Have You Ever Been Kicked?
Dear Julie: This may be a very odd question, but I was curious how many times have you been kicked or caught in the crossfire in your training career? I’ve been kicked three times, but tonight I got kicked square in the pelvis by a dominant mare who was going after my mare while I was putting a halter on her. I saw it start to happen, but couldn’t get away fast enough. It is the first time I have considered throwing in the reins because it frustrates me so much.
First Time for Everything
One of my earliest memories is of getting kicked by a horse. It was circa 1965. I was 5 or 6 years old and my dad was feeding the horses who had lined up in their tie stalls for their grain. I was watching my dad feed as I wandered aimlessly around the barnyard—right smack into the kick zone of the food-aggressive gelding. Lightning fast, he kicked me square in the stomach—throwing my little stick figure up into the air and landing flat on my behind unceremoniously in the mud. It was the first (but not last) time I got kicked and also the first (but not last) time I got the air knocked out of me. It was, however, the very last time I laid eyes on that gelding. My dad never tolerated unsafe horses. Nonetheless, wrong place, wrong time. Entirely predictable.
Whenever someone asked, “Does this horse kick?” my father always said, “All horses kick, all horses bite, all horses strike.” That’s a simple fact of horse behavior—Horsemanship Safety 101, if you will. What I would add is that generally when you get kicked, it’s because you were too close to the kick zone when you shouldn’t have been. I know for myself personally, every time I’ve been kicked (and yes, there have been many—far too many to count), it was because I was doing something I shouldn’t have. Also, I would say, that which does not kill you makes you stronger!
Whose Fault Is It?
As I said, I’ve been kicked too many times to remember the number. Anyone who has worked with as many horses over as many decades as I have—handling colts, starting young horses under saddle, desensitizing, catching, gentling, doctoring, loading in a trailer—has been kicked too many times to remember each one. Still, some incidents stand out to me (for the sheer stupidity of my actions which resulted in me being kicked). The good news is that we learn (hopefully) from each stupid mistake so we won’t get kicked that way again!
Another kicking episode that stands out in my memory, was the time I got kicked in the thighs by double barrels, coming from a shod 17-hand black Thoroughbred. His name was Magic and he was a kind and gentle OTTB gelding that belonged to a friend and client. He occupied the biggest stall in my barn (12×14), yet he made it look small. The door out to his run was wide open, but he barely fit out of it (the old barn being built for much smaller horses). I was in the middle of morning chores and his head was buried deep in the feeder as I walked by his stall. I looked at him, eye-to-eye, as I spoke a gentle, “Good morning big guy,” to him. I opened his door, speaking to him again as I reached out to touch his side and move him over so I could grab his dirty water bucket. Whaphumph!!
Although I was absolutely certain that horse had seen me, heard me and understood me to be opening his stall door, when I reached out to touch him I startled him—and he kicked out with both his hind feet. They landed square in the middle of both my thighs and sent me sailing out of the stall, slamming my back into the wall on the other side of the barn aisle. In one huge movement, he kicked me out of his stall and exploded his 1100-pound, 17-hand frame out of the tiny stall door, into the run. Even as I was flying backward out of the stall I knew I had done something stupid—made some unreasonable assumptions—and that this kind and gentle horse was not at fault. The good news is, I will never make that mistake again.
Is Getting Kicked Part of the Sport?
Although horses generally choose flight in response to a threat, they are perfectly well-equipped to fight. Kicking is one of three defensive or offensive “weapons” of the horse, and it is the least deadly. Biting and striking (lashing out with the front feet) are much more dangerous, but fortunately, we see these behaviors less. Horses sometimes kick aggressively (usually backing up and kicking with double barrels, squealing at the same time), but most often kicking is defensive in nature. You see it all the time when a dominant horse comes after the subordinate horse. The subordinate will kick out to buy a little time as he runs away—much like he would kick and run from a predator.
Horses kick at each other all the time, mostly as a gesture or threat. They pull their punches a lot and tend to make contact when they want to. Generally, when they kick at each other (or at you), it is more of a threat or warning and less intent to injure. Often, when they do make contact with a kick, it is to a fleshy or meaty area that can take the punch better. But their aim is not perfect and it is not hard to get caught in the crossfire between two or more horses, as in this case.
Sadly, most people that have been around a lot of horses for a lot of years have gotten kicked, stepped on or bit. Although I do not believe getting hurt must be a part of this sport (and I believe that most incidents are preventable), getting bumped, bruised and pushed around comes with the territory. Still, if you are smart and learn from your mistakes—and if you keep safety as your highest priority—you will be less likely to get hurt. My father taught me that when it comes to horses, always plan for the worst-case scenario. The more experience with horses you have, the more worst-case scenarios you’ve seen.
In most of my clinics, I physically show people the kick zone of the horse, so that they are aware of exactly where it is at all times. The horse can reach forward with the hind foot, almost to his front leg; he can reach the full length of his leg to the side; plus, the full extension of his leg back. That makes about a 3- to 4-foot half circle around the hind leg of the horse that is within his kick zone. To be safe around horses, you must always be aware of the kick zone and when you have entered it. For instance, when I clean my horse’s front feet, my head is right in the kick zone. That doesn’t mean I never clean his feet, but that I am aware of it and monitoring the horse while my head is at risk.
