The arena was buzzing with horses and riders. She fastened her helmet and started to mount, excited about this second riding lesson with her young mare. As she slipped her foot into the stirrup her horse spooked, lurching forward and spinning, and she was thrown to the ground. After the fall it took months to recover from the concussion and traumatic brain injury. Her fractured ribs were still tender, but she felt ready to start riding again. She just wasn’t sure if her horse was safe.
This story might sound familiar. According to a frequently cited 2007 report,¹ four in five riders have had at least one injury over their lifetime and one in five have required surgery, hospitalization, or rehabilitation.
Someone who has been injured in a riding accident with their horse will occasionally contact me, and I can usually help when a horse behavior or training issue is involved. I wanted to know what I might do to help the person, too, so I asked mental health and relationship counselor Kelsey Wallach, LMHC. She is an experienced equestrian and has previously worked as an equine facilitated therapies instructor and counselor. I’ve summarized Wallach’s insights in this commentary.
After the Fall—Signs of Trauma
People who have experienced trauma might struggle to keep their emotions and behavior in a normal range, says Wallach. ‘Emotional dysregulation’ is caused by hyperarousal of the nervous system, which presents as feeling anxious, angry, or out of control, or by hypoarousal of the nervous system, which presents as feeling spacey, numb, or shut down. The feelings can be unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and overwhelming. Wallach adds that horses are uniquely sensitive and reactive to the physiological changes of hyper/hypoarousal, including changes in heart rate, muscle tension, and breathing pattern.
Wallach explains that emotional dysregulation can become worse around objects and contexts related to the incident. The horse, the arena, a mounting block, etc., can trigger emotional distress as well as distinct changes in physiology. To an observer, the person might appear unusually tense, hesitant, or angry, and they may startle easily, shake, cry, lack confidence, or avoid activities.
Wallach suggests that when someone becomes dysregulated around a horse, others can help by demonstrating what to do to. For example, if the person is tense and holding the horse’s lead rope in a tight grip, showing them how to relax—by shaking out their arms, changing posture, and taking a deep breath—will be more effective than simply telling them to relax.
A person experiencing emotional dysregulation can trigger stressful emotional and physiological reactions in others, especially their horse, and Wallach says this can increase problem behaviors and interfere with rebuilding the human-horse relationship. Monitoring the physiological signs of hyper/hypoarousal can be a useful way to keep emotions in a manageable and productive range. Wallach counsels that some people might benefit from working with a different reliable and safe horse for a while, one that will not be easily affected by a person’s strong emotions.
Getting Back With the Horse
Wallach had a few suggestions about how to get back with the horse after an accident or injury:
Repair the human-horse relationship. Horse people are tough and motivated to ride again even after having suffered a serious injury. The incentives come from multiple sources, says Wallach, including cultural conventions (“get back on the horse”), a sense of identity (“I’m a horse person”), social connections (“most of my good friends are at the barn”), and a strong attachment (“I love my horse”).
Wallach advises that repairing the human-horse relationship is an important first step before returning to a normal routine. After injuries caused by the physical trauma have healed, emotional symptoms of trauma—such as low self-confidence and loss of trust—can persist. A strong attachment bond depends on feeling safe and secure, and—along with broken bones—the human-horse relationship may have been fractured in the incident.
Reframe the story. Trauma is subjective, and how the injured person interprets the incident is called “meaning making.” Wallach explains that sometimes a person’s interpretation of their horse’s behavior can interfere with rebuilding the human-horse relationship. Reframing the story can help. Friends, family, and professionals can suggest alternative explanations about what happened in a factual and relationally supportive way.
Wallach adds a reminder to be empathetic, as well as mindful of the tone and words used, when reframing the incident. For example, the rider who was injured while mounting believed her mare “is not a safe horse.” A supportive alternative explanation might be, “It makes sense that your young mare was anxious and spooked. She had only been in that arena once before, and this time it was packed with unfamiliar horses and riders.”
Recommend seeing a counselor. Recovering from a traumatic incident is hard to do alone. A person who experiences a riding accident might not recognize signs of trauma in themselves, but family and friends often do.
In addition to being available to provide support, they can gently suggest the person make an appointment with a mental health counselor. Riding coaches and trainers might have a professional ethical responsibility to do so. Licensed counselors are experienced with techniques known to aid recovery from trauma, which help the injured person learn to regulate their nervous system and make meaning of the incident in a way that supports connection.
Someone who is in a serious accident with a horse typically expects to put time and effort into physical rehabilitation and follows the advice of their physician or physical therapist. In some cases the incident also extracts an emotional toll. Support from family, friends and professionals may be needed to help the person recover from the psychological effects of trauma and get back with the horse.
1 Mayberry, J. C., Pearson, T. E., Wiger, K. J., Diggs, B. S., & Mullins, R. J. (2007). Equestrian injury prevention efforts need more attention to novice riders. Journal of Trauma – Injury, Infection and Critical Care, 62(3), 735-739. https://doi.org/10.1097/ta.0b013e318031b5d4