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Riding After a Fall

One of the challenges of being a part of a horse and rider combination, is the likelihood that at some stage a fall and injury may impede our function. Naturally, it’s a very ‘normal’ human response to practice avoidance and not want to put ourselves in harm’s way.

Importantly, applying skills which support positive management of our emotions, physiology, and thought processes are critical if we are to turn around the negative impact to a positive outcome following a fall. As stated, our mind is hardwired to protect us from injury and learning to contain the flight response and subsequent anxiety is critical to our recovery. Fortunately, riders are a resilient bunch and possess the tenacious spirit to address challenges.

Clearly, when we are talking about the combination of horse and rider, we should evaluate the incident, and whether the mount is a trusted and suitable partner for the future. Often, we become emotionally connected to our horses and may not maintain an objective view as to whether the horse is fit for our purpose- and therefore an ongoing and worthwhile suitable mount for me to spend treasured time with.

In moving through recovery from injury Sports Psychology provides insight as to the conflicts one might feel, such as:
• Feeling angry or confused versus anxious and agitated.
• Obsessing about details such as time-frames to return to riding versus feeling the fall or injury is a psychological barrier I can’t overcome.
• Denying or downplaying the injury versus fixating on the injury features and being stifled from moving forward.
• Expressing guilt of not competing versus conflict of pushing back re-commencing my riding.
• Mood swings and negative self-talk versus reassuring messages.
• Pushing to come back too quickly versus loss of identity as not competing.
• Social isolation versus using busyness in other life domains to delay commencing riding again.

Thankfully, there are many solutions to assist in moving forward, in particular an investigation of the influence of a variety of learning theories provides valuable insight.

Behaviourism assists us in recognising the potential for an anxiety response when addressing a fall or injury. The stimulus being riding is associated with pain (a fall or injury), and hence learning to avoid the potential of further injury by not riding! However, this theory also enables one to address the ‘learned response’ of avoiding riding, by implementing exposure techniques which support the nervous system to settle. A graded exposure (a building up of exposure to riding), through a graded safe hierarchy will lead to desensitisation, enabling riding skills to be re-built.

A targeted hierarchy is dependent on the initial circumstances of the fall, but initially focus on building time and skills within a safe environment, thus reducing anxiety and building confidence.

Cognitivism provides the potential to focus on the drivers of cognitions and thought processes which may delay a return to the saddle. As such, the theory involves the re-organisation of experiences, and the development of new insights. Thus, being able to implement strategies to support growth including: setting goals, building confidence skills, use of positive self-talk and mindset, focus on my attitude and future expectations, use of sports imagery and motivational techniques, and getting great social supports such as a coach.

Critically, the shorter the timeframe out of the saddle the better, so I have developed a quick list to address your riding plan, just ensure you have recovered from any injuries.

Fear is normal, and as such learning to manage this is paramount to returning to riding. Learn applied breathing or mindfulness techniques to support you being able to focus.
Focus on “what you are doing” rather than “what I’m afraid of”, this will help you maintain your confidence.

1. Set achievable and manageable goals for your return, implement a de-sensitisation process. Once you are performing well then you can set performance goals and therefore you will keep any anxiety at a minimum.
2. Maintain positivity, life is full of hurdles to be overcome, consider this challenge as just another great learning experience on your life path. You will learn your deepest self, develop resilience and build character.
3. Learn mindfulness skills thus being able to be fully present when riding and not tangled in my own thoughts. Learn to defuse from unhelpful thinking processes.
4. Build your own self-concept, evaluate what’s really important to you and work towards your personal achievements.
5. Gather supports - a coach, a mentor, a sports psychologist, a partner, or friends to support you.

My wish is for you to strive to be all you can be, function within your optimal abilities, to be challenged and rise.

- Dr. Amanda Jefferys

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