• Falling from a Horse

    With the recent publicity regarding the Equichute machine and associated training at the British Racing School, this subject has, thank goodness, started to be taken seriously, both by associations and riders.

    Before I began riding properly, three years ago, I trained in and taught Martial Arts for something like 25 years. An integral part of many Martial Arts (though not all) are Ukemi or rolls; not the kind that are full of ham, but the forward, backward, and sideways type that allow you to recover from a throw or avoid a fast kick or weapon strike.

    A second form of protection from injury are breakfalls. You have all seen Judo on the telly and seen how one opponent throws another onto the mat. The person being thrown avoids injury by slamming the ground in a very specific way.

    Fast forward to me, as a green returnee rider, on my green, humorous, and nimble 14.2hh New Forest, jumping for the first time. A very fast and unexpected turn on the point of landing, left me going one way and Harry another. I landed on my back, on hard and rocky ground, got up and remounted. I was not injured in any way, not even bruised. Some while later we parted company again at a fast canter, this time I was heading face first towards a metal gate post. I landed on my back next to the post and got up to recover my pony, unfazed and uninjured. I was aware on both (and many other) occasions that it was my Martial Arts training that had saved me, I was calm, relaxed and automatically performed the techniques I had practiced thousands of times.

    After reading many posts on horse related forums about people injuring themselves in falls from horses, I made an offer to meet and teach interested groups of riders how to fall and roll. I have had many interested people contact me, but as this training requires time and effort, in most cases nothing has come of the interest.

    However, on a cool and misty Saturday morning in far flung Lincolnshire (I live in Somerset) a small group of hardy souls took me up on my offer.

    The point of the training is to teach people not to be afraid of falling. When the situation gets to the point of no return, or when forcibly ejected from the saddle, most people tense and wait for the crash. In fact they should relax and take control of the fall and recovery by applying rolling and breakfall techniques.

    On the misty Saturday, the class was made up of six riders with a wealth of experience and two observers both of whom are recovering from back injuries suffered as a result of falls. The first thing to do was to demonstrate to the participants what we would be working on and where this training would eventually lead. I demonstrated a variety of forward shoulder rolls, from standing, walking and a running dive, I also dived and rolled over a pair of cross poles set a couple of feet off the ground and finally a forward ‘flip’ roll, where a half somersault is performed, landing flat on my back. It’s a jaw dropping thing to watch, but is really just a forward roll, but without the assistance of the ground.
    We started training with a light full body warm up and then began by learning a very basic forward roll. I teach people specifically to roll over their shoulder, as a roll over the head (primary school forward roll) poses the risk of striking the head or putting undue pressure on the neck.

    After a few minutes of rolling over the shoulder of their writing hands I asked the class to try rolling over the other shoulder, this is always slightly amusing, but also very important as you never know which direction you are going to have to go in if you bale or fall.

    Once everyone was getting to grips with the roll from a kneeling position we moved on to doing the same thing from a standing position, again over both the left and right shoulders and once everyone was confident with that we began to practice from first a walk and then a slow jog. We were now about at the limit of what the mind and body can take for a first training session, so it was time to change direction.

    When I land flat on my back, I perform a breakfall, this is a specific method of getting the whole body, legs and arms to touch the ground at the same moment, in the Martial Arts we also slap the ground with our arms, although I was advised by members of the group that this is an absolute no-no in the equestrian world, as it dramatically increases the chances of getting trodden on and so we dropped that aspect of the technique.

    It came as a surprise to me, that this aspect of the training was felt to be the most difficult and risky, I guess I have done so many thousands of breakfalls, from and equal number of throws and kicks, that I failed to see the difficulty, but everyone tried their hardest, with a fair degree of success.

    We then moved on to combine the roll and breakfall. This is the technique used in the event of the rider going ‘out the side door’ and the one I used on the occasion of my first fall (and several more times since). I got the student to perform the forward roll again, but instead of rolling back onto our feet, we flop out flat, unrolling the body rather like a towel on a sun lounger. Again the students were a little concerned about being trodden on, but when I have used this technique I have never landed in a position where I could be trodden on, not unless the horse came back, just to stomp on me!

    At this point, everyone was getting a little cold, tired and sore, and so we broke for lunch. We all provided this, as we had all agreed to bring something tasty, which proved to be the case, the hot lentil soup was superb and I have since acquired the recipe.

    Back to the training: Before lunch a couple of the students had started to tie up and to lose their ability to roll, this was a natural reaction to the discomfort felt rolling over the shoulder again and again. Once this was pointed out and a method of relaxing suggested, the perfect technique they had achieved earlier in the day returned and we were ready to move on.

    Despite their confidence with the techniques, when presented with a pole on the ground, the students stopped and did a double take. The point of the pole is to provide a point of no return, you are not allowed to walk over it, you must dive / roll over it. In other words, you walk up to the pole and bend down towards the ground on the opposite side, thereby pushing yourself into the roll. They all got the hang of that, so now it was time to do the same thing, over the cross poles, set about six inches off the floor, again much consternation and soul searching, but ultimately success and so the poles went up by another six inches and again much gnashing of teeth, but once the first brave soul (and oldest participant) had demonstrated her willing ness to die for the cause, or not as the case may be, the others soon followed. At this point, on a high, we finished the training and retired to the warmth of our host’s kitchen for hot coffee.

    In the course of two hours training, six people learnt, or relearnt in the case of two who had been gymnasts in the past, the basic methods of the roll and the breakfall. They learnt that it was possible to literally take a dive from a horse and turn that not into a wrist snapping, elbow popping, collarbone destroying crash, but instead into a shoulder roll which could help them prevent all those injuries and more. More importantly they learned that a fall dos not automatically equal injury and pain and was therefore something that could be accepted and coped with, rather than something to be feared.

    Copyright Neil MacKinnon 2011