BY EMMA FRIEDMAN
It’s widely believed that when you fall off your horse, you get back on—no matter what. It is a training method for horse and rider. When you continue to ride after an accident, the horse learns that the rider falling off doesn’t end work. For the rider, it helps fend off the fear that can develop if you end on a bad note. For these reasons, it has become a trend to “brush it off,” even if a potentially serious injury has occurred. It’s likely that if a rider is not unconscious or unable to walk, they are going to get back on and battle through pain or discomfort.
I recently fell off my horse in the middle of a triple jump exercise. He is a stopper, but I’ve learned to ride through most of his antics. There was a Liverpool under the jump, which I know scares him, but he had flawlessly jumped it the day before. I wasn’t particularly worried, as I have been practicing being open and trusting to the jumps instead of gripping and driving. Admittedly, I didn’t have my guard up as much as I could have.
We jumped into the triple beautifully, but then my horse ran out abruptly and I lost my balance as I was flung sideways. I narrowly missed the standards and landed on my lower back. My helmet hit the ground with an audible crack. I was winded and my neck hurt, but I didn’t feel that bad. My trainer told me to have a drink and sit down for a bit. Within ten minutes I was remounted.
My head ached slightly, but I was steady and determined to ride over that Liverpool. I did, but on the drive home, the head pain worsened. The next days it worsened some more. After a few days of a persistent headache, I went to see my doctor.
I was diagnosed with a minor concussion and told to stay off horses for at least three weeks—no jumping for at least six. Re-injuring my head inside a ninety-day window could damage my brain permanently. When my doctor told me how my brain had hit the front then the back of my skull, sloshing like Jell-O, I didn’t know what to say. The doctors explained that if my elbow and hip were black and blue, my brain was too. The simplicity of her explanations hit me hard.
Unlike most other body parts, your brain is required for everything you do. I hadn’t ever thought about that. If I bruise it again within ninety days, I could have memory issues, sleep problems, irritability, depression, and headaches for the rest of my life. There was no certainty that these issues would occur, but they could. Was I willing to risk it? Although I had known what a concussion was before the fall, I didn’t really know the full implications of it.
I am planning to pursue a career in competitive showjumping and equine veterinary medicine. I am also planning to join the military during college and become a fighter pilot. These goals require my brain to be in perfect health. My fall forced me to consider the importance of my head.
I usually don’t sit still for long. I weight and cardio train at least four days a week, and I ride three to four times a week. I walk and bike every day, I play tennis, and I clean stalls and paddocks on the weekend. I love to exercise and am happiest when I am a bit sore.
The doctor’s orders were to lie in the dark with no stimulation (i.e., screens, reading, drawing), for two days straight. After that, I could take half-hour breaks to read, draw, or listen to podcasts and audiobooks. It taught me lessons in patience and self-control and left me with a lot of time to consider the consequences of just ‘brushing it off’.
It is one thing when you get ditched and land on your butt or your shoulder. Normally there’s a bruise or scar to show off, but no further damage is done. Landing on or hitting your head when you fall can be far more dangerous. I have, so far, been lucky to have had few bad falls.
However, I have watched fellow riders fall from a horse, including my trainer. They pick themselves up and carry on. I respect riders who don’t complain and get on with it or make the best of their situation. I respect my trainer, because I have repeatedly watched her ride and train well, despite being exhausted or in pain, whether it is from a fall or not.
But after my experience, I now think it is irresponsible when a rider who could have a serious injury, often to do with the head or neck, gets back on because they fear being ridiculed for being weak. Being hurt doesn’t make you weak—it makes you breakable. And we are all breakable. I think I was irresponsible because I automatically remounted, without truly taking stock of my body. I was asked by my mom, my trainer, and others watching if I was sure I wanted to continue. I know they would not have judged me harshly if I had said ‘no’, but I think I put pressure on myself to be strong. Your parents, trainer, onlookers, and advisors don’t know how you feel, and didn’t experience the fall. Their advice is very important to me, but it is my fault that I didn’t properly take care of myself.
Being forced to the sidelines caused me to miss our first horseshow of the year, and riding for my ninety-seven-year-old grandmother in Colorado. I am not a crier, but as we walked out of the doctor’s office, silent tears rolled down my cheeks. I know two weeks is not that long, but part of my shock was how much worse it could have been. I have ridden countless refusals, but this time I hit my head.
I probably won’t ever find out if getting back on had any effect on my post-concussion symptoms or treatment. I am in no way saying you should never get back on after a fall. In the future, though, I always want to make sure I am getting back on because I feel like it is the right thing to do for me and most importantly my brain. And I don’t want to get back on because I feel like I am going to be viewed as weak if I don’t.
I shouldn’t be afraid of being called a wimp or a whiner. If people think that, so be it. I am not willing to jeopardize my future to look better in their eyes.
One of the hardest things I think I am going to face in my recovery process is feeling fine. I know if I look and act fine, it will be hard for some to accept that I am out of the game because I am still healing. But my family and I are not overreacting about the treatment process.
There is a negative mentality attached to saying, “I don’t want to get back on.” If you have hit your head (helmet) or experienced any kind of whiplash, then the message is, don’t get back on! These actions could affect your brain for the rest of your life.
I don’t think I ever truly realized the importance of my brain before. I am very health-aware, and I think about nutrition and carefully strengthen my muscles. Being forced to sit still brought me to the realization that I can’t do those things without my head being intact. I am hardwired to shut up and get on with it, as all my role models do. I have learned the hard way what it can cost to “brush off” a head injury.
Emma is an active 15-year-old living in rural Southern Oregon. Emma and her horse, Sir Sydney, compete at local hunter jumper shows. Emma is very passionate about all-around horsemanship and loves her animals above everything else.