June 23, 2018
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When good riders fall down

By Cassie Elia, Special to the BDN

An unknown but very perceptive person once said, “Riding is the art of keeping a horse between you and the ground.” Easier said than done sometimes.

There’s a difference between falling and being thrown off a horse, just as there is a difference between riding and staying on. In being thrown, the horse bucks or rears in a direct effort to part company. Falling off means you should have stayed on, but didn’t.

Riding a horse involves a harmony between horse and rider with invisible communication, effortlessness, grace, strength and knowledge. Staying on means you were lucky.

In all of my years riding, I have hit the ground relatively few times. That may mean I am a fairly competent rider, but it also means I am a terrible “faller-offer.” When I do fall, I crash hard, like a ton of bricks. Some people have mastered falling off so that there is a tuck-and-roll component or even a little rag-doll-like agility allowing them to fall in a loose pile of limbs.

In riding horses, there has to be a certain amount of muscle tension to hold a rider in position yet a relaxed looseness allowing the rider to follow the horse’s movement without interfering or getting bounced so much that major organs are rearranged. A rider has to be a little like Jell-O, holding a shape no matter the amount of jiggling.

It is the same with falling. If a rider can control the motion yet relax into it, damage is far less. It still isn’t something I’m eager to practice, however.

Hitting the ground can be very serious — life-threatening, in some cases. The most dangerous side effect is head injury. Wearing a helmet when riding can almost eradicate that danger. Riding helmets of the past were little more than a plastic shell. Today they are little more than a plastic shell, but now they have space-age technology within the plastic.

Modern riding helmets are lightweight, ventilated and safe. There are fancy velvet-covered ones for horse shows; sporty ones in psychedelic colors; rugged, macho, leather-trimmed, outdoorsy-type helmets; and even helmets made of bulletproof material. There’s a helmet for every type of head.

Helmets are a minuscule inconvenience in the world of riding. There are riders who complain about having to wear one, yet willingly don stretch pants, knee-high leather boots or leather chaps when riding. All of those pieces have their necessity and uncomfortableness too. For some reason, it’s the helmet that is most left out of the riding uniform. My theory is that it’s the hair. People are ridiculously concerned with the effect of the helmet on the hairdo.

It’s not just jumper riders or inexperienced riders that need helmets. There has been a lot of attention recently given to an Olympic equestrian who competes in dressage, a relatively sedate sport. This rider’s horse slipped when it took a wrong step. The rider’s helmetless head hit the ground, causing a skull fracture. That rider is alive today, but was in a coma for many months and is going through physical therapy to regain speech and mobility. The echo throughout the horse community was one of, “if it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone.”

It’s not my place to tell other riders to wear their helmets. Having a public forum, though, gives me the chance to encourage, gently suggest and point out that your hair didn’t look all that great before you put the helmet on anyway.

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