I wonder how many falls I have watched in my lifetime? They must number well into the thousands by now. Most have involved nothing more than an involuntary dismount, followed by brushing the dirt from the unfortunate participant’s britches, drying some tears and going on with the lesson. Very occasionally, however, I see a fall that involves broken bones, serious injury—or worse. This has been on my mind because I recently saw a young rider’s life flash before my eyes. Her fall started as comedy, almost became tragedy and, fortunately, finished as mere drama.
From Comedy to Tragedy … Almost
It happened during a cross-country clinic about as typical as I am ever going to teach: riders with some successful Novice experience, well turned out on suitable horses and with the cheerful acceptance of instruction that is typical of that level. Things were going well. We were working on good footing, under blue skies with cool temperatures and a light northwest breeze. I remember thinking that this was as optimal as it was ever going to get. During the lesson I had my eye on one young lady who was a paradigm for students of her type. She was timid but willing to try and needed positive encouragement rather than negative correction. Paradigm and her horse were both slightly overweight, and her horse, Fatboy, knew a lot more about jumping than she did. Fatboy was very cute, a good mover and capable of jumping anything that she wanted—but really wanted—to jump.
The objective was to jump a simple log coming toward the group, then make a 90-degree turn to another log of the same size and shape. This gave me the context in which to talk about the correct aids for a turn and to teach riders to think like a horse. By that I mean to feel how eagerly their horses jumped toward the group but how many of them slowed when turned away from the herd.
This is a simple exercise, but you can learn a great deal if you perform it correctly and if you listen to your horse. This was especially relevant for Paradigm because Fatboy had jumped toward the herd very well with his ears pricked and knees in the right place. However, his enthusiasm diminished as he turned away from the others. Despite Paradigm’s somewhat timid urgings, he stopped at the second log, leaned his chest against it and dropped his head and neck.
Because she had been ahead of his motion, Paradigm now began a slow-motion slide down her horse’s neck toward the ground on the far side of the log. She tried to stay on, clinging to his neck with her chin tucked into her chest. So far the situation was mildly amusing. Some of the auditors shouted “Hang in there,” and similar words of encouragement. But then the comedy veered toward tragedy. Finally realizing she was destined to fall off, Paradigm lifted her head to look at the ground and straightened her arms to meet it. This left her slumped on Fatboy’s neck and doing a handstand with her face looking down and her body almost completely upright. I suddenly realized, “Oh, no, she has never been taught how to fall properly, and now she is going to break her neck or her back.”
As she began to hit the ground, Paradigm supported herself on her outstretched arms for a brief instant, but the inexorable law of gravity prevailed and her arms collapsed. Her entire weight now pinned her face into the grass while her body and legs continued over her head toward the ground. Fatboy chose this instant to pull back from his kneeling position on the log, which lifted Paradigm off her face and neck somewhat and gave her a slight nudge to the left. This allowed her to crumple to the ground badly shaken but basically unhurt. Most of the auditors did not realize what a dangerous situation they had witnessed, but I made a mental note to renew my efforts to teach people not just how to ride, but how to fall.
It’s Gonna Happen—Get Ready
“There never was a horse that couldn’t be rode or a man that couldn’t be throwed.” This axiom, attributed to Will James, the famous and plain-spoken early-20th-century cowboy/artist, pretty much sums it up: Although everyone wants to ride, no one wants to fall off—yet if you ride, you are going to fall. It is a question of when, not if. It follows that if you will fall off at some time, you need to learn how to fall to prevent or minimize injury. Before we talk about how to fall, however, I need to make the same point that I make almost every time I write this column: You need to get physically fit. Fitness is your strongest defense against injury. It speeds reaction time, improves balance and increases agility. Take it from me—fitness and practicing how to fall have literally saved my life. I hope they will do the same for you.
Your riding arena will serve as a suitable practice area for falling. At first all you need is your helmet, safety vest and clothes you do not mind getting dirty. Later I will want you to practice in competitive attire so that your muscle memory is used to this clothing. If you view yourself as unusually timid and/or not athletic, you may be better off getting help with this exercise at first. Seek out local gymnastics or martial arts programs and ask them to help you get started.
As when learning any new skill, begin slow and simple. Stand straight on a soft surface like a groomed arena with feet aligned under your shoulders, cross your arms in front of your chest and kneel down on one knee. As your knee touches the ground, turn your head, neck and shoulders away from the direction of your fall so that your next point of contact with the ground is just behind the point of your shoulder. As your shoulder touches the ground, tighten your stomach muscles to draw your knees up toward your chest, roll onto your back, continue the rotation back onto your knees and then your feet. After practicing for a while, you should be able to do a complete roll and return to your feet, facing in the original direction. Make sure to roll on a 45-degree angle away from the way you were facing when you fell. This will help get you out of the path of your horse. It would be ironic to fall correctly but then have your own horse step on you. (I know that not all of your falls will cause you to land feet first, but the sequence I’ve just described is the safest way to begin to learn how to fall.)
Try falling in both directions until you are comfortable going either way. You will find one direction easier than the other, just like your horse. Remember to practice falling on your more difficult side more often. Chances are you will not always fall off your horse on your strong side, so you have to be ready for any eventuality.