When you are doing groundwork with a horse and when you are entering a group of horses to catch one, you have extra risk of getting kicked. We do groundwork with horses to move them around and control their space, like a dominate horse would. Often in the earlier stages of groundwork, the horse may feel threatened by the handler. So it is not only normal, but to be expected that the horse will kick out. If you get kicked while doing groundwork, you were in the way and it is your fault—not the horse’s.
Another memorable time I got kicked very hard, was doing circling work on a 20-year-old beginners’ school horse. I assumed that this gentle old horse wouldn’t kick, but I was wrong. I stepped right into the kick zone, then shushed her with the flag. Then she shattered my assumption (but thankfully not my leg). It hurt a lot (and embarrassed me more), but it was an important lesson to learn—and one I share with my students every time I teach circling work.
Going to catch your horse in a group of horses is one of the riskiest things you’ll do around horses, especially when you are not familiar with all of the horses or the pecking order of the herd. I’d suggest taking a flag or a whip to keep the other horses in control while you catch your horse. Take your time and keep the other horses away—they should respect your space. If not, chase them off with the flag. Your horse will come to understand what you are doing and should cooperate.
It Is What It Is
Kicking does not make a horse bad. It makes him a horse—and all horses kick. We know that, we should expect that and we should take precautions to keep ourselves safe—All. The. Time. There are sometimes when a kicking response is more predictable, and other times when it can seemingly come out of the blue (usually because we missed the warnings). But the horse’s kick range is a finite space; all you have to do is know where it is and stay out of it. I’m not saying that with this knowledge and awareness, you’ll never get kicked again. But by being smart, owning your mistakes (which is the only way to learn from them) and erring on the side of caution, it will definitely make you safer!
It’s About Time
Most things in life that are important, take an investment of time—an education, a career, a relationship. Mastering a skill or a sport, starting a new business, overcoming setbacks; none of this comes quickly. Horses are not the best sport for instant gratification. It takes time to set your goal then to work diligently to identify all the steps necessary to work up to the bigger dream. Whether you’re working on a riding goal or to condition your horse, one thing’s for sure: it takes time.
With horses, after about 30 days of daily work, you start seeing physical changes in the horse’s fitness level—a flatter underline, more muscle definition, more energy. After 90 days, your horse is looking pretty fit and after 120 days your horse is ripped like a body builder.
Thirty-day increments of training are standard in the horse industry, whether we are talking about fitness levels, the time needed for the horse to perfect skills or for the cost of training. Many trainers, myself included, would say that 90-days is minimum to accomplish much of anything with a horse and we are talking about years of training for the truly finished horse.
Our society’s fast-paced, on-demand culture seems to sprinkle over into horse training. We want it all fast and right away. I hear this need-for-speed from riders, too. When looking through the applications for my TV show, Horse Master, I often see riders who want to work on flying lead changes. However, the horse they are riding is young or they themselves haven’t mastered the canter departure yet. Many skills precede flying lead changes—like haunches–in, leg-yielding, head-to-tail body control, halt-to-canter departures, counter-canter, then master the simple lead change, then learn the principles of the horse’s movements and how to cue for a change on the fly.
We want the end result—the pretty, finished picture—and we want it now. But to honor the horse, we must allow time and we must break down our lofty goals into smaller, attainable, slow steps.
Breaking down the training process
When my young horse Eddie, was very green, we struggled with leads at the canter. He always seemed to over-think it and he second guessed himself a lot (pick up the correct lead, switch to the wrong, then switch back—all in three strides). He got tense and hollow whenever it was time for a canter transition and needed some extra time to understand. I started breaking things down more and more, working more on haunches-in at walk and trot, sequencing my cues more clearly, giving lots of pre-signal and setting him up very definitively for the correct lead. Fortunately, I had no deadline or reason to rush through his training; I just asked for a little more each day. For months, I only asked for one departure on each lead a day, and by taking the time he needed and preparing him as best I could, he became very solid on his leads and his walk to canter transitions were great by the time he was four.
Whatever time it takes, is what it takes for a horse to learn something and while Eddie eventually did learn flying lead changes, none of it came easy—especially the next step. Once Eddie and I had a clear understanding of which lead I was asking for and he was batting a thousand with his leads, I thought it was a good time to introduce the counter-canter (going intentionally on the wrong lead)—a very important obedience and cueing exercise in preparation for lead changes. It blew his mind so badly he thought surely the world was ending. It was almost comical how wrong Eddie thought the counter-canter was and once again, it took a long time to convince him otherwise. Months, not hours.
Allowing recovery time
Healing takes time too. Lots of it and usually more than you think. Whether it’s from an injury or illness to you or your horse, or from a broken heart or a tragic loss; healing takes time and it should not be rushed. I’ve known of many horses that have been able to make big comebacks from terrible injuries or sickness, because their owners were willing to invest time and resources and have waited patiently for adequate healing to occur. Sadly, I have known many more horses that have been rushed back into training and performance, with predictable and disappointing results.
When my horse, Dually, torqued his back, I called in all the possible help. He had chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, a full veterinary exam, pharmaceuticals and nutra-ceuticals, physical therapy, and I doubled the healing time that was recommended. I wanted to make sure he was ready to return to work before asking him to perform. This was not as easy task as this is a horse who wants to work! He hated when I would walk into the pen and halter Eddie instead of him. When he did return to work, he was ready to go even though I knew I wanted to have a safe and steady plan for his re-entry to arena and performance work.
