightened the girth this time, lol!

But I don't ride any horse anymore. I stay off the troublesome ones.

And I am happy that Henry is feeling fine!

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Excellent post and story about your son's first fall.

I especially liked you saying that falling off is part of a procession towards learning how to ride.

My first fall was on Christmas Eve 2008...and it was because my horse jumped sideways from a spook.

I didn't even see it coming. My mare typically spooks in place, but we were riding in snow and the sun was shining. I believe the sun was glinting off the snow, my riding friend's gelding was acting all snorty...and BAM. She teleported several feet to the right.

I tried to stay on, but my knee buckled out and I had no more strength on that side.
My horse was just as surprised as me, when she saw me on the ground. And then she took off back towards the barn.

I landed on all fours, too. But when I stood up my knee hurt. I limped back to the barn, got back up on my horse, though my knee was screaming, and I rode her around the round pen, just to make sure my mare and I were still good and we ended our day on a good note.

Afterwards, I untacked her, fed, watered her and our other animals, and then limped upstairs to bed.

On Christmas morning I couldn't put any weight on that leg. I couldn't even walk downstairs to watch my kids enjoy Christmas and open their presents.

The next day I went to the emergency room and the guessed that I tore my ACL or damaged my mensicus.

A week later an Ortho doctor confirmed that I had indeed severed my ACL, tore another ligament on the side of my knee and damaged my mensicus.

Two week later I went through an excruciating surgery, and even more painful 7-10 days of post surgery pain.

Jump forward 3 1/2 months, and after weekly physical therapy, I am finally able to walk without crutches.

When the doctor told me it would take 3 months to get back to doing my normal activities and at least 6months to ride again, I thought he was just being too conservative.
Sadly, it seems to have been proven true.

A day doesn't go by that I don't think about riding. I often go through the steps, in my mind, of grooming my horse, tacking and warming her and then mounting...followed by riding.
Each time I find something in those steps that might go wrong, and then spend time trying to work through ways to 'fix' those problems, so when I'm finally riding for real, everything will go smoothly.

Of course, that's impossible. We can prepare, we can try to control our horse as best as we can, and we can ride safely.

But we are riding a 1000+ prey animal. An animal with a mind of it's own. We are never really in control, either of our horse or are surroundings.

For most people, they get lucky, and when they fall, they only suffer a few bruises, maybe a sprain, maybe even a broken bone.

I wasn't so lucky, even on my very first fall after 43 years(unless you count a grouchy pony when I was 8 yrs old).

We sure do go splat much easier when we're older.


horsegenes said...

"it isn't a matter of if, it is a matter of when" that plays in my head all the time.

I fell of on Thanksgiving Day. I was riding one of my younger horses bareback (he lives in a stall, blanketed - Can you say slick coat?) and we were just trotting around the indoor arena and some kids walked though the breeze way and he spooked alittle... he went left about 2 feet and I stay where he was. :) landed on my butt, laughing. It scared the living crap out of my horse. I went home and told my husband that I had been practicing falling off. It jarred me and I will think twice about getting on a slick horse bareback again. I wouldn't say that I don't ever want to fall off again, I don't want a major wreck, but falling off once in a while is good to keep you grounded... no pun intended.

Laura Crum said...

Well, you guys, thanks for the insightful comments. I do know that as long as you ride you take the chance of falling and I sincerely hope my future falls (if any) will be like Kel's, rather than Lisa's. What a bummer, Lisa. I hope you recover smoothly to have many more happy days on the trail. But I would have to say that your experience is the main reason I stick to horses that are very unlikely to dump me. If possible, I would like to avoid the painful lay-up. That said, they can all suprise you. Though, Horse of Course, I, who am pretty relaxed about most things, am anal about tightening the cinch, and I have an automatic alarm in my brain after years of riding green horses. If I start to drift a little and forget about my horse, my alarm goes off "pay attention, dummy!" Its sort of wired into me. Any time I'm not looking straight ahead bewteen my mounts ears, alert and aware of everything around me, I feel uncomfortable. This has saved me a lot of problems, or so I think.

HorseOfCourse said...

Yes, I know Laura, it is a stupid habit of mine.
You see, it in a way forces you to sit in balance on the horse. Some weight displaced, and your saddle also slides a bit. Works fine as long as you have a well fitting saddle and a calm horse. Does NOT work fine with a teleporting horse, which my present horse is. So now I tighten the cinch.
But I ride bareback too - and it is actually the same, just more slippery, lol!