One, two, three, one, two, three, one… His approach was too long to make the jump. The distance wasn’t right and you were unable to correct it. You didn’t see it coming and you’re unbalanced. In a split second, you find yourself tumbling over his shoulder, hitting the ground, and seeing his front legs two inches from your face. You scramble to your feet but feel shaken up. Mistakes happen. Get back on the horse. Your hands are sweating and your body is shaking. Your breath is unsteady. You get back on the horse to fix your mistake and try again. You know you have to work through the fear after falling off your horse. The trauma from that fall has to sit on the back burner, for now.
What is Equestrian Trauma?
Traumais defined as an experience that overwhelms your natural ability to effectively cope with the resulting distress. This could mean falling off a horse or injuring yourself during a riding accident. Even having a frightening experience while riding can be traumatic. Typically when people hear about trauma and trauma therapy, they think of combat veterans. Or, those who’ve experienced some sort of assault. Yet, it’s important to recognize the fact that these scary experiences we have on horses can fall under the category of trauma.
How a horseback riding accident affects you mentally:
A trauma reaction is the overwhelming emotional, behavioral, and physical state following the traumatic event. Some emotions you might experience following a riding accident could be sadness, unworthiness, anger, irritability, or anxiety. You might withdraw from your horse, barn friends, or people in general. Or, you might lose interest in the sport altogether. Reminders of the horseback riding accident may trigger you. You might be riding through Watchung and pass a stable and feel your heart race. Even brushing your horse could make you feel jumpy and on edge. If you fell off your horse while jumping, your body may “remember”. Even if you’re not consciously thinking about it. You might be easily startled or very cautious and not know why.
Pay attention to your feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations following a riding accident. As you approach a jump following a bad fall, what do you notice in your body? Tension? Hesitation? Terror? Are you fully there at that moment with your horse? Or, are you worried about what’s to follow? Or, are you reliving the memory of what has already happened?
When you can’t get back on the horse:
As equestrians, we strive to be resilient, dust ourselves off, and continue. Many trainers make you get back on your horse after a fall, as long as you’re not injured. That way, you can finish up that particular ride on a good note.
But, what about the lasting effects of that one fall?
Once you’ve experienced a traumatic event, it can stick with you; physically, emotionally, and play out in your day-to-day life. These events can rewire our brains! Our frontal lobe handles foreseeing consequences and decision-making. Our amygdala is responsible for keeping us safe and having that flight, fight, or freeze reaction. When we become triggered (consciously or unconsciously) our amygdala kicks in. Also, our frontal lobe goes offline. Rational thought goes out the window. We find ourselves not fully in control of decision-making.
This can be difficult to deal with, especially astride a horse. Keeping this in mind sheds some light on why you feel out of sorts after a fall. You’ve been riding for years, you know what you’re doing, you just can’t seem to “get over” that fall. You may even find yourself acting in illogical ways after a horseback riding accident. For example, you might be so hyperfocused on ensuring you’re not going to get injured during your next ride. This may look like forgetting the basics, such as tightening your horse’s girth or even putting your helmet on. It’s happened to the best of us. This is normal, considering that your amygdala is in overdrive. By bringing this into your awareness, you can make conscious decisions to ensure your safety.
Next up we will dive into how we can heal from the trauma caused by horse-related accidents. Stay tuned.
Begin Trauma Therapy in Scotch Plains, NJ and Branchburg, NJ
You don’t have to live with the fear of falling off the horse again. Our caring therapists can support you in overcoming the anxiety of equestrian trauma. We offer trauma therapy services from our Scotch Plains, NJ-based therapy practice. If you are ready to start your therapy journey, follow these simple steps: