Thursday, February 17, 2011

Staying On

One definition of a good ride:  keeping the horse between you and the ground.

How to have a good ride: keep one leg on each side of the horse and your mind in the middle.

All riders, no matter how experienced, sometimes fail to have rides that comply with the definitions set out above.  Every rider falls off, sometime.  But I think there's some things riders can do to reduce the odds of falling off, and to reduce the odds of injury if they do fall off.  Add your thoughts in the comments.

1.  Stay relaxed.  If your body is tense or you have braces in your legs, arms or back, you're more likely to come off if your horse makes a sudden move.  If muscles need to contract to allow you to stay on, and other opposing muscles have to let go before those muscles can contract, you've lost valuable milliseconds of response time.  Also, being braced or tense doesn't allow you to easily follow the motion of the horse and tends to push you up out of the saddle - if you're bouncing around there are braces somewhere in your body.

2.  Ride in a balanced position.  If the horse were suddenly removed, and you were placed on the ground in the same position you have in the saddle, would you stand there nicely balanced or would you tip forwards or backwards or to one side?  If you're not in a balanced position, you're vulnerable.

3.  Keep riding.  Don't let your attention wander - when you're riding, you're riding - keep giving your horse direction and leadership - a horse who has to take over the controls because you aren't paying attention can get you in trouble.  And if something happens, don't stop riding - if you stop riding you're much more likely to come off, and if you scream or assume the fetal position, you almost certainly are going to come off.

4.  Learn how to do a one-rein stop.  It doesn't work in every circumstance, and sometimes you can't use it due to the terrain, but it's a useful tool.

5.  If your horse is a habitual bolter, rearer or bucker, figure out what the problem is and fix it.  First rule out all possible physical/pain issues and only then address it as a training issue.  Get help if you need it.

6.  Have an independent seat, legs and hands.  A corollary of this is to be physically fit enough to do the riding activities you do.  Riding bareback is a great builder of balance, as is riding without stirrups.  If you can find a horse that lunges well and someone to lunge you, ride at all gaits without reins or stirrups.  And no one should be jumping a horse, even over Xs, unless they've got an independent seat, legs and hands and are able to maintain a balanced position - it always amazes me how many photos there are of kids jumping, even in leading horse magazines, where the kid's leg is swinging back and they have no base of support except their hands on the horse's neck.  Too many trainers in the hunter/jumper world give in to the pressure from parents and kids and let kids jump too soon and jump too high.

7.  Ride "in" the horse, not on the horse.  Imagine that you and the horse are a single body, and ride from your combined center of gravity - sink into the horse.

8.  Assess your horse's mental and emotional condition and work accordingly.  If your horse needs lungeing or turnout or groundwork, make sure you do it.  Pay attention as you ride - there are typically lots of warning signals before things go sideways.  Don't hesitate to modify what you planned to do if your horse isn't in the right mental or emotional place to do it.  Don't wait for something to happen and then react - get ahead of things and give your horse direction before something goes wrong - keeping the horse's mind and body engaged will help in many circumstances.

9.  Don't jump a horse who has unsafe jumping form.  One of the most dangerous types of falls is a rotational fall where the horse catches a front leg, or both front legs, while jumping and flips over - people get seriously injured or even killed in falls like these.  I've seen lots of hunters, jumpers and even eventing horses with poor jumping form - crooked, or with front forearms that aren't parallel to the ground but instead with one or more knees below the horizontal.  These horses are accidents waiting to happen.

10.  Don't ride horses you shouldn't or compete in events you shouldn't.  If you're a beginning rider, stay away from "Fireball".  Don't let your trainer talk you into buying that fancy horse that you're not really experienced enough to ride - many trainers (not all) do this, perhaps because it ensures lifetime employment. If you're an intermediate rider, don't compete in advanced events.  This isn't to say you shouldn't stretch yourself and advance your riding skills by doing things and riding horses that are a challenge, but use some sense.  If you've got the wrong horse, or if you're scared of your horse, get the issues fixed (physical/pain issues to be ruled out first) and if they can't be fixed seriously consider getting another horse.

11.  Make sure your horse is fit enough to do the activities/events you are doing.  Unfit horses, or horses that become fatigued, can injure themselves and also their riders.  Pay attention to the footing - horses can slip and fall and it's up to you to choose a safe speed.

12.  On the trail, ride with safe and considerate companions.  Make sure everyone's aware and plays by the same rules.  If you're not interested in galloping on the trail, don't ride with people who take off at a gallop without telling you first.