Tips for Better Falling
A few points before we move on:
• Practice giving yourself mental permission to fall off as you start your fall. We want to practice “stickability,” but if things go wrong you must accept at some point that you are falling off and deal with it. You did everything you could to stay with your horse, but now you must do everything you can to make sure you do not get hurt. As you decide you are going to fall off, let go of the reins. Desperately hanging on to your reins is a good way to injure your shoulder or get kicked or dragged. Your horse got you into this predicament, and he can look after himself for a minute while you deal with it.
• Remember to cross your arms as you are going down and draw yourself into a ball. I do not want any spare parts sticking out when you hit the ground. The physical forces involved in falling off of a moving horse are very strong. If you stiffen your arms or legs against the ground, something is bound to give. You must dissipate the energy of your fall by rolling, not by bracing.
• After you practice a few times in schooling or barn clothes, wear your competitive attire when you practice so that your muscle memory knows what your safety vest feels like, how much your helmet weighs and so on. If the footing in your arena is extremely sticky, you might want to consider wearing a shower cap under your helmet … it will save on shampoo bills.
• When you can fall and return to your feet consistently, add some difficulty to your practice by describing two complete rolls across the ground before coming to your knees and then feet, always in a roughly 45-degree angle away from the direction you were originally facing.
Falling with Momentum
Once you are comfortable (if a bit dirty) practicing falling in both directions from a standstill, you need to add a little speed to the exercise. I have used golf carts, Gators and other small motorized vehicles for this. (When I coached Young Rider teams, I used the tailgate of my truck, but that would be a bit too high and fast for our purposes. You should stick to the slower, lower vehicles.) My point here is to have you practice the same actions in motion that you did at a standstill. Have your driver proceed in a straight line at walk speed only at first, and make sure she stays straight and looks straight ahead as you jump off. (The driver will have a natural tendency to turn her head, which will inadvertently turn the vehicle toward you.) Look for your landing, bend your knees as you touch the ground, tuck yourself into a ball and roll away from the vehicle. As you get better at this, you should be able to roll like a ball at least once and return to your feet.
Let me emphasize again that although most of your falls will not involve landing on your feet, that is the safest way to start learning to tuck and roll. No matter which part of your anatomy hits the ground first, you will greatly lessen your chances of injury if you roll across the ground rather than landing flat with various bits and pieces sticking out.
More Falling Strategies
The technique I have just described will lessen your chances of injury in a rotational fall or a fall over your horse’s shoulder. But we all know there are other types of falls, and we need to discuss them as well.
If your horse slips and goes down on a turn, lean away from the direction of the fall and push your knuckles against the withers. Use your arms to push yourself above your horse, and lift your knee on the lower side. Your main concern is to prevent your horse from trapping your leg against the ground, so make sure to draw your heel as close to your buttock as possible. As your horse hits the ground, push away from him and tuck and roll. Roll as far as possible before you get up. You do not know what your horse is doing behind you and you want to leave the scene of the accident while you still can.
Any sort of fall is potentially hazardous, but falling off backward is probably the most dangerous. This is why I am especially concerned about horses who rear. If they lose control of their two hind feet, they come over backward, landing with their entire weight on you. (Some horses have learned to false rear—a sort-of levade, not very high, but high enough to scare you and make you take your leg off—as a defense against the rider. These horses need to be dealt with by specialists. They are most definitely not for you.)
But horses do rear unexpectedly and you must be as prepared for that as for all the other possibilities. If your horse rears, there is an instant when you can extricate yourself. Once you even suspect he is going over backward, take the mane as far forward as you can reach up the neck, pull your body straight up and swing one leg over to dismount. You will usually land awkwardly and fall back over your hip. Immediately roll away from the point where you landed, no matter how clumsily, because there is a very real chance that your horse is about to land exactly where you were a split second ago.
People to whom I have explained this technique have told me it would not work for them because I am an Olympic athlete and they are not. My response: I survived to become an Olympic athlete because I was taught these skills when I was 10 years old.
A couple of additional thoughts on this important subject:
• I do not like the new lightweight
stirrups because they do not separate from your foot when you have a fall. When I fall, I do not want the stirrup to stay with me—things are dangerous enough already.
• No technique will prevent every horse-related injury, but we must do whatever we can to avoid or at least lessen the chances of injury.
• Fitness is, as I have said, an essential element in prevention, but mental preparation might be equally important. We have the ability to think at 1,000 meters per minute (almost 40 miles per hour), which means you can think a lot faster than you are moving. The next time you fall off, I do not want you thinking, “Oh, no!” I want you thinking, “I’m going to fall off. I need to tuck and roll.”
Thanks to Melissa Stubenberg for hosting the “falling” photo shoot at Kealani Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania.
Disclaimer of Liability: Riders undertake horseback riding and its associated activities at their own risk. Practical Horseman magazine, its parent company (Active Interest Media), its editors and writers, and Jim Wofford are not responsible for injuries that may be attributed to utilizing the techniques explained in this article.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.