When it was time for him to return to exercise, I started by turning him loose in the arena and watching closely as he moved around voluntarily. Dually is never shy about letting you know if he hurts. Good results there, so I started ponying him from my other horse and just letting him walk it out. After a few days we added the trot; after a week or so, we started longeing over ground poles and backing him up in-hand, to get him to stretch and lift his back. After a few weeks, as Dually got stronger, he also got more confidant and energetic and soon I started riding again—but bareback. I spent four months riding bareback, to be easier on his back and so I would not stop and turn as hard. All told, it was about a year and a half before we were back to pre-injury levels.
Anyone who has ever suffered an injury from riding or handling horses already knows that well beyond the physical healing, it also takes time to rebuild confidence when it’s been lost. Whether we are talking human flesh or horse flesh, confidence can be lost in an instant, but takes a long time to rebuild. The same thing could be said of trust; it takes time to build it but you can lose it in a heartbeat. Trusting a horse, the horse trusting you, trusting that you can not only survive the situation, but control it—these things take time to reconstruct.
It has been said many times, when it comes to horses (and life), patience is a virtue. Having realistic long-term goals, slow and steady plans to get you there, investing the time, being patient, not afraid of failure and committed to the outcome, will almost certainly insure your success—both in life and with horses.
I’ve been taking care of horses for half a century and during that time I’ve seen hundreds of injured horses, from mild scratches to cuts that need stitches to deep-tissue lacerations, punctures and impalements. As most experienced horse owners know, some horses could get hurt even if they were locked in a padded stall.
Over the decades I’ve gotten pretty good at basic first aid for horses—knowing what injuries I can handle myself, when I need to call the vet and whether or not it is truly an emergency. I’ve nursed horses for months on end through the most horrific, seemingly career-ending injuries, and seen the horse come back to full health with barely a scar. Over the decades I’ve learned what supplies, medications and tools to keep on-hand, and how to deal with the typical injuries that horses get.
Recently, on one of the first blustery winter days, I saw the horses running around like their tails were on fire, across the fields and the through the thicket of trees. Later, as I brought the horses in for the evening, I gave each of the horses a good visual once-over, as we do each morning and evening, looking for any signs of injury or illness. It was then that I noticed the blood on Eddie’s muzzle. Once the horses were secured in their stalls for the night, I grabbed a flashlight and clean rag and headed to his stall to investigate.
With my rag damp, I wiped away the dried blood from his muzzle and discovered no injury there. Not surprising, since horses often rub or scratch wounds with their muzzles. Running the flashlight beam up and down his legs, it didn’t take me long to find the cut, up high on his right forearm. It was a jagged, one inch laceration with a puncture wound that looked like it could be deep and/or have some debris in there. No doubt, he ran into the stub of a broken branch when running pell-mell through the trees earlier.
The injury itself will often give evidence as to the cause or “mechanism of injury.” In this case, the jagged puncture and location high on his forearm were common clues to that type of injury, caused by tree branch. Looking at a wound—from minor to serious—may help you discern the cause, and hopefully eliminate it. The mechanism of injury may also be a clue as to how serious it is and/or how it should be treated. A wire cut or metal cut may have cleaner edges and a deeper laceration; a puncture wound might only have a small opening but swelling below could be a clue to a deeper problem.
Like many experienced horse owners, at my ranch we treat most minor injuries without calling the vet. But everyone that works for me knows, when in doubt, call the vet. I’d way rather have a small vet bill than a big problem later on. When I am evaluating the wound, to see if I need to call my vet, my main concerns are suturing, the potential for infection, joint damage and/or lameness. If tranquilizing is required to clean, suture, flush or drain the wound, or the wound is near a joint or involves lameness, I call the vet.
If infection is a concern and I think I might need antibiotics, I call the vet. I prefer to use oral antibiotics, even though they are more expensive, in order to reduce the number of injections the horse may need and I get that from my vet. If the wound is fresh and has clean edges and it is located in a place where stitches would hold and/or where it could be wrapped, suturing may be useful, so I call the vet.
Fortunately, on this day, it was an injury I could easily handle myself. Over the past 5 decades, I have had many opportunities to treat puncture wounds on horses. I suppose their flight response has something to do with the frequency of puncture wounds seen in horses. Equally fortunate was the fact that my horse Eddie was very well-mannered, trained to stand still when asked and very easy to handle from the ground. Tranquilizers would not be needed—just someone that would hold and distract him while I cleaned and flushed the wound.
I headed to the barn to get the supplies I needed—betadine solution, a handful of gauze sponges for scrubbing, scarlet oil, a small pail of warm water, some clean dry rags, a towel, the mastitis needle and irrigation syringe and the cordless clippers. While my assistant haltered Eddie, I laid out my supplies on the clean towel and got them ready, in the order in which I would need them.
With any wound that has fully penetrated the skin, I like to clip away the hair from the area to make it easier to clean and to prevent the hair from being matted in the wound. I use a mild diluted betadine solution (about the color of iced tea) for cleaning wounds initially, whether it is a puncture or open laceration, but the first order of business is to scrub away any scabbing, debris or matted hair that may be covering the wound and expose the edges fully.
