I remember the last time I fell off while riding. It was almost two years ago. And, it wasn’t pretty.
My new horse of less than a week decided to buck, big. We’re still not entirely sure why. It was probably a perfect storm of poor saddle fit, underlying chronic pain we soon discovered, and me clearly not knowing this horse as well as I should have had (among other things.)
While I walked away without more than a few bumps and bruises, my fall could have been far worse. I was lucky. I landed well.
According to a 2016 study from the Journal of Neurological Focus, riding horses contributed to more traumatic brain injuries in adults than any other sport. Equestrian sports accounted for 50% of all TBIs in adults over the age of 40.
Very scary statistics.
Most of us don’t want to think about the possibility of getting seriously injured riding or handling our horses. But, we should.
Because there are things we can do to mitigate the risks and be a whole lot more prepared in case we find ourselves hurtling towards the ground.
Danny and Keli Warrington of Landsafe Equestrian have developed a program for riders of all ages and levels to learn how to do just this. With Keli’s background as a gymnast and CCI* rider along with Danny’s years as a steeplechase jockey and international three-day eventer, they have combined their skills into a masterclass on falling safely (or at least as safe as possible.)
I spoke to Danny recently to find out what all of us can do to be safer in and out of the saddle. We had a candid discussion about personal responsibility, the lack of rider safety training, and the things riders, trainers, and parents can do about reducing serious injuries.
Here is our interview.
Q: What inspired you and Keli to start the Landsafe program?
Danny: Four years ago, eight riders died globally while competing in Eventing – two in Australia, two in Europe, one in the Soviet Union and one here in the States. I remember watching a video of those rides and with a couple of those falls, the person had no reaction, no thought process.
By no means do I think we can save everyone, but I do think that we can save a fair share of riders.
Because there was time to react and some of those falls didn’t have to end as they did. We realized that some pretty basic skills were not being taught to riders.
If you think about it, from the time you start riding until the time you stop riding, you’re always told to shorten your reins, hold onto the reins, and keep contact. The problem is you’re never told to let go of the reins.
So all of a sudden you’re falling. All your body knows is to hold onto the reins tightly. In that emergency, you have no other response because it has never been even talked about.
Q: How should we react in a fall? What types of things should we be doing to avoid serious injury?
Danny: I always tell riders to protect the money maker – your head. Whether you’re a supermodel or a rocket scientist, you need to take care of your head and your neck because if you don’t, you’re out of business. Nothing else matters.
So, when I hear someone say, “Oh, I don’t want to break my arm,” I tell them I could care less about their arms.
What I care most about is your head. “Don’t stick your arm out,” is a horrible thought to put in somebody’s mind because then they’ll lead with their head instead.
We have to teach riders how to decelerate impacts using their arms, their extremities. Like other athletes that have been trained to protect themselves while playing their sport, we need to do the same for riders.
Q: Can you talk a little about the different types of falls that riders encounter?
Danny: The average rider encounters incidents like the horse stopping and pulling its neck down (whether that’s to graze or to stop at a fence) or wheeling from a deer.
Then, they’re getting spun off sideways. That’s a typical fall.
We tell riders that they need to create tension. You have to put your chin to your chest so you can roll when you impact the ground.
Then there are rotational falls. It’s a myth that only eventers deal with rotational falls.
A rotational fall isn’t just a horse jumping a solid object and rotating. A rotational fall can happen in any discipline.
In reining, if the horse slides, overreaches, and grabs themselves, they can somersault. Anytime a horse’s front end goes down, his nose goes underneath him, and he rolls over you’re dealing with a rotational fall.
It can happen in fox hunting if the horse steps in a hole or trail riding if a horse trips. We have video of a hunter round where the horse did a horrific rotational fall. We make a blanket statement about rotational falls that they only happen in eventing. It’s not true. Every rider has to worry about it.
The reality is that we can’t help how you fall. We can help how you impact the ground. Once you leave the horse, you’re a projectile headed towards the ground.
So the only thing I can really do is teach you how to best deal with that moment of impact.
If you decide to be open and flat, then you can’t disburse any of that energy. I want you to learn to be round, protecting your head and your neck. That’s going to be the best way to protect yourself.
Q: Why aren’t more professionals in the horse industry teaching riders these skills?
