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  • Writer's pictureEmmelia Potts

Falling. The good the bad and the ugly.

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Falling off a horse
Falling off is a right of passage. Photo:Shiteventersunite UK Facebook page

Falling is inevitable, but when is it a good thing, when is it bad and when does it grow into full-on ugly?


Horses are unpredictable. They are living creatures with their own minds. As riders, we need to remember that any interaction with a horse is a privilege and sitting on a horse is a gift, one that does not have to be granted every time. We also need to remember the utmost respect for the power underneath us. More often than not this is taken for granted, I include myself in this statement. It is far too easy to jump on a horse and go through the motions. It is only when you break away from the well-trained, well-behaved, "easy" equines that you are reminded of the stark reality. Nothing is guaranteed, and no horse is predictable. Every time you mount you are putting the horse in charge of your life.

Previous falls:

I can not claim to have had any truly horrific falls in the past, I've been quite lucky. No broken bones, no serious hospital visits, just a few concussions and hairline fractures. At riding school and when learning to jump I would fall off all the time, when I first had Dillon I would fall off all the time. It seems to be the case that when you push yourself to the next tier of difficulty you are bound to fall until you improve. The last serious series of falls I can recall was on a younger large horse when I worked in racing full time. I mounted and she went straight up and over with me, fell on my leg but nothing broke. Another was a small bay mare thoroughbred that bucked me off in the school whilst warming up for the gallops and kicked me on my way down, catching my arm. Again, I was okay. Since then there have been falls off younger fresh ponies and flops when not paying attention. All minor...

A few technicalities:

I was standing in the staff room on a February morning. Looking at the ride-out list, 6 lots (number of horse groups being ridden), all horses I enjoy riding and it was a work day. LOVE a workday!

For anyone not familiar with the term "working the racehorses" let me explain. There are many types of work and every yard will do it differently. However, to keep it simple the horses are side by side, going at speed, getting used to being challenged by other horses and reenacting a race situation. It is helpful to educate the youngsters before a race, teaching inexperienced horses to join another horse and to see how the more experienced horses are doing in their training or to make any tweaks to their tack before their next race. The riders essentially feedback to the trainer on how the horse felt fitness and comfort-wise. The trainer will then combine this feedback with their watchful eye and experience to make any tack, training or feed alterations to that particular horse. As I say, it's a lot more complex than this! Below is a video of what riding work should look like.

It is also important to understand the gallops set-up we use. The circular gallop is used most days to go around and around building up stamina. On workdays, we do a few steady laps around the circular and then go up the straight, quickening at the junction between the circular and straight gallops. The number of times this is done depends on the horse. See below for a visual on the track, you will need to understand this for the stories!

A sketch of how the gallops are laid out.
A sketch of how the gallops are laid out.

A final general point is the end of the straight has a hedge and concrete fence at the end with a very tight turn point. Often riders joke that we can not stop and a few times we do fly a bit close to the wind with the horses stopping before we end up in the neighbouring field. However, it is always okay and the horses always pull up before the hedge, sometimes it is a bit hair-raising though!

So it was a work day where we were allowed to go at speed, life was good.

Fall 1:

There were two of us riding work on this particular day. Nick, the work rider and myself. Both of us have a good sense of humour, fortunately, which we needed on this day. My first lot went really well, I finally thought I was beginning to get back into the swing of riding the racehorses. Riding high on the first lot I became a bit too determined to ensure all my rides worked well, trying to do the horses, myself and the trainer proud. What's the expression? Quit whilst you are ahead!?

My second lot was an unraced filly (a female horse under 4 years old) who I always enjoy riding. She can be a bit strong and you need to ensure you are paying attention with steering as she is only young. However, she is a pleasure to ride and a lovely honest horse with a bit of personality. We set off on the circular, Nick leading, filly and I following, everything going well. When hitting the beginning of the straight the filly felt amazing and I knew she was in the zone for a good piece of work. As we quickened towards the junction I pulled out from behind Nick leading and started to come upsides, a little too close to the junction of the circular and the straight. As the speed increased filly became confused as to which way she was going. I felt her start to waiver between the circular and straight gallops, she was heading towards the circular. "Argh no no girl," I said and gave her a push over to the left. She responded a lot more than I expected and darted to the left up the straight at the last minute. I however was going around the circular without her. Unbalanced at the sudden change of direction I lost my left stirrup (the metal you put your feet in) and my left leg flew over the horse's back to the right-hand side.

I was for a few strides stunt riding on the right-hand side of the horse. I have no idea how, but I managed to get my left leg back over the filly's back, however, she was still galloping down the straight doing her work. Nick was still pushing his horse on, oblivious to what was going on. "WAHOO I DIDN'T FALL OFF!!!" I celebrated internally for a second "NOW WHAT!?". Lacking one stirrup became two. By this point, I was riding work at pace with no stirrups and a saddle that had slipped to the side of the horse from my weight all being on the right-hand side. "JUST STAY ON, JUST STAY ON" I repeated in my mind, "you can not fall off at this speed it will hurt".

