Post Traumatic Fall Disorder - fear and riding
Post Traumatic Fall Disorder - Introduction
PTFD is purely my terminology for what I believe is a common problem amongst horse riders. This sport is dangerous largely for the reasons which Newton explained in his historic work on Physics. Horse and rider are not glued together and sooner or later they go their separate ways because that is what Nature says will happen.
If the rider hits the ground too fast or too hard then a bone here or there might break. The problem is that very often it is the head or the neck or the spine which takes much of the brunt of a fall. Regardless of what the
conscious brain thinks, the sub conscious brain doesn’t accept that the body is designed for such trauma so it tells the conscious part of the brain to desist from such a risky sport - or to at least to get ready for the blow that one day is likely to happen. The end result is that the rider tenses up and the forces of Physics are intensified rather than absorbed. Fear takes over. With fear comes anger. But anger and horses simply do not mix.
Herewith is a story of one man’s fight with this problem.
His story is not typical in that he is well past his sell by date and long into retirement. For him the answer is plain to see: - give up riding. But his love of his horse holds him back from taking the step of hanging up his stirrup irons. The horse would have to be sold on. At this late stage of his life other physical ailments arise which are not so much a result of horse riding but from other abuses incurred over a lifetime. The body was built to last for about three score years and ten so we are told.
This thread is not a training manual. It is a series of articles on a man’s loss of confidence in his ability to sit his own horse. They are the notes of the man’s attempt to overcome his fears when trying to understand what happened. Almost two years after the fall, the Old Man is still not sitting comfortably on his horse but maybe his story will help others to overcome their fears.
Post Traumatic Fall Disorder - the Long Route to a Cure.
It came literally as a nasty shock to come off my heavy cob whilst he was bolting down a steep lane. Undoubtedly it was the worst fall in my riding career. I received a blow to the base of the skull and further injury to the lower back. Concussion and shock set in. Four months later, after the horse had languished for 3 months in his stable on box rest to allow for the check ligament to heal, the second fall on the village green was less serious because luckily I had fallen to the ground via a convenient bush. My swopping a couple of months later, the Geordie gelding for a much kinder and better schooled Irish mare did not solve the problem. Within two months of owning her I had come off her twice in scenarios where I had no real excuse for losing my seat. Obviously something was wrong . Friends watching me ride had said repeatedly that I looked wooden and stiff on the horse. I knew for myself that it now took very little to make me feel angry with her. She was unquestionably skittish. However the little shies should have presented no serious obstacle to an experienced rider like myself and unlike my original horse, she had no malicious intention to bolt. Nevertheless she was getting to me and it was no fun to ride her. It was time for an outsider’s opinion.
It was on the same day of the third fall that a local show jumping trainer came to see us working together. In fact the little demo we gave, just a few hours after the fall, satisfied him that there was nothing unduly wrong with my style, after all I had been riding horses for 32 years. He watched, made a few positive and a few negative comments and gave me a programme to follow. I knew something more fundamental was wrong and he had not picked up on it. Why should he, he did not really know me from Adam.
The real thing to follow up on was the tension in me. I realised that if I were to tense up then any forces created by the horse with a sharp movement would not be absorbed by me. The rider has to be able to absorb the power of any thrust through the shock absorbers namely the ankles, the knees and the hips. If the forces are not absorbed or re-directed then the Laws of Physics say that I would project the forces and most likely in the process I would come off the back of the horse. So I told myself to relax. Unfortunately the one thing I could not readily do was to relax, neither could I lose the disconcerting feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I got up into the saddle. I knew that: I was holding my breath; I was gritting my teeth; I was setting my jaw; I was grabbing the reins and I was clamping my thighs around the body of the horse. Despite the fact that I had recognised the mistakes I was making, there was very little I could do to release the tension. But worse was yet to come, I knew that my fears were deepening. There was no way by which I felt that I could ride the horse out of the yard. Every time I sat on the horse and it made a sudden move, I would panic. My heels would come up and I’d pull the horse back into the slowest of walks.