With any kind of puncture, there is always the possibility of foreign matter inside the wound which can cause infection and abscessing. The critical issues for treating puncture wounds are to flush the wound daily, allow it to drain for as long as needed, and keep the outside of the wound open to allow it to heal from the inside out. After scrubbing the outside of the wound and probing and flushing the inside with the mastitis needle (a blunt ended irrigating needle), I then squirt a little scarlet oil deep into the wound to keep it draining and to help prevent infection. Every day, until it is healed, I will clean away scabbing and flush the puncture again and monitor the amount of drainage. When the drainage stops, the wound is usually ready to heal and close.
Whether or not to bandage a wound can be an easy decision—there are many places on a horse that cannot effectively be bandaged. I prefer to keep puncture wounds un-bandaged to promote drainage as it heals. Indeed, in many instances, wounds will heal better when exposed to air and sunlight but there are many extenuating circumstances with horses—how clean the wound will stay, how easily it will reopen, whether or not there sutures to protect, can the scar be minimized, will insects or foreign matter be a problem, will the bandage stay put? I like to err on the side of keeping a non-puncture wound clean and protected, so I will bandage the wound when I can.
Bandaging wounds on horses requires some skill and know-how, since mostly we are talking about legs– keeping it on without cutting off circulation and causing additional damage can be a challenge. Changing the bandage, cleaning and redressing the wound will have to be done on a regular schedule, again, by someone that knows what they are doing. I always keep plenty of bandaging supplies on hand—vet wrap, rolled gauze, trauma pads, cotton batting (necessary for cushioning to allow for circulation when wrapping legs), polo wraps and duct tape. I like to keep a package of disposal newborn baby diapers in my first aid kit, which can come in handy for wound dressing and saddle sores. A large box of disposable medical gloves, sharp bandage scissors and good clippers are must-haves.
When it comes to ointments and medications for treating wounds, I like to keep it simple and all-natural when possible, so I use a lot of Redmond First aid clay as a topical ointment when I need protection from the elements in a minor wound that will go un-bandaged. It will act as a drying agent and will form a protective layer over the wound to keep out insects and debris. For un-sutured wounds that will be bandaged and do not need to drain, I will pack the wound in the clay and it will stay moist because of the bandage and help the wound heal. I also use the clay mixed as a mud poultice for bruises and swelling on the legs and for packing feet.
Sometimes a medicated ointment is needed to prevent infection in a wound—let your vet decide what is needed, but be careful what you use, because some of the most common medicated ointments traditionally used on horses have carcinogens in them (check the label). Make sure you always use gloves when treating wounds of any kind, to protect yourself from infection and from harsh chemicals.
Keeping the “dry” supplies on-hand and plentiful is a good investment and a no-brainer—they will not expire and will be there when and if you need them, if stored well. I prefer to avoid having a lot of medications sitting around that get old and expire—I will get them from my vet when needed. Redmond First Aid ointment and pure coconut oil get the most use around my barn on a daily basis, but we also keep betadine, scarlet oil and blue lotion on hand. A smaller first aid kit will all the basics is kept in an airtight container in my horse trailer for when we are on the road.
Of course, my hope is that my first aid supplies will never be needed. But after a lifetime with horses, I know that sooner or later, one of them is going to get in a wreck. It pays to be prepared!
Horses have their own gravity. If you’ve loved them in the past and been pushed away because of an injury or accident, it’s possible you’ll be drawn right back to their beautiful, sleek, powerful sides. Gravity pulls you back even if your worries or fears make you wonder why, even when our biological responses to fear tell us not to go back to a dangerous situation. Here’s a look at why I think horsemen want to overcome the very natural fears that enter in after accidents with horses.
I often wonder why we want to be around horses when horses step on your feet, bite, kick, and buck you off. Have you ever had your foot stepped on by a horse? Been bitten? Been kicked? Have you ever fallen off or gotten bucked off your horse? Have you ever started out on a ride and ended up at the Emergency Room? I ask these questions to rooms full of horse people and just about all raise their hands.
Why do we do this? Gravity. Horses have a power to draw us in, make us learn from our mistakes and prompt us to keep trying.
I hope that you are never hurt by horses—physically or physiologically. I do believe that if you are conscientious, systematic and methodical about safety, the chances of getting hurt are greatly reduced. I’ve worked with many large riding operations through the Certified Horsemanship Association (a nonprofit organization focused on horsemanship safety and excellence) and seen many of them that have almost zero incident rates. That’s not luck— that’s by design. But I realize accidents do happen. Horses are powerful beings with their own minds and strong bodies.
Let me go on record here: I DO NOT believe that getting hurt should be an expected or accepted outcome with horses. I DO believe that most, if not all, accidents are preventable and no matter how wild and unpredictable we think horses are, if you really analyze an accident, you’ll find a way you could’ve prevented it. I know for myself that when I look at the horse wrecks I’ve been in, they all started with me doing something stupid or going against that little voice in my head that tried to warn me.
Still, even when we make a commitment to safety, things happen. Horses are big and flighty animals and it’s a given that bumps, bruises and scrapes will happen–even in the best of circumstances. And when you are perched on top of a half-ton of live and somewhat volatile horseflesh with a balance of its own and–more significantly–a will of its own, you will on occasion have an unscheduled dismount. I’ve sure had my share, but fortunately I’ve never had more than a few broken ribs to contend with. But that was enough to mess with my head. With my chosen profession and my love of horses, I had to work through the worry.
