When I was a child learning to ride, I was frequently told, “don’t get on a horse unless you’re prepared to fall off”. Every establishment I’ve ever ridden at has displayed a disclaimer, openly stating that riding is a risk sport and anyone participating does so with an understanding of this. I’m sure documentation that parents sign prior to sending their child to my current workplace also contains such statements, but we don’t really talk to the kids we teach about falling off, which I find unusual.
Most of them are new to horses and riding. The first-timers can be anything from seven years old to 17, but even the older ones generally don’t seem to consider that they might dismount in a manner which is neither intentional nor graceful. Fortunately – touch wood – given the volume of campers we handle, I don’t think we have that many falls. Our lessons are highly controlled and supervised with enormous scrutiny – never in my experience of riding at a huge number of riding schools in the UK have I seen a class taught by more than one instructor at a time; here, most of my “main” classes are co-taught by myself and two other instructors. Those are the classes where we have 20 students and five horses, ensuring each child rides for a period of time within the hour, but we never have more than five children mounted up at any given moment.
Whilst, as a rider, I am well aware that I can and will still fall off in my riding career, and I find it alien that anyone will get on a horse without preparing themselves for the possibility that they may fall off, I had made a similar mistake as an instructor: I hadn’t thought about what it’d be like to watch one of my students fall off.
Last summer, I got quite upset with one of my co-instructors. I can’t recall the exact nature of the incident, but every instructor I’ve ever ridden with would’ve taken one look at this particular girl and said, “she needs a fall”. Instructors will understand me – some students are completely ignorant of their mortality and their influence over themselves and their horse, they need a gentle reminder to sharpen up, because our warnings are not enough. The girl began to slide out of the saddle one day, and my colleague ran over and shoved her back on. We’d avoided one incident, but our student had only learned that someone would always bail her out.
This year, I’ve witnessed a couple of falls in quick succession in one of my classes. The riders weren’t at fault – though it was the same horse both times, who spooked at something genuinely unexpected. Falls are a big deal at camp: the campers are generally arty rather than sporty and, as I previously mentioned, inexperienced in the falling off a horse game. They’ve not been doing it since the age of four. They haven’t been bucked off their sister’s pony in a show jumping ring and had their instructor loom over them screaming that they’re eliminated but they must get back on, winded, and clear another fence (that one might still rankle… though with hindsight, it absolutely made me a better rider). They haven’t heard the phrase, “if you’re not going to hospital, you’re getting back on”. What to many instructors and horsepeople is a minor tumble to be quickly dusted and laughed off before hopping back on is a serious incident requiring the assistance of two golf buggies here.
There’s a culture clash here which I may never find somewhere else. My usual reaction is to treat a fall with a calm attitude: comfort the faller, check them and the horse, cheer them up and aim to boost them back on as soon as possible. But I can’t do that here, and it throws me off. It’s made me realise that the idea of putting someone back on quickly doesn’t just benefit them and the horse, but also the person watching. It’s reassurance that nothing they’d previously enjoyed has been ruined. It’s release of responsibility, proof that you’re probably not being blamed for the situation, that you’re still trusted by your student. And it’s your chance to take back the reins as the instructor and continue your relationship with the rider, not losing your own confidence.
Riders – whether you’re new or not, you will fall off. Be ready. Accept it when it happens. Chalk it up as an experience and next time, please listen to your instructor. As much as they’re repeating, “shorten your reins” or “sit up” or “heels down” for your benefit, they are also doing it for their own good. You’ll bear the bruise, but they have to watch. Most of the time, we wish we could take it for you. Sometimes, we know you need to do it.