I called the previous and very knowledgeable owner of my mare and asked her to come over and help me. The visit proved to be very worthwhile and she gave me a few tips. One of the important suggestions was that I contacted another trainer. She confirmed that the horse had the capability to be what I wanted: “A Gentleman’s Riding Horse” - a go anywhere hack. She politely suggested that the mare was picking up on my tensions and, with hindsight, she was right.
After the visit I read up on every relevant horse book in my library. I trawled through the internet. Amongst the helpful hints was an article on the Alexander Technique. It seems we humans have a sub-conscious brain which controls most of our basic movements. We ride without conscious effort because this part of our brain is in control. When we fall off and damage ourselves, this side of our brain says : “Oi - what’s this hobby of yours doing? If you aren’t prepared for the next fall then you are going to hurt yourself .“ As individuals we may think we have full control of our emotions and reactions but in actuality we don’t. Mr Alexander had developed a technique for re-programming our sub conscious brain and it is very relevant for any horse rider to understand the principles involved. It is a fact that we learned to ride by rote - constant repetition. Equally we can, with dedication, “unlearn” the wrong way of positioning ourselves and by using similar principles, we can relearn a more appropriate method. Incidentally, Mr Alexander was not only a singer, he was also a horse rider. I made an appointment to visit locally an Alexander practitioner - indeed eventually I went back six times. It was very evident almost from the beginning that the technique was no quackery.
It suddenly became clear to me, that if I were to continue riding then I would have to learn how to release the stresses inside me. The essence of my problem was that: ‘I had lost my bottle‘. Deep inside me, I was too frightened to ride a horse. Perhaps what I was suffering from could best be described as Post Traumatic Fall Disorder. The rehabilitation process was going to take time and I should be ready for a struggle which might not even prove to be successful but the only alternative was to cut one’s losses and sell the horse. If I could not ride the horse out on a hack then it would be time for a complete change of lifestyle.
The first important step was to admit not only to myself but to others within my circle of horsey friends and acquaintances that I had a serious problem. I would need their help and understanding to get through the process.
Having diagnosed the problem, the next step was to go back to fundamentals. I decided to hang up my riding boots for a couple of months. There was no point in reinforcing my defensive reactions against riding. In any case, after the fourth fall in the arena, there were aches and pains to evaporate and some bruising to disperse. This decision meant that I would have to find someone to ride my horse whilst I was indisposed and luckily my wife stepped forward to take up part of the load. We also asked a couple of the other riders at the livery yard if they would ride our horse once or twice a week. I would do the horse no harm to get used to different riding styles. As it turned out DiDi got involved with a wire fence and she was laid off to recuperate for a couple of months.
End Part 1
POST TRAUMATIC FALL DISORDER Part 2
In the interim I arranged to have myself checked out physically. First came McTimoney, an area of medical expertise centred on the spine and central core. The falls had indeed provoked a distortion from the correct alignment of the skeleton in the back. I also visited the sports masseuse and she worked on the tight muscle groups. Luckily I had been involved for some time with a Pilates Club, which focuses on exercising the muscles of the lower back and the stomach - all important body zones for the horse rider.
Whilst my wife would exercise the horse, it was also appropriate to go back to the basics with the schooling of the animal. I devised a series of work programmes. We walked down into the village; we did lunging work in the arena; we started on desensitisation work - much of it ‘in hand‘. I had already had the horse checked out professionally for any health problems with her spine or with her teeth. The saddle provoked some questions but unless I was prepared to find a £1K for a new saddle there was not much to be done. In any case in the process of buying a new saddle I must, as a minimum, be able to ride the horse and to adopt the correct posture whilst seated on the horse.