13.  And, if you do fall, and you will, no matter how good a rider you are - freak accidents can happen - make sure you're wearing an approved, properly fitting, riding helmet.  You can still be injured or even killed while wearing a helmet, but a helmet that's properly fitted and worn can save you from injury, concussion, permanent brain damage or death.  I don't care if it's unpopular in your discipline or if it messes up your hair or makes you look like a sissy.  I'd rather look like a sissy than be in a coma.


  1. All very good advice. Excellent post.

  2. Excellent post! I especially love the ride "in" your horse portion. What a helpful way to think of things while working your horse.

  3. Hi Kate,

    My thoughts/comments:

    1) I, personally have to work at #1. I find taking a deep refreshing breath and sinking into the saddle when exhaling really helps me.
    4) The one-rein stop is a must learn, in my opinion.
    12) I always mention to my trail riding companions when I am going out that I am a plodder and not a galloper so that the tone is set. Those that want to gallop go off on their own. :-)
    13) I cannot imagine NOT wearing a helmet. I have fallen twice, and my helmet saved my noggin both times!!

  4. great post; I could REALLY identify with the trail companion advice in #12!
    I also really felt #7, ride in your horse, was a life-changing visualization. I am riding Semi tomorrow and can't wait to try it. Centaur!!
    #2 was also really cool.....def I will pay attention to that also

  5. Great post... and in my case: don't ogle at the sheriff as he is serving papers at the ring side while jumping a course! you tend to stop riding, stop paying attention and then fall off and break a leg.

  6. Excellent. Betty and I always ride with helmets.


  7. Great post, Kate.
    #2- great way to explain balance, so many times I see riders that look like they are sitting in a chair.
    #3- the quickest way to get in a wreck is to have your mind somewhere else. No texting and riding!
    #4- I learned this as a safety measure years ago, only we called it doubling- it's a great way to take the forward momentum away safely.
    #6- one of the toughest things to learn for us predator humans- we instinctually grab, squeeze, push, pull. I think having an independent
    seat has a lot to do with trust; to trust yourself to be in sync with your horse, to trust your horse so that you aren't tense when riding.
    Over all, I think that it boils down to #7. Great way of putting it- in, not on the horse. That kind of connection is what I've been striving for since the first dream I had of riding a horse.

  8. I've had one fall where the helmet without a doubt saved my life; my helmet was destroyed in the fall. A helmet should always be replaced after a fall, even if it still looks ok.

    When I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to ride my horse through a situation, I get off and lead them through it. I got off Cassie a few times when I first got her and didn't know her well enough to predict her reactions. I'd get back on when she was calm again and we would continue our ride, with confidence on both sides still intact.

  9. Great post, as ever. Full of good, sound advice.

  10. Kate--Here's one that not all may agree with. Its much easier to stay on a trail horse who is spooking (particularly), scrambling, or misbehaving if you have a horn to grab. Between two equally competent riders, that western horn can make all the difference when it comes to staying on. This is something I have witnessed many times.

  11. There's no shame in knowing your limitations! And agreed about riders needing the independent seat / hands / legs, especially before jumping :)

    My first riding instructor (at age 8) had me jumping on my third lesson. I got run off with, caught my foot in the stirrup and was dragged + knocked unconscious by my sixth lesson. I remember screaming and adopting the fetal position a number of times in subsequent rides :) At least we were made to wear helmets lol.

    Great post Kate!

  12. Good sound information in this post. Everyone should wear a helmet in my opinion we always do no matter what.

  13. Great advice. I try to do all those things. The one about jumping is very good--it applies to trail horses, too. There is always the possibility your horse will jump a creek or log instead of walk over it. I felt vulnerable in that area a couple of years ago, and instinctively knew I could get hurt if I didn't learn to sit a jump properly, so I went out and took lessons. Of course, those lessons applied to some of your other numbers, too.

  14. Thanks so much for this post. You have this special knack for giving me just the confidence builder I need, when I need it.

    I have fallen off a couple of times in my short time as "horse owner" and have noticed that it was me... all me... both times. Once I coulda kicked myself because my mare was acting "up" and nervous and my riding "friend" made me feel silly for wanting to get off and walk her until she calmed down. The next time was just a case of me fooling around, not having a proper seat and when she dramatically spooked... she flung me off the side. Luckily I always wear my helmet and the only thing hurt was my bum and my pride!

  15. Thanks, everyone for the comments and stories.

    twohorses - I get off and lead if needed, too, and I should have mentioned that.

    Laura Crum - I should have mentioned that - the horn, plus the higher cantle many Western saddles have, can really help. My equivalent is grabbing mane.

    Linda - good point that a proper position in jumping isn't just for people doing hunter/jumper.

  16. "I'd rather look like a sissy than be in a coma."

    Couldn't agree more - from a d devoted wearer of an approved helmet!

