The prospect of falling off is probably the scariest part of learning to ride, or getting back into riding, but the fact is you’re not really a proper rider until you’ve had a fall. There is a reason they say falling makes you a better rider — and, if you think about it, jump jockeys and event riders fall off all the time.
This may sound mad but, if you’ve never fallen off, the best thing for your riding is to get it over with as soon as possible: the chances are you’ll pick yourself up and dust yourself off — all accompanied by the pleasant sensation that it actually wasn’t that bad after all.
Of course, we don’t all want to be falling off our horses left, right and centre, just for the sake of it. Happily, there are lots of tips which can help to minimise the risk of falling, but if the worst comes to the worst and you realise you’re headed directly out of the front or side door, there are also some things you can do to minimise damage to yourself or your horse.
How not to fall off your horse
A good way of preventing a potential fall is to make sure that your horse has the right tack, fitted correctly. If he is uncomfortable, he’s much more likely to try and throw you off: a surprising amount of ‘difficult’ horses have been improved by just changing the fit or the components of their tack, from the bit to fit of the saddle.
Once you’re on board, the best tips for staying put are to maintain your balance, and contact with the horse, and to remain alert. If you are familiar with the horse you are riding, you will know what makes him spook: some horses can’t bear plastic bags, and others hate lorries or even squirrels, and keeping a relaxed eye out for any potential hazards allows you to be prepared. However, if you do see something likely to make him jump, don’t tense up: stiffening in the saddle and gathering up the reins will only make him anticipate excitement.
If a horse leaps upwards, or sideways, puts his head between his knees or performs an unexpected cat jump over a pole, the things which will keep you glued to the saddle are your balance and your centre of gravity. Hold on with your thighs, not onto the reins, keep the balls of your feet firmly in the stirrups, and try to remain calm. Whatever he’s up to won’t last long.
How to fall off your horse
If you are going to fall, whether you see it coming or you suddenly find yourself inexplicably flying through the air, try to relax rather than tense your body. Fight the instinct to put your arms out to break the fall; instead cross your arms with you elbows tucked in, and try to land on your shoulder and tuck yourself into a roll. Don’t hang onto the reins – your horse usually won’t go far – and try to roll out of his path. The chances are he will be as shaken up as you are (unless he’s a naughty pony up to his usual tricks).
The most important thing to protect you is a properly fitted, brand new BHS-approved riding hat. It must be of an approved standard, which you can check on the BHS website, with a quality assurance mark on the inside. Ideally, it will be fitted by someone who has had appropriate BETA training. It is also essential that children wear body protectors when riding at all times to minimise any damage to their back or torso if they fall. These need to be fitted as carefully as hats, as they aren’t any use if they aren’t exactly the correct size — there are useful guidelines on the BETA website.
When you’ve landed, feeling winded is quite normal. To check you’re unhurt, wiggle everything from your toes up, then very slowly sit up and then stand up, and finally go to reassure your horse and check that he is unhurt. Do remember that if you landed on your head or back, and your helmet or your body protector took a bash, either or both pieces of equipment may need to be replaced.
It’s true that the best thing for you is to get straight back on — provided you haven’t done yourself any damage — so once you and your horse have your breath back it’s time to quietly mount up and calmly continue on your way. And give yourself a pat on the back: you’ve done it, and survived to tell the tale!
If you are someone, or know someone, who is extremely nervous about falling or who has had a bad fall there are some good rider confidence courses, including the one at the centre for horseback combat.
Image: horse spinning out from under his rider, by Louis via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0