The next job was to locate a suitable instructor - this time one who was capable of remedial work on an experienced long term rider who had developed over the years a lot of bad habits. The younger tutor is trained to teach the modern way of the BHS school of riding whereas I needed someone who could retune my way of riding to fit the expectations of a seven year old mare who had been schooled to respond to a recognised set of aids. My mare was not only young but she was also fit, agile and very sensitive. Ask her to do something in a way which she understood and she would instantly do it. Back in the 1970s, when I learned to ride, the rider was taught to stay on - elegance and style were not the key prerogatives of learning to ride - in those days one was taught by rote how not to fall off. Formal dressage was for poofters. Later in life I had been shown how to sit a Western saddle, a style which encourages straight legs, weight in the stirrups and long loose reins. Recently when asked to identify my style of riding I would reply: “Mid-Atlantic” “ie with a forward seat and the weight pushed down into the stirrup irons”. Until recently this “cross country” system worked for me and I had only rarely come off, despite having ridden about a hundred horses of varying temperaments. Eventually I was referred to Rosie - who came with impeccable references. However in trying to meet with Rosie’s instructions I needed to concentrate and at the same time I began to leave behind my new found nervousness when actually riding the horse. Once I had learned, with Rosie’s help how to get the horse down on to the bit - even for just a stride or two, I realised that this lady knew what she was talking about. Essentially she was/is a show judge but she has a very good eye for the movement of both horse and rider. Also she has/had a pleasant way of expressing herself. The important thing for me though was that I was back in the saddle in a controlled environment learning what it felt like to ride my new horse properly.
My wife had told me that the horse was basically kind and sympathetic to the rider - all she looked for was confidence. The little startlets were an indication of the horse’s own lack of confidence but she did not really intend to discard her rider. Strangely trying to learn to sit upright on a light responsive horse, distracted my mind away from the nervousness I had experienced before. I also became aware of just how sensitive the mare is - the slightest adjustment of my weight created a response from her.
Seemingly the cure for my “illness”, for that is what fear can become, lies within oneself. Get help. Confess one’s weakness. Go back to basics and relearn one’s riding skills by rote. Take time and give the brain a prolonged opportunity to heal itself. Plan the route to rehabilitation; set some little milestones to reach. Lose the terror; relive the joy of riding. Spend time in the arena going round and round in circles. Do lots of short, hopefully stress free, rides over known terrain. These actions appear to be the answer. One horsie author talks about every rider having a bucket of courage which over a lifetime we steadily consume. Maybe he is correct.
Obviously things will not be right for me until I can happily direct the horse (and me) up into the woods and come back to home via the pub down by the main road. I suspect it will take months before I can. Owning an agile, forward going, responsive but slightly skittish horse does not help me but we are now going round the lanes of the village in ever increasing circles - often with my wife walking along side. Soon we shall be taking longer jaunts in the company of other riders. It is all a question of taking things stage by stage, step by step. Luckily in the process of being exercised by my wife, the horse has been learning the routes and getting used to the main highway., so the lanes are not so strange to her as once they were.
There is a need for a new saddle. The dressage saddle is not fit for purpose especially on this new horse. We are shortly going to be trying a saddle with substantial knee rolls and a deep seat. How much of a difference the saddle will really make remains to be seen but a saddle one sits “in” as against “on” should give a better sense of security. No doubt the saddle will prove to be expensive but this factor should put a little pressure on me to get out on the horse and make use of it.
It was just over a year ago that I would still be eagerly charging about with gay abandon the local pathways and byways of hereabouts on a powerful but wilful cob. In those days I would regularly meander through spooky ancient woodland and boldly walk alongside busy trunk roads. In total contrast, at one dark stage early during my “illness”, I felt reluctant to mount even in the safety of the arena, that very same horse on whom I had enjoyed years of fun. Every sudden movement, however benign, by the horse would send alarm up through my nerves to my brain.
