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.
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.
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.
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.