A little while ago, I was at a horse show, helping some pupils with their horses and classes. On one particular day, we had walked up to the main arena to watch some of the big class of the morning. They were jumping 1.30m, which although not huge, is big enough. As we arrived, a rider who is one of the leading jumpers in the country was just beginning his round. He jumped the first couple a little scrappily – missed his stride coming in, got in too deep then stood a bit far off. He got it together and had a few better fences, and then missed a couple again. The horse, usually very careful, had a fence down, then another, then another. Right in front of where we were standing was a pretty big triple combination. He cleared the first but had come in too fast and hit the second. In hitting the second, they were in a muddle and the final distance just wasn’t happening. They took off for the last, ploughed head long through it, getting tangled up in poles, and both came down hard, the horse crashing over the rider and both skidding across the sand. The horse, luckily, did all he could to avoid falling on his rider, and was up and walking away in a moment. Grooms, vets, officials, all rushed in, the horse was caught, the ambulance crew ran in with a back board and the rider was carried out. Minutes later, fortunately, the rider walked away from the ambulance, having been only winded and shocked. Accidents happen, right? And horse and rider both walked away unscathed. So, why am I writing about this?
As we were watching him ride, my first thought was, what’s wrong. He can ride, his horse can jump and normally they are good to watch together. But, on this occasion they were discombobulated and all over the place. He was missing strides, the horse was missing cues and leaving legs behind, it was starting to look desperate and scrappy, the rider chasing strides and the horse backing off. I had just been saying this round isn’t happening, when crash.
We heard afterwards that they had just had a bad fall in the warm up arena. The horse had fallen, and the rider had injured his leg. The ambulance crew had already been called in, strapped his ankle and administered a pain killer. The horse was checked, deemed sound and fit to continue, and the rider had remounted, jumped another fence and come into the main competition arena.
We talk about riding being a high-risk sport, and about the rider being correctly prepared, with good instruction and careful matching of horse to rider. Riders must wear hats, body protectors, boots, gloves. They must focus, not be over horsed, over faced and have as much competence as confidence. I have said often that a rider is literally placing their life in my hands when I’m teaching them, and it’s my responsibility to be careful, but their responsibility to listen. We shouldn’t be riding dangerous horses. But what about the rider’s responsibility to the horse?
A horse doesn’t ask to be ridden. He doesn’t ask to jump, to be in a competition, to be put in a horse box. He is there because we choose to put him there, and he is there because he is obliging enough to agree. He could easily say no (well, hopefully he could – in some instances a horse will say no but sadly won’t be heard). And so, we should be thinking about his well-being.
We mock footballers when they fall over, chip a nail and act as if they are dying. We all know those prima donna riders who take a light little tumble and act as if it’s the end of the world. And, we generally congratulate and cheer on the rider who has taken a fall and, Well Done, gets back up and carries on. But, are we doing the right thing?
I think it’s great that the fall and out rule applies – if you are in a competition and have a fall, you are automatically eliminated from the class and can only carry on in the entire competition once you have passed a medical exam. And, if its just nerves and pride that are dented, getting up and getting on is great. But, if the fall is bad enough to require treatment or pain killers, should we as the rider put our horses at risk to carry on? In this case, the horse wasn’t injured in the first fall and was sound to carry on. His confidence was dented though. And the fall in the main arena could have resulted in serious injury or even been fatal.
Would you load you horse in a horse box, and drive him if you were drunk? No. If I have afternoon lessons and go out for lunch, I won’t have even one glass of wine, as I think I need to be 100% focused if I’m going to be teaching. But if we are a bit sore, a bit hungover, a bit stressed and distracted, should we be getting on a horse? Do we put our horses at risk? I think we do, and it’s a rider and an instructor’s duty to safe guard the horse and say no if there is an issue.
Where do you draw the line? What is a minimal risk you would take, and where would you draw the line?