  17. Great post Kate!
    My comments are - know HOW to fall off !! When Rosie went down with me on her, my very first, without conscious thought was to kick my feet free of the stirrups. I was ready to bail if I had to, but the direction I was going (over front right shoulder) was going to end me up under those dinner plate hooves, so I opted to cling and go with her no matter what.

    I also can not stress one rein stop enough. It's the VERY VERY first thing I teach anyone who takes lessons from me. And it's a lesson revisited EVERY ride! Fireball can't bolt if his nose is touching his butt !!

  18. Kate, Very good and thoughtful instructions. I, too, agree with TwoRides that I will get off my horse and lead him if in a suddenly dicey situation. And I agree about the helmet; I am a committed helmet wearer, even if I am the only one doing so. Good post!

  19. Good post, good reminders. Thank you.

  20. Excellent post that ALL riders, even those with tons of experience can learn from. We all need reminders sometimes.

    #13 seriously applies to me. I'm one of those riders who suffered from a freak accident, even though I knew my horse was a spooky mare and could move quickly and lose her mind at times. I still wasn't prepared for her from white to black moment. One minute she was calm and curious and the next she blew up, teleporting sideways over 8 feet several times. Trying to stay on was in vain.
    I've spent countless hours trying to dissect the entire experience and finally came to the realization that there was nothing I could have done differently. It was just one of those freak accidents.
    Still glad I was wearing my helmet, though, even though it was my knee that was injured. :)


  21. Just rode out a bolt the other day, due to terrain and the number of trees I opted not to do a one rein stop. Instead I rode it out - remembering Mark's advice on this.

    At some point I'll write about it, but I noticed this isn't really on the list.

    Can you do a one rein stop at a full gallop? or will you be doing a hollywood fall?

  22. Great post. My #14 would be "keep getting back up there." I learned to sit a spook from my old mare Silkie, who spooked hugely at every log we'd see... in the forest... that we rode in daily. I stuck with your #1, 2, and 3 and eventually my seat improved immensely. :)

  23. Great suggestions...I like number 7...ride in the horse not on the horse...a good poster for our arena!

  24. Breathe - doing a one-rein stop isn't necessarily a great idea once the horse has a lot of forward momentum going, and, as you point out, the terrain and surroundings can make a one-rein stop unsafe.

    Sounds like you just kept riding, which can work really well too. As Mark says, you can ride as fast as the horse can run.

  25. Great post - want to add that it's not just children using terrible jumping form. Take a look at some of the top riders over jumps and you will see the same legs way back, ass in the air, laying on the neck of the horse positions.

  26. Great post! I can personally vouch for how important it is to be relaxed, and also how difficult it can be when you're nervous. I've been cantering bareback through the woods on our steady Savanah, who I'm perfectly relaxed with, and had her shoot sideways when an animal startled her. I just went with her completely because I was relaxed and over her center of gravity so you can't help but do that. We continued on cantering without even a hitch. This happened in the ring with her too.
    When backing Rogo (a first for me), I'd be tense and just waiting to pop off even though I knew rationally that it made it much more likely to happen. I did all of the bad stuff even after experiencing how it should be - perching, fetal position, involuntary yelling at his first spook, OMG it's so embarrassing to admit. I don't know how he ended up such a calm sweetie. I've yet to completely build the relaxed muscle memory with him that I have with Savanah.
    One other suggestion and maybe it's been mentioned, is a protective vest. Many in our dressage club are wearing them routinely now and some people even show in them.
    Thanks for a very useful post.

  27. Maybe you will make a list of things to remember when barrel racing!

  28. Don't forget to make sure your girth is plenty tight if you're going to be racing around at a clinic. :) (Long story...)

  29. I would add if you do have a fall and your head hits the dirt, your helmet probably needs to be replaced. It may look just fine on the outside but it is that inner core you can't see that takes the impact and it must be "sound" to work. Some companies have a policy where they replace that inner core for free.

  30. Just adding to the chorus of comments here to say, great post! I hope you put it on your main page so folks can revisit it again and again.

    The other thing that helps me is to remember that falls WILL happen (as you said) and in most cases it's not the end of the world. I hate to say that because we all know (or have experienced it ourselves) where falls result in severe injury or worse. Still, the VAST majority of falls, particularly with a helmet, are not a big might be sore the next day, but that's it. Hell, I'm sore after a long ride anyway:) Anyway, great post, again.

  31. One other thought - make sure your tack is in good condition and well-maintained - a good reason to frequently clean your tack. And recheck your girth before mounting, and always check the girth and the soundness of the tack if you're riding someone else's horse or didn't tack up the horse yourself.


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