As you mature, you gain a broader awareness of things that could go wrong and the consequences, especially where those consequences can prove harmful. Growing up, I would hop on Rocky’s back, kick on and jump anything in our way. No show jump was too high, no ditch was too wide – I loved it all. My favourite feeling was turning Rocky to a jump, feel him lock his eyes onto it, sense his change of gear underneath me and fly over it like it took no effort at all. But as I’ve got older (at the grand old age of twenty four) I’ve begun to develop a sense of what could go wrong with the jumping and just how much it could hurt if it did go wrong.
I stretched myself out of my comfort zone during the Spring and it only took one jump for me to remember just why I’d loved it so much throughout my childhood and teens.
In the summer, however, Duke and I had a jumping accident which confirmed my underlying fears of the dangers of jumping when it goes wrong. It was a group gridwork lesson which was going very well for Duke and I, right up until five minutes before the end. A grid had been set up on the centre line, with only baby cross poles for Duke so that he could concentrate on his strides and not have to worry too much about getting his legs over the poles. As we came down the grid, he jumped the penultimate crosspole a little too enthusiastically, meaning we landed so close to the last jump that it would in effect have to be taken as a bounce. In that moment, the confusion was a bit mind boggling for Duke’s inexperienced head and he panicked sideways, clipping the wing as he went. The wing fell onto his bottom which led to him bronkoing like a mustang down the arena. Every rider is familiar with that point of no return – when you know that you’re coming off, it’s just a case of bracing yourself for the thud. I reached that point of no return with every buck throwing me further out of the saddle. As we continued to bronko towards the fence, the prospect of me flying through Duke’s ears and over the fence, splatting on the concrete floor the other side, became more of a probability than a possibility. I decided that landing on the arena sand would be a better option by far and made every effort I could to land between Duke and the fence, thus just inside the school. The good news was that I did technically land on the sand in the arena, the bad news was that my fall was broken by my head and spine slamming against the arena’s wooden wall before my body then slid down to the sand like a swotted fly. Duke tried to jump me so as not to stand on my body, but in doing so his toe just flicked my ribs which, despite it being just a flick, hurt excrutiatingly.
Against the advice of my instructor, I got back on for the remainder of the lesson and then drove Duke and I home, my ribs stinging every time I so much as lifted my hand to use the indicator. That night I took a couple of pain killers to sufficiently quell the pain in my head and ribs to allow sleep to wash over me, but was awoken at 5am with a headache so severe I could hear my heart beat in my ears. Waiting until a more sociable hour, I then took myself to A&E where I was rushed to ‘Major Incidents’ as soon as the doctors heard me say I’d fallen off a horse. I was surprised how little concern was shown for the smacking of my head against a wooden wall, but apparently as no fluid came out of my ears then the chances of me suffering any serious injury to my head were pretty low. Big concern however was shown for my neck which had been painful after my wall splat, therefore the doctors wanted to prohibit me from moving it and risking any further damage until the results of my scan had returned.Neck brace fastened, blocks either side of my head to stop me from moving and a tape across my forehead to make doubly sure I didn’t even wriggle an inch, I lay strapped to a trolley for the following six hours with strict instructions to keep everything above my shoulders absolutely still. I was given a stern word more than once when I subconsciously nodded whilst answering a question, and was especially told off when I moved my head whilst laughing when the nurse asked me if this was the first time I’d ever fallen off a horse. His face when I told him I’d stopped counting my falls when I got to fifty was such a mixture of horror and shock that I couldn’t help but giggle just as the doctor walked passed and shouted “MISS OWEN STOP LAUGHING AND KEEP THAT HEAD STILL”.
By hour four on my trolley, there was absolutely no risk of me laughing – my lower back had begun to lock due to my lack of movement and the soluble morphine fed to me through a straw wasn’t even taking the edge off the pain thrumming down my coccyx and through my legs. The fantastic nurse taking care of me was so sweet in dabbing my cheeks (because my own hands were strapped down) when the frustration and the pain all became so overwhelming and big bulbous tears began rolling down my face.
“Just think,” he said to me, “there’s someone in this hospital having an even worse day than you. You’ll probably leave here with both your legs and both your arms.”
“Yes I suppose so…hang on, what do you mean ‘probably’?! David come back…WHAT DO YOU MEAN PROBABLY?!”
After hour six, the doctor came to release me from the trolley with the very welcome news that my upper back had suffered nothing more than bruising and my neck had a couple of very small hairline fractures that would heal themselves.
As relieved as I was that the pain was caused by nothing more serious, the shock of what had happened – and moreso, what could have been – hung over me for months. I was back in the saddle within a week and even competed within a fortnight, however it has taken four months for me to pluck up the courage to ride over poles. But today, we did it!
I was conscious that my fall was the first time Duke had ever experienced he and I dramatically parting company. He was very stressed at the time, his legs trembling like little noodles and his nostrils flared as he stared down at me, trying to work out why I was on the floor and not with him. Therefore, he was likely to be harbouring some anxiousness or even fear regarding pole work, given how disastrously it had ended last time. I consequently wanted to give him the utmost confidence I could as a rider, so as to encourage him and not project my own nerves.
Approaching the first pole today, his gait became much more tense and the forward movement fell restrictive and wobbly. He snorted, clearly unsure as to whether or not the pole was going to cause him to launch me into outer space again, but as I pushed him forward with my seat and clicked my tongue, he took the bit forward and sprung himself over it like he was tackling the puissance wall at Olympia. After giving him a cuddle, I took him over it again and again before putting out some more poles at which he did not even bat an eye lid. In fact, he got so excited that we started tearing around the arena, charging over one pole then him pulling me into the next one.
I beat myself up for four months over not having the nerve to take Duke over poles after our accident, but I really needn’t have. I did it when I was ready and able to give him the confidence he sought from me. With no rushing and no stress, we picked up more or less where we left off and are in the ideal position to push forward and progress further over the winter months. Who knows, we may even be competing Cross Country by the summer…