Biology of Fear
I’ve known plenty of riders who have had incidents with horses that resulted in serious injury– I’ve heard stories that are so horrific that I wonder why the person would ever want to ride again. But amazingly, they do. Gravity.
Our hard-wired biological responses after a traumatic event can be hard to overcome, but overcoming is possible. Our love of horses makes us want to overcome. When an accident or injury occurs, a “fear memory” is lodged in your mind; it’s purpose is to remind you of this injury so it doesn’t happen again. Fear memories are supposed to prevent us from doing a stupid thing again, like reaching out and touching a hot wood stove. But when coming back after a riding accident, sometimes fear memories get in our way of hopping back into the saddle.
Fear memories can not be deleted, but you can learn to manage them. If you were bucked off and hurt one day when you asked your horse to canter, the next time you canter (or even think about it) that fear memory will surface— it’s a biological fact. So don’t let it surprise you and don’t let it take control. Expect the fear memory to surface and have a plan to keep it at bay.
I think it is really important to “intellectualize your fear” after an accident. When enough time has passed and you have healed both physically and emotionally, it is important to thoroughly analyze what happened. What went wrong and what you might have done to prevent it from happening?
Learning from your mistakes and understanding the situation better should help diffuse your fear. If, for instance, you ignored an earlier warning sign, then you can make up your mind to never do that again. Knowledge and understanding of how an accident may have been prevented—and establishing concrete actions you can take in the future to prevent a repeat–will lead to more confidence.
Fear is a powerful emotion and it is generated from a subconscious part of the brain. But you can learn to control your fear. It’s not always easy; it’s something you have to work at, but it can be done. Coming back after an accident will require some work and self-discipline on your part, but I know many, many people who have done it. Their love of the sport, the way of life and the love of their horses seems to drive them to face that fear and create a plan to overcome.
Answer this: Why?
After you’ve had an accident or mishap, it is critically important that you do some serious introspection to determine why you are doing this horse thing. Why are horses important to you and why do you want to keep riding? These are not easy questions to answer but the answers are critically important to your comeback. You have to decide if horses are pulling you back. You have to know if you are being pulled by their gravity or just think you “should” ride again.
“Why?” is always the most difficult question to answer; how and what are much easier. But there are reasons why you are committed to coming back to riding and it is important to get in touch with those reasons, because of this simple fact: purpose leads to courage. If you can really come to terms with why you want this so badly, then you remind yourself of that purpose when things get tough, your purpose will give you courage.
Plan of Action
Your fear can come back to you like gravity just like your love of horses. Fear has a way of finding its way in—especially if you don’t have a plan to subdue it. When coming back after an accident or injury, it is important to practice mental control. Know that your fear memory will surface— don’t let it take you by surprise or dictate your actions. Your thinking, your body language and your emotions are all connected: mind, body and spirit. When the emotion of fear takes over, your mind devolves into negative “what if” thinking and your posture starts to reflect the emotion too.
Here is the secret key to overcoming your fear– keep your mind operating in a proactive and positive way (plan ahead of time what you will think about or what song you will sing; disallow negative thoughts and replace them quickly). If you think of falling each time you mount up, make a list of all the wonderful rides you’ve had and focus on those memories. Feel those wonderful rides. Make that memory a reality in the present. Make sure your body language shows confidence (sit up straight, square your shoulders– look tough!). By keeping control of the mental and the physical aspects of your being, the emotion doesn’t stand a chance.
A recap and to-do list: Analyze what happened to cause your fears, know what lessons can be learned and make a commitment to safety. Gain a better understanding of why you are doing this; the ‘why’ is your purpose, your “gravity. ” Purpose leads to courage. Finally, make sure you have a plan of action when you ride: practice deep breathing, keep your eyes focused and your mind engaged in a positive direction, and keep your body language strong and confident.
You can do it! I hope your love of horses pulls you back to the fun of the sport.
Enjoy the ride,
Question Category: Safety Concerns
Question: I had an interesting question recently from one of my good Facebook friends: “If you want to stay on, at what moment does the rider decide to execute an “emergency dismount”?”
Answer: This is a good question and one to which there is no definitive answer, except, “it all depends on the circumstance.” In general you are usually better off and safer staying on the horse if it is at all possible. Even teaching the emergency dismount is somewhat controversial for two reasons. First, practicing the emergency dismount is risky and injury-prone; when vaulting off a moving horse, it’s easy to fall down, sprain an ankle or worse. So practicing something that you may or may not ever need but may cause injury just by practicing is questionable. Of course, you could certainly argue the opposite that if you were to ever need it, having practiced it may make you less prone to injury. When I taught kids, I had them learn and practice the emergency dismount routinely. Now that my student base is middle-aged and older adults, I don’t teach it at all—because of the potential for injury in the practice.
The second reason why it is controversial to teach the emergency dismount is because you may end up with a rider that bails off the horse for no good reason when they should have stayed on and this can cause a lot of problems. Again, you are usually safer on the horse than off, because once you come off you are probably going to hit the ground (or some other hard object) and you may become a victim of the horse’s hooves. However, like everything with horses, there are exceptions to the rule.
