Risk Acceptance

When we were XC schooling last Saturday, a friend of mine had a fairly scary fall that left all of us a bit rattled. It was one of those scenarios where a mistake was made at a solid fence that did not allow for such a mistake, and when it’s horse vs solid fence, the solid fence almost always wins. We were talking about it on the way home and she asked me if I was going to blog about it. I immediately said no, thinking she was talking about her fall. I don’t blog about other people’s mishaps, as a general rule. But she said no, not about the fall, but about everything else we’d been talking about – the risk, and the responsibility.

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She’s right, it’s a good topic. Riding is, in and of itself, inherently risky, and eventing is one of the riskiest equestrian sports. It’s something that I’m extremely aware of and think about a lot. I put my and my horse’s well-being on the line every time I swing a leg over, but especially when we’re out on the cross country course. This isn’t something I take lightly.

The way I personally see it is that there are essentially three parts to this: 1) acknowledging, and being very realistic about, the level of risk involved, 2) doing anything and everything you can to reduce said risk, 3) accepting that even if you try to do everything right, sometimes shit just happens.

Acknowledging and being realistic about the level of risk involved is mostly about being very self aware. Riding around with a “this is dangerous, omg!” monkey on your back is counterproductive – a confident rider is generally a safer rider – but I think having a healthy amount of respect for what you’re doing is necessary to keep you and your horse safe. We all know the person that wants to go out and XC school and see what kind of fences they can make it over, just for fun (or a photo). Bravery is one thing, but not when it comes at the expense of being realistic about what we or our horses are capable of in that moment. That’s when it crosses over into recklessness.

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Doing anything and everything in your power to reduce the risk is something that eventers have gotten really good at. We load up on safety equipment (sometimes to the point of buying things just because a product is marketed as safer, even if it’s not actually proven to be such), we develop fantastic technology to wrap our horses legs in, we do trot sets until our eyeballs fall out from boredom so we can avoid the situation of an overly fatigued horse or rider. We spend a lot of time schooling complex exercises, working on improving reaction times, and learning what to do when things don’t go as planned. We fund study after study on fence technology, equine cardiology, course design, etc. We ice and we poultice and we handwalk and we cold hose and we theraplate and we magna wave. We even have clinics to learn how to fall off correctly.

Then there’s the last piece, the piece that we’re a lot more reluctant to talk about: the fact that no matter what we do, this is a risky venture. It’s pretty likely that at some point, if you do this for any period of time, you or your horse will end up getting hurt. And that’s not an eventing-specific thing… that’s true for pretty much all horse sports. There is additional risk in eventing, though, and we have to decide whether or not that additional risk is worth it to us. If we DO decide that it’s worth it, I think it’s a vital personal responsibility to constantly keep point number 1 in mind, and continuously evaluate and re-evaluate point number 2. At the end of the day though, you have to be able to accept the risk, put it in your pocket, and kick on anyway.

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As we were talking I could tell by the look on my friend’s face that she was replaying the incident over and over in her mind. I told her stop, and I made her give me her camera to take home so I could erase the footage of it. It was clearly already ingrained in her mind, she didn’t need to watch it happen from afar. I asked her if it was possible to change what already happened. She said no. Ok, so it’s done, let’s move on. Do we know what went wrong and why? Yes. What can you do about it? Learn from it. Work on correcting the problem. Don’t make the same mistake again. Respect the bigger or more technical fences more. Ok, so let’s focus on those things.

It’s a lot easier said than done though, and I could see the deep-seated guilt about the minor scrapes and general soreness that her horse was now sporting. I totally get that. That is the downside to equestrian sports, and it sucks.

The horse’s safety in particular is something that constantly weighs in my mind. Sometimes I DO wonder if this is worth it… thinking about how much “easier” his life would be if he just cantered around the hunter ring jumping 3′. I know that’s a job he would hate, though, and I would hate it too. Henry is a pretty safe cross country horse, meeting my top two requirements of safe jumping style and good sense of self preservation. Not to mention – he loves it. Genuinely and truly. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, so today we’re going to do what we love… we’re just going to try to be as smart about it as possible. Mistakes will happen though, that’s just reality.