By halfway down the straight Nick had realised I had no stirrups and no saddle. I was trying to pull up and having no luck with my serious lack of bareback galloping practice. One final pull to try and stop and it unbalanced me and off I fell into the rails on the right.

falling off horses
The play by play of fall 1

Facedown in the sand, I laid still. The first thought was "ouch", the second was "dam I thought I might stay on there!", the third was "right, do the checks to make sure everything is still working. Halfway through the checks, I heard Nick shout "EM she's coming back!". Sure enough, the filly was running towards me, going for her second round of work back down the straight but without a rider. Now, let me tell you, nothing will make you get up off the floor like the threat of a horse running over you. I jumped up, caught her and confirmed to the trainer that I was okay. Legged up, back on and galloping back down the straight, Nick and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. What the hell just happened!? I apologised to the filly for not giving her the correct information, we cooled the horses off and trundled back down to the yard to get on the next lot.

The blame for this fall was 100% myself. Communication on my side with the horse was lacking. It has made me realise I take it for granted that a lot of the horses in training work on autopilot. You can not take riding any horse for granted. This was very much complacency on my part.

Fall 2:

The third lot went well and so did the fourth lot. Both horses are regular rides of mine that are a total joy. The fifth lot was a fairly recent addition to my ride-out list. An unraced chestnut gelding...spotting a pattern here? He has a bit of a reputation for being a bit cheeky and everyone in the yard has fallen off him as a result. I was the last man standing and had been doing so for two weeks. I looked forward to riding this little horse and he was improving every time he worked, feeling keener and beginning to cotton on to what being a racehorse meant.

My instructions from the trainer were "Nick's horse is a good worker, I am not expecting your horse to keep up Em but I would like to know if he can". As I say, he had been improving over the weeks and I felt up to the challenge that he would keep up with the other horse. So off we set around the circular. He was keen, the final lap approached and we started to quicken. Lesson learnt from the first fall of the day, I kept tucked in behind Nick until we went past the junction. I kept my horse on Nicks horses tail to give him a chance once we quickened and boy did he deliver! I changed my hands and off he went, keeping pace with the other horse all the way, with no sign of slowing down. "HORAHH! Little man you are awesome, thank you!" I thought. We carried on and I was beaming from ear to ear relishing every moment, I loved this little man! Eventually, I began to take a pull to slow down and steady where we always do. My horse did not respond... "I can't stop Nick! I shouted. "neither can I!" he replied, looking a bit worried, (not a facial expression I was used to seeing on the other riders). I began to pull harder as did Nick. We were both swinging off our horses as the end of the straight got closer and closer at an alarming rate. One final pull and nothing, I looked at Nick, he was still struggling but his horse was slowing slightly. Mine was still full speed at 20 meters out from the edge of the straight. I was about to be met by a large hedge and concrete fence underneath. "Shit, this is it, this is how I die" is all I thought as both myself and my little horse ran out of track.

Falling off horses
The play by play of fall 2

The horse slammed on the brakes once his front feet touched the hedge, catapulting me, in a star shape, through the sky into the hedge face first, identical to cartoons. Laying in the hedge I got the giggles. My thoughts on this one were "OMG how the hell am I alive, let alone okay from that" followed by, "that was utterly ridiculous and must have looked hilarious". I got the giggles and dragged myself out of the hedge to see Nick crying with laughter, tears streaming down his face. "YOU CRASHED INTO THE HEDGE! HA! He shouted. That was it, I could not stop laughing.

"I am going to wee myself! I can't breathe" I giggled, legs crossed.

The trainer and the horse's owner ran up to us both with panic on their faces shouting to see if I was okay. Upon seeing me bent over laughing holding my horse and Nick's eyes streaming, they also laughed. Legging back on, we galloped down the straight to finish the work off. Tears streamed down both our faces "It is never a dull moment when you come and ride out" he laughed.

It was only after the laughing stopped that I realised actually how lucky I was. Below is a video of this just before we started to try pulling up.

The blame for this fall was a little bit of both horse and rider. I asked him to pull up as if he was an experienced horse going at speed. However, what I can not take fault for was him not listening to me over and over again. He knows what the aids are for stopping, he also has eyes and I like to think saw the hedge! Why didn't he listen? The only thing I can think of is he was so focused on the work he just found it hard to get out of the zone and snap out of the "racing" with the other horse. Either way, he got pats for working well and keeping up! After all, the one pathological thought with horse riders is that it is never the horses' fault!

I did bow out of the last lot as by this point my head and back were rather sore and I was beginning to see stars.

Falling, the good:

I had not fallen off for about 5 years previous to this. This day definitely curbed the fear of falling again. It's like ripping off a bandaid. Once it happens and you realise you are not injured you think "oh okay well that wasn't great but I am okay" So I am not overly worried about falling off in Mongolia now. If it happens, it happens.

Riding bareback down the straight on the first fall has given me a bit of confidence that my emergency riding is actually better than I thought. I have more confidence now about staying on the horses in Mongolia when everything goes wrong.

Falling, the bad:

It has brought me back to the reality that actually what I am doing is dangerous and not to get complacent. A much-needed reality check but I need to make sure this does not hinder my confidence.

Falling, the ugly:

The aching, I am not as young as I used to be!

  • No matter how long you have been riding or how good you think you are always wear a hat! I suspect this is why I walked away from these falls fairly unscathed.

  • Remember that horses are not mind readers, if you give the wrong aids and they do not understand they will fill in the gaps themselves to the best of their ability.


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