In my entire riding career, I have only voluntarily come off a horse a few times. I have certainly had plenty of “unscheduled dismounts” through the years, but those weren’t by choice. Most of the time I have come off a horse, I have realized that I couldn’t stay on because I was too out of position or out of balance and I came off knowingly but not exactly executing an emergency dismount—more like being ejected. It’s funny how time seems to be suspended in those moments and usually there is time to think about the fact you are going to come off and how and where you might land, but not enough time to execute an emergency dismount.
The few times I have voluntarily done an emergency dismount, there have been some extenuating circumstances, and these are probably the only situations in which I would do it. In both instances I can remember, the horse was running away with me, out in the open—not in an arena– maybe bucking maybe not, but I had already tried my best to regain control and I determined I couldn’t do it. Running away, in and of itself, is not enough to make me bail because the one thing about a runaway horse, which I learned riding race horses, is that eventually he will run out of oxygen and stop. In both cases that I did bail, the horse was headed for something dangerous, like a barb-wire fence, with seemingly no concern about his own well-being. Running away is one thing, but when the horse is in such a panic that it loses its sense of self-preservation, you’re in trouble. And BTW—this is a good thing to remember—when the horse is willing to cause injury to himself, he is way beyond rational control and both of you are at great risk.
There are probably a few circumstances where in hind-sight I should have bailed off but didn’t. But my tendency is to stay on board if at all possible. I think that if a rider is too quick to bail off, not only is she risking injury in the dismount but there will also be times when she would’ve stayed on if she had tried. But a controlled crash-landing is usually better than an uncontrolled one. I do think there is some value in learning how to take a fall—tuck and roll. And I think it is valuable to know the process of an emergency dismount.
There are two really critical factors when you are coming off a horse– whether it’s an emergency dismount or not. First, you have to get your feet clear of the stirrups ASAP. You’d be surprised how many people, in a panic, go to dismount and forget to take their feet out. The potential disastrous results are obvious. Secondly, DO NOT hold onto the reins—let the horse go! You’d be surprised how many people try to hang onto the reins when they fall, in a last-ditch effort to maintain control, and then end up pulling the horse down onto them or breaking an arm or dislocating a shoulder. If you are coming off a horse, voluntarily or not, get your feet out of the stirrups and let go, pushing yourself as far away from the horse as possible.
It is an unfortunate characteristic of the sport that things sometimes do not go according to plan. And even with the most docile, steady horse, there may be times when bad things happen. Keeping your wits about you and continuing to think through the crisis are the most useful tools you have. The emergency dismount has its time and place, but it should be a method of last resort.
Here’s to hoping you always stay on the topside!
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question: Hi Julie,
I learned about you from a friend in the barrel racing community. I am a 42-year-old woman, a dyed in the wool horse lover and owner, someone who will never again feel fulfilled without a horse. I lost my first horse to a horrifying bout with colic, one minute he was there the next he was gone, despite the efforts of some of the best equine surgeons in New England. I had this horse for ten years, I learned to ride on this horse and while I had some silly falls, they were just that– laugh at your mistake and get right back up and go on. When I found myself alone I began to ride the horses of friends and my trainer again. I was confident; I was a good rider with a good seat and hands. During this time my trainer acquired a five y/o Hanoverian gelding that caught my interest. I began to ride the horse, he was green-that was obvious- but I liked him and purchased him after several months. Despite my continued grief, this new horse and I fell into a training lesson program similar to what I had with my old horse. Then the trouble began…rodeo bucking at the canter depart, I lose my balance and fall-hard. After the third experience, I ended up in the hospital for three days and out of work for 6 more weeks. Severe damage to my lower back that would eventually require surgery. I had to sell the horse-best for him and me-I made certain he got an excellent home in the area with a fancy jumper barn (I am a dressage/pleasure rider) where his talents would be used to their greatest advantage, he continues there today with an excellent record. I on the other hand spent three years in medical hell-and the longer I stayed away from riding the scarier it got-I am having a panic attack just writing about it. Well, not being really smart I purchased another horse, a 6-month-old Hanoverian colt that had all the right moves and was very quiet and agreeable. My trainer and I finished raising him and he was backed two years ago. I am back in the saddle, riding after my trainer works through any issues, I ride the walk and am sick and scared to death the entire time. Let me emphasize that he is perfectly behaved under saddle, some playful spooks and that is it. The trouble is my mind; I spend the whole day wondering what horror could possibly happen to me, and believe me I can think of the absolute worst! I NEED HELP! I love this horse, I want to ride this horse, I want to keep this horse. Can you help me?
Desperate! Thank you in advance!
Answer: Dear MSF,
The frustration and grief you must be feeling comes across very clearly in your email. I am attaching an article I wrote that may be helpful for you (see “Coping with a Fear of Horses” on my website). There are a couple points that I want to make. First, there is an equation in psychology that says “fear + grief = debilitation.” What this means is that you cannot deal with both those emotions at the same time; it is too overwhelming. The grief comes from the sense of having lost something you once had and cherished, not only your beloved horse but also the ability to ride without fear.
You have to understand and believe with all your heart that you still have the same ability that you once had. You have just temporarily misplaced it. Set aside your grief and focus on dealing with the fear. Now I realize that is much easier said than done, but if you think about it and focus on it you can do it. I know dozens of people that have.