So we keep working, keep conditioning, and keep trying to get better. I always keep the risk in mind, but I try not to let it turn into fear. Being fearful can be just as dangerous as being overly bold. I accept that there is more risk in my chosen sport, I strive to always make us as safe as possible, and I’m committed to never asking more of my horse than he’s capable of giving. To me, that’s pretty much all I can control, so I have to choose to worry about those things and let the rest go.

16 thoughts on “Risk Acceptance

  1. Thoughtful and astute comments about the inherent risks involved in riding horses. Horses are beautiful and powerful and instinctual, we never know when our horse is going to spook and take off or have an accident in spite of our best riding skills. I love that you wrote about this aspect of riding.

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  2. Wow.
    I swear sometimes you are pulling thoughts from my head. I could not agree with you more. I also wrestle with the worry/ guilt of risking injury to my horse(s) doing a sport I love. But when I feel them light up with excitement and I believe the joy of the gallop/jumping XC I realise that they love it too and my job is to do my best to minimize the Risk. All riding has a risk, in fact, one of my eventing horses is currently on his six month of rehab after damaging his Deep digital tendon while at a Dressage show. (yes dressage broke my eventing Horse 😛 ) I love this “At the end of the day though, you have to be able to accept the risk, put it in your pocket, and kick on anyway.”

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  3. i’m glad your friend is ok physically, and hopefully can grow and move forward emotionally in short order. no matter how many falls i see, nothing quite takes my breath away like the… scary ones. accidents are the worst. but they are accidents. they happen, not if but when (and if it isn’t the horse, it might be the horse trailer… sheisty bastards). like you say tho, we must do our homework, be responsible and accountable and self aware, mitigate risks where possible, and then look up and enjoy the ride.

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  4. Very good topic. I think this is a good reason to run up the levels. Experience all the traps, wording, etc, at level x before jumping to x+1, or x+2… Very disappointed to see the rush that happens. Our horses don’t understand the risk and trust us to make good choices for them (As much as they are even aware…obv).

    Sorry, my thoughts are in a very specific place and this just underlines it.

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  5. Great post. I struggle with mentally balancing the fear/awareness of the possibility of injury with the love of the sport. It’s funny, typically I have a harder time with this when I’m not actually riding; it’s when I’m driving or otherwise just musing about stuff that I kind of hone in on the fact that, yeah, I or the horse could get really hurt.

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  6. Totally agree with this post, and I would add that while acknowledging the risk and prepping both horse and rider for what they will be asked to do in competitions are very important, I think people who participate in a dangerous sport like we do also need to make sure they and their families are financially protected in case of a worst-case scenario accident. I recently signed up for long term disability through my employer, make sure I have enough health insurance coverage in case of an expensive accident or long term hospital stay, and try to have enough savings so that I won’t be put in a bad situation if I can’t work for a short while. My company also offers life insurance on all employees, so I know my family won’t have to struggle to cover the costs of a funeral or taking care of my animals. It may be a bit morbid and no one likes to consider that terrible things like that may happen to them, but after watching Phillip Dutton’s family deal with the aftermath of Lee Lee’s accident, and having my dad hospitalized after a heart attack and needing major surgery this year, I want to make sure I am covered and so is my family.

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    1. This. ⬆︎
      I had a ridiculous accident – not even mounted but in a frigging stall – that resulted in a severe injury + surgery, and me being unable to work for several months. It changed the trajectory of my and my horse’s life. Just finished emailing my insurance agent re policies to cover paying off my new construction loan, shipping Val to the retirement farm and covering him for life, plus final expenses etc. Things happen in the blink of an eye, especially around horses. 😀

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  7. I agree with ‘perspective’ in the approach to thinking about risk. So I grew up in an earlier time with a lot more active ranching, old-school ranch hands and ranch horses. They were so ubiquitous, they were part of learning horses and riding. A lot of what they did across natural unprepared terrain, at speed, and with a rider focused on a bolting cow rather the horse’s line of travel, was MUCH MUCH riskier than LL eventing is today. Especially in the wake of safety upgrades in everything from helmets to frangible pins. And they accepted the risks as ‘that’s what life is’. Their horse was the center of their thoughts, and they and their horses didn’t get hurt that often due to excellent survival instincts, because they certainly didn’t have much in the way of safety gear. I do not want anyone to go back to that, but the fact that riders genuinely understood their situation and adapted accordingly I think is an example of one way to think about LL eventing.