Danny: There are a couple of reasons. Trainers are afraid of losing customers. If a trainer teaches these skills and a student gets hurt or just scared then their customer stops riding. The other reason has to do with the fact that trainers who are now in their thirties never learned how to fall.
The great riders like Jimmy Wofford learned their skills from the cavalry generals who had to know how to do all these things. But, we’re getting further and further away from that military tree and the rough and tumble of what the sport really is.
That’s why we created the Landsafe program – to teach riders how to handle a fall within the safest environment possible.
Q: What are your thoughts on how we can take responsibility for reducing our risk as riders?
Danny: Our big thing at Landsafe is reducing rider risk. We like to break it down into three Rs – right horse, right level, right rider. If you have those three things, then you’re in pretty good shape. Without any of those three things, you start to up your risk level.
Take me, for instance. I’m a very good and highly sophisticated rider. I’ve ridden in races. I’ve ridden at the top levels. I’ve broken young horses. But on a two-year-old thoroughbred in Montana on a trail ride, that experience doesn’t necessarily matter. That horse shouldn’t be on the mountain trails.
You put me on that same two-year-old in a training program where we have a half a mile training track. I’m teaching it to go around in an environment that’s appropriate to the horse and rider.
When any one of those three Rs isn’t there, we have an issue.
A lot of times it’s something that a rider doesn’t want to hear. “You need to be stronger.” “Your horse is not a good match for you.” Or even, “He needs to go away.” These are tough things to hear but they may save your life.
Q: Tell us about your program. What do people experience during your Landsafe clinics?
Danny: We run it as a two-day clinic for approximately four hours each day. We start riders out with basic body shaping and learning how to roll, literally. It’s just like how you would teach a little kid to roll. We assume no one knows how to do it.
You could be the best gymnast ever and we’re still going to teach you as if this is the first time you’ve ever done a forward roll.
By the end of the first day, we have you doing dive rolls, side roles, jump box landings, and rolls off of the boxes. We get you on the simulator and rolling off it too.
On the second day, participants are amazed at their progress. Suddenly, they’re running at the bags and doing rolls. Now they know where their arms and legs are. And they really understand that their body awareness has gotten better.
So we start teaching exit strategies by the second day. These include things like getting off a rearing horse in an emergency dismount.
People leave our program realizing they have to get a lot fitter. You know what, to me, that made the program worth it right there.
Having spent two days with us, you may realize that you’re not strong enough to navigate your own body weight.
You show up on the second day and your arms are a little tired, your core is a little sore. And, you figure out you’re not very fit.
We’ve found that doing the program inspires riders to get more fit. They’re more aware of falling and what they need to do to walk away from an accident.
They learn that when you’re stronger and fitter not only can you save yourself in a fall but you’re more likely to stay on the horse.
KEY TAKEAWAYS ON LEARNING HOW TO LAND SAFE DURING A FALL
- Sometimes letting go of the reins is the right thing to do – Most of us want to hold on for dear life but if you’re going to come off the horse, you could be making a bad situation worse. (Falling is one time you can forget about keeping a perfect contact with your horse’s mouth.)
- Protect the money maker – Curl into a ball. Use your arms and legs to reduce the impact and shield your head. You’ve got a better chance of healing from a broken bone than a traumatic brain injury. (This brings a whole new meaning to the phrase, “shake your money maker.”)
- Rotational falls only happen to eventers is a myth – No matter your discipline, your horse can have a rotational fall. Which means if you get on a horse you should know what to do if he goes ass over teakettle. (So much for the joys of denial.)
- Remember the 3 Rs – Right horse, Right level, Right rider. When you’ve got the right horse for your skillset that you’re riding in situations and environments appropriate to the horse’s level, you’re reducing your risk of injury. Start removing one of those Rs and you’re asking for trouble. (This is where a good trainer is worth his or her weight in gold. The only rub, you’ve got to listen to the truth.)
- Be fit and strong to keep yourself safe – The more core strength and body awareness you have, the more likely you’ll be to stay on your horse and successfully navigate a fall if it happens. If you’re not working out regularly, consider this a friendly reminder to squeeze it into your schedule. (There’s a handy, dandy planner available to help you get inspired and organized. Don’t have a planner yet? Go grab yours here.)
Find out more about the LandSafe Equestrian program along with Danny and Keli Warrington on their website. And you can follow them on Instagram and Facebook.
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