If you spend enough hours in the saddle, it’s likely you’ll one day have an unfortunate rendezvous with gravity and sustain an injury that at the very least makes you realize that you don’t “bounce back” as quickly from falls as you did as a child or teenager. At worst, it could rock your confidence enough that you get a little jittery about certain maneuvers on horseback, or you might struggle to get back in the saddle in the first place.

I had the former experience in 2002, a fall that sidelined me from riding for six months and changed my perspective as to risks I’m willing to take in the saddle. I used to be keen to climb atop any young prospect, no matter the horse’s background, and if the animal was prone to fits of levitation or his/her eyes popped out at every little snap of a twig or mysterious sound in the distance, the more stoked I generally was about the challenge.

On a sweltering Monday night in July, after a calm 45-minute hack with my Warmblood mare and another friend at the barn and her horse, I met a side of my horse’s personality that I hadn’t yet noted in our eight months of under saddle work. My family and I had raised this mare from Day 1 and I knew her better than anyone, yet a communication scuffle landed me with two broken vertebrae and a forced recovery time. Folks could argue all day about “whose fault” it was … I wasn’t sensitive enough to her body language to note the tantrum that was brewing slowly, and that last request to break to the trot and pick up the right lead when she’d been cross cantering put her over the edge. Then again, she’d never bucked before, either, other than a spirited little half-buck five or six months before when she first cantered under saddle, and this came seemingly out of nowhere.

I’d taken some falls over the years (at that point I’d been in the saddle/taken lessons for 25 years!), but I’d never experienced anything like this. And I had never been injured in the process, other than a mild concussion.

Earlier this week I met with Bill Gombeski of UK (University of Kentucky) HealthCare Marketing, who’s been heading up a project called Saddle Up Safely. The Horse is a top-tier sponsor for this program, which is a “campaign to make a great sport safer,” and you might’ve seen an ad for Saddle Up Safely in our magazine, or read about it elsewhere on TheHorse.com.

Bill and the campaign team have a number of educational initiatives under way, and one of the things they’re trying to figure out is what resources the injured rider wants/needs after a serious injury, from emotional support to logistical help.

What were the questions that raced through my head those first days of recovery (when I was alert enough--those pain meds were craaazy!)? Well, three things, I said:

  1. What do I do with my horse while I recover? Does she need to go to training? How do I ensure she’s cared for while I’m shuffling around and counting down to the day when I can be out at the barn again?
  2. Will I be able to trust her again when I can ride again? The responsible owner in me wants to make this relationship work, but what happens if I have another fall from her that has more dire consequences?
  3. Why do my heart race and my arms tense up whenever I envision that 60-meter circle in the field that night? Will that ever stop?

Over time these issues worked themselves out, both with the advice, logistical help, and support of friends, family, and experienced horsemen and horsewomen. A couple of years after my fall (and after I had ridden her again) my family and I sold the mare, and six years later, I’m happy to learn she has matured into a well-mannered little jumper in Maryland with an owner who is just as crazy about that big bay mare as I was.

My own happy ending is that I’ve ridden a variety of friends’ mounts since my recovery, and I’ve even sustained a whimsical fall or two and happily climbed back into the saddle.

Your turn: Have you sustained a major injury in the saddle (or, as it were, not necessarily in the saddle?). What questions did you have following your injuries and what resources would have been helpful for you One-on-one trainer help? Support groups? Instructional videos? (A couple of rider fear videos posted on TheHorse.com this week, Identifying the Source of your Fear, and Self Evaluation (from Bay Area Equestrian Network) have generated some discussion on Facebook this week. Join in!) What safety tips can you supply for working with horses (both on the ground or in the saddle) that can help prevent injury?

I’ll supply your tips to Bill and the Saddle Up Safely group. They’re excited to hear from you!

Happy (and safe) riding to you!