There are quite a few tools at your disposal to help you manage your fear. First, read this article and give considerable thought to its contents. It is important that you understand your fear, what type of fear it is, where it comes from, what the effects on your body are. This will give you the ability to “intellectualize” your fear and take an objective look at it.
Next, there are some very specific tools that you can employ. The most important are your eyes and your breathing. If you can learn to control both your eyes and your breathing, you can hold off the other physical effects of fear. Learn to keep your eyes focused and taking in information in your environment and practice deep abdominal breathing so that you can learn to control your heart rate.
Another important tool is your body language: fake it! Try to keep a confident demeanor going all the time, whether you feel that way or not. Because your mind-body-spirit are all interconnected, if you can control the physical component (your body) it will do much to help you control the mind and spirit.
Mind control is also very important. The “what if” scenarios that pollute your mind is known as general anxiety. You CAN control the thoughts in your mind. You can only think about so many things at once. If you work to control your thoughts so that you are thinking about a positive outcome or focusing on what you are doing or even thinking about the words and melody to the song you are singing, your mind won’t spiral down into the negative thoughts.
A couple more thoughts: some people have told me that they have had success with hypnosis. You’d want to see a sports hypnotist. Also, I recently reviewed an audio called “Hacking with Confidence” which is an audio on self-hypnosis. I do not know how useful either one of these would be for you but the latter helps you get in touch with your biomechanics and learn to relax your body when needed.
A book called “Ride with Confidence!” just came out and I am one of five contributing authors. I think it is a pretty good book. You can order one from my website or by calling (800) 225-8827. I have also just completed an audio on the subject which will be released in November and will be available on my website or by calling the number above.
Meritt, you can do this. I know dozens of people personally that have. Read the article and think about everything in it. The important thing is to set small goals and surround yourself with people that are supportive of these goals. You’ll get there. It won’t be easy but it can be done. Good luck to you and let me know how it goes.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question Category: Issues from the Saddle
Question: Hello Julie,
My horse has been off all summer due to an injury and I would like suggestions as to how I can get him in shape for spring. I will work with him all winter and need help with a plan. Can you help us?
When a horse has been laid off for a year or a season due to an injury, you’ll want to start slowly in his reconditioning program and build over time. Assuming you’ve had this horse cleared by a vet to start reconditioning, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to ask him/her for suggestions or to go to the AAEP website http://aaep.org/ to see if you can find some answers there.
I can give you an idea of what I’d do, from a horse trainer’s perspective. Let’s say you’ll start your reconditioning program in January—I’ll give you a five month plan that will hopefully have you and your horse fit for summer riding.
In January, I’d start with 10-15 minutes of lead line work—no circling work—4-6 days a week. If your winter conditions permit it, you could just hand-walk the horse down the road/trail for 10-15 minutes. Or you could spend the time actively training on your horse in an arena with specific lead-line exercises, which are thoroughly explained on volume 2 of my groundwork video series, Lead Line Leadership. There are also some articles in my training library on the subject.
The last two weeks of January, I’d start adding some trotting (in-hand). Practice your walk-trot-walk-halt transitions and you and your horse will really get in sync with each other. As a bonus, you’ll get in better shape too!
In February, I’d continue with his groundwork but I may add circling work in-hand, depending on the nature of his injury. In the last couple weeks, you can probably saddle him up for some short rides about 2 days a week, and continue the ground work in-between. Keep your rides short with 10-15 minutes of walk only and progress toward 10 minutes of walk and 10 minutes of trot when your horse is ready.
For March, you should be able to transition to riding 3-5 days per week, with the same workout of 10 minutes’ walk and 10 minutes’ trot. The trot is the most conditioning of gaits, so it is good to maximize your time long trotting, but stay away from more demanding work like collection, circling and more advance maneuvers.
In April, assuming your horse is growing stronger and feeling good, you should be able to up the ante a little in his conditioning program. Start by making 1-2 of your regular workouts more demanding, such as long trot up a gentle slope. Adding hill work helps strengthen the horse’s hindquarters and prevent stifle problems. If you do not have access to hills, you could add some canter/hand gallop to your rides. By the end of the month, you could be doing three hard workouts a week, with either days off or light work in-between.
By May, your horse should be getting pretty fit. Continuing April’s program is sufficient to make him buff for summer riding, but this month, you may want to add some more discipline-specific activities, like ground poles and cavaletti or reining maneuvers or even just some simple collected work with bending and lateral movements. For more information on this, see volume 5 in my video series on riding, Goodnight’s Principles of Riding, Refinement & Collection.
If you follow this recipe, by June, you and your horse will be ready for just about anything. Good luck and be sure to monitor your horse’s injury closely and consult with your vet if you have any questions.
Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.
Question Category: Issues from the Ground
Question: Hi I have just started to care for a 5 year old Irish Draught x TB – he has a tendon/tendon sheath injury and was about to be put to sleep by his previous owner, due to lack of time and money and the possibility that he may not be able to be ridden again – but as he is normally such an impeccably behaved chap I said I would care for him. He has been stabled now for three months and apparently has not been behaving very well in his 12 foot x 12 foot stable (he is 17.2 hh) – I have moved him to a much larger stable in a quiet yard and he seems much calmer and is great to handle in the box and on the yard. However the vet advised that he can now be taken out for short walks 10 mins twice a day (increasing weekly by 5 mins each walk for the next 4 – 6 weeks) and to do this I take him across to a barn – he is perfectly behaved going to and from the barn but once we get to the barn he is fine for 5 minutes or so and then from nowhere at all comes a little rear – this morning though he did a massive rear and was absolutely vertical -once he came back down he behaved like nothing had happened and wanted to be fussy with me etc.