Nowadays adopting a positive but relaxed attitude is a must. My posture has been reset: I must sit up at 90 degrees with a natural curve in my spine; my legs must hang with my heels down and my toes lightly resting in the stirrup irons; the reins must be kept short and held correctly in both hands and my body weight must be carried equally in both sides of the saddle; my eyes should be looking to the front. After all these years I am learning to ride all over again. No more leaning forwards with my weight on the stirrup bars. I believe I am on the mend but the old habits die hard. In times of stress I instantly revert back to the old style. Making progress is all about conquering one’s inner demons. The alternative is to lose the companionship of the horse and that has become fundamentally the spur to success. What would we human horse lovers do without our equines? What would I do without my young, pretty, dapple grey mare?
To be continued: -
Thank you for sharing this with us!
Like you said, having a positive and relaxed attitude is a must. When I am nervous, I tell myself "riding is fun." While that should be obvious, I think sometimes we get so focused on what could go wrong, we forget why we are riding in the first place! Getting on the horse with the right mind-set helps a lot.
Again, thanks so much for sharing your personal story.
Thank you for sharing this. I found so very many similarities between your story and my own. This really gave me some great insights into my own situation as well as many things to think about.
Your story is greatly appreciated.
A Modern System of Schooling Horses
BGs problem in riding DiDi is obviously not just a one sided problem. DiDi eventually has to cope with all of her rider’s insecurities and being that she herself suffers from her own fears that can become a heavy load to bear DiDi inherits her fears from her own species and it is her handler’s task to negate those fears constantly throughout their partnership. However if the handler gets screwed up there is a serious problem for both of them. Hence the thought that this article is appropriate for the subject of Post Traumatic Fall Disorder, it is all about the horse’s fears and not just the rider’s.
In today’s equine world there is a steadily growing movement of thought that the traditional method of schooling horses ie under the old system of “negative reinforcement “ is nowadays inappropriate. The concept of putting a horse under stress until it does what is being asked of it, is no longer so fashionable. The traditional system can leave a horse rebellious - what is now believed to work better is positive reinforcement - ie praise and reward for a horse doing what it has been asked to do. Firstly you ask the horse to do something, then you insist and finally you demand More and more horse riders are coming to accept that horses have not only brains but also emotions. However it is important to remember that the trainer can easily teach bad responses as well as correct responses. Most horse owners will readily confirm that their horses can be temperamental - on some days they are cooperative and on others they are positively un-cooperative. There is usually a reason for such a change in attitude. Horses are not machines and should be handled with careful and knowledgeable firmness, If a horse does not do what it is told instantly, then quite often there is a reason but chastisement is not necessarily the cure for a slow response to a command. The whip is presently seen to be appropriate for use as an indicator but not as an instrument of punishment. In the olden days when large numbers of horses were used by the military, a schooling system for remounts known as negative reinforcement was developed so that horses lost perhaps as a result of military activity could be quickly replaced and immediately used by a trooper. The cavalryman had been trained to a universally adopted system so that there was the all important element of control. This system found its way into the private sector. A horse should be schooled to be at all times instantly obedient. In modern times the Germans even believe that horses can be bred specifically to be obedient.
The ownership of a horse somehow seem to fulfil a need in the owner’s psyche. Only too often when looking for a horse to buy, the purchaser will almost instantly latch on to a horse after meeting it for just a short time. It is all a bit like dating - we don’t quite understand the emotion that a man may have for a woman or vica versa but we recognise the possibility of an instant attraction. In the stable where I keep my present horse there is a 14h2 Welsh cob mare that I always say ‘hello’ to and likewise she always comes over to be stroked. Sadly she is too small for me to ride regularly but I know we would have a good time together. She does not readily bond with her owner but she always comes up to me whenever I enter her field.