    To me, even with all of the safety add-ons, safety ultimately comes down to rider skill and judgment, horse conditioning and training, and preparation, preparation, preparation. Just as it did (and still does) out on the ranch.

    I wish eventing put a message more to front and center that the core ethics of this sport are preparation and good judgment. I love it that more and more h/j/e riders are trying eventing, but I have very deep concerns that they are more likely to think that they can just go out in a big field and hop over solid jumps and “see how it goes”, without understanding the preparation ethic. And, frankly, that they are being guided to do this by h/j/e trainers who don’t know how to gallop down a hill to a jump, and think that the short spot is the right spot. Those are the kind of underlying factors that increase the risk without some riders even realizing it.

    IMO, the quality of the instruction is huge part of the preparation and the coaching on how to have good judgment. Helping riders understand what to look for is another thing I’d like to see more of from our organizations, local, state and national. 🙂

    Those are just some thoughts on helping us all think and be safer riders in a sport that doesn’t have to be that dangerous when it is done correctly. 🙂

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  8. Yes all of that. Which is why this chicken little stays in hunter/jumper land. I would be far too fearful cross country to be safe for my horse or myself. I frequently observe on social media kids and amateurs (and let’s be real, some “professionals”) clearly riding well above their level. I think it’s reckless and am not impressed by their “bravery”. And anyone commenting about the photo being “amazing” and “beautiful” makes me want to tear into said person commenting. Thanks for addressing these things and spelling out a great approach to do what you love as safely as possible. Also glad that your friend and her horse are ok!

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  9. Great topic! I’ve had to really look at what I’m willing to do these days because of the risk. I have 2 little kids and can’t go getting myself into dangerous situations. So I do exactly what you suggest…put myself in situations where I’m confident in my ability to safely complete the task at hand. No more riding crazy horses, no XC for now, no bareback or other silly adventures. Control what little I can with a 1000 pound animal under me. Luckily it’s not void of all fun. But I wholeheartedly agree that when I’m confident I’m more safe. When I’m scared or overfaced I make dumb mistakes. I have NOTHING to prove these days. I will add though, my worst falls over the past 26 years of riding happened doing the most mundane things…like cooling off AFTER a jump lesson, LOL!

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  10. I competed in the endurance world for 16 years and constantly dealt with the stress of knowing how dangerous riding 50 – 100 miles in one day can be to your horse. Like you said, we knew what the dangers were and worked diligently to make sure we brought a fit and ready horse to each challenge. Even so, the ground gave way, a rock popped up, or hay went down wrong. After so many years, I finally decided to find a discipline that didn’t require me to put my horse’s life (literally) on the line for each race. Dressage is so much more relaxing. :0)

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  11. I always think of a meme that I saw that said that equestrian sports are the only sports where your equipment can decide it doesn’t want to work. I hate the idea of calling a horse “equipment” but the sentiment behind it is correct. It boils down to the fact that whether we flat, hunter/jumper, or XC we are still on still on a FLIGHT animal that has a mind of its own who we can’t have a direct conversation with! I have been on all sides of the brave/fear spectrum. When I was a kid I would do and jump anything on any horse but after back surgery 2 years ago from 2 crushed vertebra and a herniated disc I came back quite a bit timid. I think I am now in a place that I have a good balance. I still have a healthy dose of fear but I also have a certain amount of trust in my horses and in my riding ability. I do also lean on my trainer sometimes who will give me a little push when she thinks I can jump a little higher or more complicated patterns. Non-equestrians will never get it though. You should have seen how many of my family members and friends who thought (and still do) that I am crazy for going back to riding after surgery.

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  12. The worst fall I ever had was jumping a small fence in the ring. I was trying a demo saddle, the fence was maybe 2’6”, he wasn’t quite in front of my leg and left a little long – and caught a lightweight pvc pole with his right front. It came down in front of him and he landed and caught it and fell. Thankfully by sheer luck he went down away from me but as I hit the ground I was waiting to be kicked or stepped on. He rolled away from me and somehow didn’t get me at all.

    I broke three ribs and my right shoulder. My head hit the ground so hard it bounced twice. People watching asked each other if I was breathing.

    I got up and walked away with only those injuries. Later it occurred to me that except for the helmet, nothing would have prevented the injuries I got. A vest would have protected my ribs but the way I fell likely would have shattered my arm and shoulder instead of my ribs if I had worn one. It happens and it really sucks but it what we do.

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