A while ago I read a little book called “100 sports you shouldn’t do yourself”. It was an amusing read, with often hilarious descriptions of activities I had never even heard of before – bog snorkeling immediately springs to mind – and reasons why you shouldn’t do them. It also featured a top 10 of the most dangerous sports. At number 1: three-day eventing. Horses occupied a further two spots in the top 10.
Riding horses is a dangerous thing to do and every rider is aware of it, but it is not something you want to think about, so the knowledge that what you’re doing could cost you life or limb gets relegated to the subconscious. There it slumbers. Until you fall.
I used to ride race horses for a while. Not professionally, I did it to help a friend who was training point-to-pointers. I started by schooling and hacking out a few of his young horses. When they were ready for cantering, we would go to the gallops a couple of times a week. Initially I brought Minnie. She was an excellent lead for the young horses because she loves to run and in spite of not being a full thoroughbred she is very fast, and I could keep her at a steady pace. I love galloping as much as Minnie. It is exhilarating. The feeling when your horse surges forward underneath you and unleashes their incredible power and you’re part of it and you go so fast that the wind makes your eyes water and your breath nearly gets torn from your lungs is indescribable. It is a wild freedom and I revelled in it.
When I was asked to ride a few of the race horses on the gallops, I never consciously thought of the danger, but I did stick to some fundamentals. I wouldn’t ride the horses that I didn’t trust and no force on earth was going to get me to jump a point-to-point fence. I just rode a couple of horses that I really liked and it was great. Every gallop left me feeling as if I was floating on air. Until I finally crashed back to earth.
Riding and falling are two sides of the same coin. No matter how good, well-balanced and experienced a rider you are, at some point you are going to come off. Kate at A Year with horses wrote an excellent post on staying on; how to minimise your chance of falling off and reduce the chance of injury if you do fall. And sometimes all it takes is a minor error of judgement.
The day I fell I rode a mare I knew really well, we had galloped together lots of times, with and without the company of other horses and I trusted her. We were both fit and up to the job. What happened was very simple: my saddle slipped. We had gone to a different gallops to give a couple of horses a run on a right-handed track. The trainer there put me on my horse and tightened the girth, but as it turned out, it was not tight enough. We were coming out of the last bend, accelerating for the straight, when I felt it go. I tried to push the saddle back by shifting my weight to the other side, but I didn’t stand a chance; a fall was inevitable.
In hind sight, I should of course have checked my own girth, I always did. I didn’t know this trainer, but I knew he had been training horses for 40 years, so I felt it would be embarrassing to check. When he said “Off you go, all ready to roll” I stupidly ignored the twinge of misgiving I felt and just slipped into line and off we went.
There can’t have been more than a few seconds between the moment that the saddle slipped and me hitting the ground. Three strides of my horse, three terrified heartbeats. The moment I knew I was going to fall fear sliced through me like a hot blade. Time is a strange thing. While my horse thundered on, a moment of sheer terror that I wouldn’t be able to get my foot out of the stirrup, stretched out interminably. I shouted to the guy in front of me that I was coming off, thinking he might catch the mare if I got dragged. Then it was over, I managed to free my foot and, as they say, I flew out the back door. I crashed into the ground, landing on my back and the back of my head. The impact nearly knocked me out, but my helmet shot forward and slammed down on my nose and the crushing pain kept me anchored.
I remember lying on the ground, thinking that I broke my nose, and mentally running over my body to see if there was any other damage. I didn’t think there was, all I could feel was the incredible pain in my nose. I had let myself go limp during the fall and my arms and legs seemed fine. I got up and staggered to the horse. I felt disembodied and not up to walking a couple of miles, so I got back on the horse and rode her home.
I came out of that fall with concussion, whiplash, damage to my neck and lower back and a cracked nose. The impact to the back of my head has left me with tinnitus in my left ear. Still, I was extremely lucky. My helmet was destroyed, but without it I would not have survived that fall. I didn’t go back to riding race horses. My husband told me he thought it was time I stopped flirting with danger. I was only too happy to oblige.