Of course there is a danger in all this emotion. Emotion must not demote the human to be a servant of the equine. A horse can’t live in this XXIst century without man. It is the human who understands the rules of society and the horse must be obedient as otherwise chaos can ensue. A horse is usually 500 kilos of muscle - in each steel shod hoof there lies 125kgs of power. Neither man nor woman can match a horse’s strength. So we humans have to control this creature by using our brains as much as our brawn despite the help of bits and other restraining devices. Increasingly riders and owners are turning to natural horsemanship methods which are different from the traditional methods as in earlier times proposed by Baucher and Capt. Nolan. The modern attitude is to fundamentally treat the horse with respect. First show the horse what is wanted, then ask the horse to do it; if the horse hesitates, then insist. Finally if the horse refuses then demand. A horse should be led with minimal pressure on the lead rope indeed, off the leash it will walk at the rider’s shoulder if trained to do so.
From the horse’s point of view this modern system can be simplified into: - “if the horse is to place its trust in the rider, then the rider should be worthy of the trust”. By inference therefore if the rider has lost his/her confidence then the horse cannot be expected to obey.
End Part 1
The Modern System of Schooling Horses
Horses do have incredible memories and it is this faculty which the trainer uses to show the horse how to behave and perform. It is said that most horses, after being shown a movement three times, will reproduce that movement so long as the trainer has the ability to communicate with the creature. The system can work in the opposite way however and if the trainer or rider causes the horse distress, then the horse will react negatively. Horses will remember pain as well as comfort. Undoubtedly horses are influenced by their genes and they do inherit some behavioural patterns. When subject to stress their natural instinct is to run away after all they are one of the fastest animals on the planet. But corner a male or female horse then it will soon become apparent that the horse has ample capability to strike back either with its feet or with its teeth. The sheer bulk of the animal gives it the ability to barge its way past any mere human block the way. However most well handled horse are not aggressive towards humans as in the same way, most dogs are not. Humans have by selective breeding reduced the incidence of dominant or aggressive equines. Amazingly horses will often show towards young children an unusual awareness of the young person’s fragility. The snigger which accompanies the arrival of the owner could be said to be a horse’s expression of anticipation towards a bucket of feed but it is also perhaps to be seen as a warm expression of welcome. For a human to understand the horse is largely a question of trial and error. The handler makes an assumption about a horse’s reaction to a given set of circumstances and then the handler should test the theory he has assumed. The handler should watch the horse to gauge its reaction to a particular set of circumstances .
The human has the brain to make deductions. But the horse probably also makes deductions as to how its handler responds. It would be very foolish to think that horses don’t observe and test humans Most humans have a strong feeling towards their parents for the simple reason that it was the parent who showed the child how to survive in this modern complicated world. Perhaps if we riders thought our horses to have the emotions of kids, we might not have so many problems in dealing with their fears.
Fear is always present in equestrian sport for the simple reason that danger is never far away. OK the fear can be kept at bay but horse riding is universally accepted as being a dangerous sport. Just falling off a horse once can leave the rider crippled for life. Fall off at the wrong time at the wrong speed and in the wrong place and just maybe the rider will die. If the rider has a horse that can be trusted then undoubtedly the rider will steadily learn to appreciate the horse. More likely - if the horse proves to be untrustworthy then the rider will start to dislike the horse - simply because the rider may fear it. The opposite can also be said. The horse will readily sense, perhaps with instincts we don’t yet fully understand, that its rider is feeling nervous. Fear will transmit from the human to the horse down through the reins, the seat and the legs. Sometimes the older mature horse will respond: it will know the rider is nervous so it will slow down its movements to allow for the rider’s uncertainty. Alternatively the young horse will pick on the rider’s uncertainty and will itself become nervous. For the rider who has recently experienced a bad fall, this transmission of fear can be a major problem. The rider’s sub conscious brain reacts negatively even when the rider’s conscious brain is saying; “OK, let us get on with it“. The rider can’t hide the tension lying within him. In fear, the rider will stiffen, he’ll hold himself differently in the saddle, his hold on the reins will be firm - too firm. So the horse will become more and more skittish. The circle closes. The horse will know that the rider is unhappy and that will make the horse more nervous. It is obvious really. It would be nice if the Old Man could explain his problem of PTFD to DiDi, she might well understand,
It's very interesting !
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