When you’ve been riding your entire life, getting back on the horse after a fall has probably been drilled into you since the first time you stepped a foot into a stirrup. But when you’re raising a young rider, you’ll have more luck helping them grasp that concept with a little more nuance, a sense of humor, and fundamentals that become part of their muscle memory.
Taking a tumble from horseback can best be handled in three phases. I’ll cover each of those phases in detail below, all of which I use to teach my riders, from the smallest to the most mature.
Phase 1: Preparation
When your child begins riding, I suggest teaching him or her to be ready for an emergency dismount. This means practicing a dismount at any time, off either side of the horse. I prefer to practice these emergency dismounts at the walk while doing other riding exercises.
There are two keys to teaching this emergency dismount. Key 1 is to practice it on both sides. You never know which side you might need to take to get out of a situation. Being prepared on both sides is essential. It’s very unnatural to attempt a dismount off the right side because we all learn to get off on the left side. Practicing makes it a lot easier. Key 2 is to always go feet-first. I don’t mind if a rider tumbles and rolls or stumbles a little—it can teach a healthy respect for the horse. But I want them to aim to land on their feet instead of on their helmeted head.
I mentioned a healthy respect for their horse. Many kids start riding but don’t have an understanding that the ground hurts, and that the horse can hurt them when they fall. We don’t want to prepare kids to fail—that is, to get hurt when they go off. We want to prepare them for the possibility of an accident so they can get off and stay out of the horse’s way.
Everyone in our barn knows that if you go off your horse, you have to buy the entire barn cookies—and that applies to everyone! Adding this element allows us to bring some levity to what might be a scary situation in the moment.
Phase 2: In the Moment
Whether it was a slip, a jump, or a buck, your young rider has separated from the horse. Overreaction is your biggest mistake as a parent in this situation—do not bring the drama. Stay calm, and evaluate the severity of what happened. Then bring a smile by reminding the young rider he or she has to buy cookies for the entire barn! For the most part, young riders are merely shaken up. Making it fun and a rite of passage to become a great rider helps it seem less like a crisis to a new rider. And then get them back on the horse!
If it was a scary or traumatic fall or event, let the child take their time getting their wits about them. Don’t rush getting back on. Let the effects of the adrenaline ease up. Then have the child lead the horse around the arena or riding area, and let the horse calm down, too. You want to make sure the child’s nerves or fear don’t translate to make the horse more nervous in the process.
After the Fall
Never hesitate to have a conversation with your child’s riding instructor about a fall. Especially if, after the dust has settled and you’re back home, your child expresses deep fear or concern. Your child should also feel comfortable speaking with you or his or her instructor about fears about the corner of the arena where the incident happened. It’s OK to have concerns. But it’s important to figure them out and resolve them quickly to keep on riding and growing as a horseman.