Although I have had my own horse for 10 years now rearing is something I have never had to handle before so I was wondering (a) do you have any ideas why he would be doing this or do you think it is purely a boredom/excitement kind of reaction (he has been known to rear with his previous owner when ridden on the odd occasion). (b) what should I do to stop this behaviour and (c) how should I react when it has occurred. I have only been looking after him for 1 week now and the vet thinks he is likely to be stabled for another three months. When he has done his little rears I told him off in a firm voice and then have just carried on walking him around. Today I stood my ground which was pretty scary and then when he wanted to cuddle and be fussy I just pushed him away from me and told him off – by his reaction it looked as though he was expecting to be thrashed and kept on pulling his head up as though he had also maybe been hit in the face before. If I was able to lunge/freeschool him I know I would be able to do something with him but right now due to the injury all I can do is walk him in hand. I hope you will be able to give me some advice as I don’t want either of us to end up injured and three months of this behaviour seems a long long time. Thank you for your help
Answer: Georgie, The most important consideration right now is that the horse is rehabilitated. I think from reading your email that you have a very good sense of what is going on with your horse and you are handling it just fine. Imagine the horse’s frustration at being held prisoner in his stall and getting small glimpses of freedom. In this situation, you have to have a great deal of patience and empathy with the horse. Where you would normally not tolerate his disobedient behavior and take corrective action, you are limited in what you can do in this situation. His fractious behavior is stemming from his confinement and is not his fault. The corrective action you would take would be to circle the horse forward when he rears and make him work hard, but you cannot do that because the risk of re-injury is too great. If he just throws one little rearing fit and then is relatively manageable, then I would just ignore it. There are several articles on my website about rearing, but basically, it is either a refusal to move forward or a reaction to having his forward movement inhibited. In your case, I would guess the latter.
The solution is always to move the horse forward. In the case of a horse in rehabilitation, when he rears I would just move out to the end of my lead and continue walking forward like nothing was happening. Make sure you stay well clear of the horse’s hooves. I am sure that you have cut back the horse’s ration drastically and it would not hurt him at this point to go down in his weight. Less feed will help prevent him having too much energy in his confinement and the lower body weight will help his recovery. One more suggestion would be to use a rope halter with a 3-4 meter training lead. The rope halter gives you much more control over the horse and is a far superior tool for control and training than is using a chain over or under the horse’s nose. I think you are right on in your intuition about this horse and that you are handling him well, so keep up the good work! I have known plenty of horses to fully recover from tendon injuries. The key is to give them enough time to recover which in some instances may be a couple years. The biggest mistake I see people make with these types of injuries is to try and bring the horse back into work too soon. Once the vet has cleared him from confinement, I would seriously think about turning him out to pasture for a full year.
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer
It’s been a long six weeks. After 38 days of being at the hospital all day, crying, hoping, praying, laughing, crying, being frustrated, crying, and begging, it was good to get home! Of course, he was released (last Wednesday) in the middle of a raging blizzard so we were stuck in Denver, but the next day we drove the 150 miles in 4WD to get home.
As most of you know by now, my son Hunter was in a near-fatal motorcycle accident on September 20th and suffered a severe traumatic brain injury and extensive facial fractures. Now, six and a half weeks later, it is no less than miraculous how well he is doing. He is living here at home with Rich and I and he is getting stronger every single day. Although it will probably be a long time before Hunter is able to go home and work and drive, we are thrilled with his progress. Right now the big mission is to get Hunter stronger physically—he lost 25 pounds he couldn’t afford to lose while in the hospital and you can only imagine what 6 weeks in bed would do to your stamina. He has only been eating by mouth for a few days now and is still dealing with a lot of pain. In another two weeks he should be free of the stomach tube and the extensive hardware in his mouth (used to rebuild his now-titanium face).
Unfortunately, this current mission does not bode well for my five-pound challenge. I have never bought and fixed such fattening food in such copious amounts in my life. Everything I make is now high-calorie and the highest possible fat content. If I can, I add even more fat than the recipe calls for. And then, of course, if he does not eat it, well… I hate to waste it! Oh boy.
It’s been really hard to get back into a regular routine since we’ve been home. It’s sort of like waking up one day, at the age of 50 (when life starts getting really good), to find you suddenly have a toddler in the house. But please don’t misunderstand me, Hunter is not in any way acting like a toddler mentally, but taking care of a very sick person is quite time consuming! My time is not my own anymore and I find myself scrambling to find time to answer emails, get a run in or take a rare soak in the hot tub. I imagine many of you have had similar experiences. How’d you do it? Any words of wisdom?
In spite of my whining, I feel like things are getting back to normal, slowly but surely for me. I am ready to get back to work, start thinking and writing about horses and maybe even riding one. Who knows, maybe I’ll go clean a few stalls and really get my mind sorted out. Expect more from me now.