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Post Traumatic Fall Disorder -
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 was plain to see: give up riding. But his love of his horse held him back from taking the step of hanging up his stirrup irons. The horse would have to be sold on. At the 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 and the Old Man had had his ration of time.

This thread is not a manual. The words are the notes of the man’s attempt to overcome his fears when trying to understand what had happened. Almost two years after the fall, the Old Man was still not sitting comfortably on his horse but maybe his story will help others to overcome their fears.

The Long Route to a Cure.

It came literally as a nasty shock to come off his heavy cob whilst he was bolting down a steep lane. Undoubtedly it was the worst fall in his riding career. He 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 he had fallen to the ground via a convenient bush. By 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 he had come off her twice in scenarios where I had no real excuse for losing his seat.

Obviously something was wrong . Friends watching him ride had said repeatedly that he looked wooden and stiff on the horse. He knew for himself that it now took very little to make him feel angry with her. She was unquestionably skittish. However the little shies should have presented no serious obstacle to an experienced rider like him and unlike his original horse, she had no malicious intention to bolt. Nevertheless she was getting to him 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 the pair working together. In fact the little demo given, just a few hours after a nonsense fall, satisfied the tutor that there was nothing unduly wrong with the style, after all he had been riding horses for 32 years. The instructor watched, made a few positive and a few negative comments and gave the rider a program to follow. The Old Man knew something more fundamental was wrong and the instructor had not picked up on it. Why should he, he did not really know the Old Man from Adam.


The real thing to follow up on was the tension. If tense up then any forces created by the horse with a sharp movement would not be absorbed by the rider. 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 the Old Man would project the forces and most likely in the process would come off the back of the horse. So the Old Man told himself to relax. Unfortunately the one thing he could not readily do was to relax, neither could he lose the disconcerting feeling in the pit of his stomach every time he got up into the saddle. The Old Man knew that: he was holding my breath; he was gritting my teeth; he was setting his jaw; he was grabbing the reins and he was clamping his thighs around the body of the horse. Despite the fact that he had recognised the mistakes he was making, there was very little he could do to release the tension. But worse was yet to come, he knew that my fears were deepening. There was no way by which he felt that he could ride the horse out of the yard. Every time he sat on the horse and it made a sudden move, he would panic. The heels would come up and he would pull the horse back into the slowest of walks.

The Old Man called the previous and very knowledgeable owner of the mare and asked her to come over and help him. The visit proved to be very worthwhile and she gave a few tips. One of the important suggestions was that he contacted another trainer. She confirmed that the horse had the capability to be what was wanted: "A Gentleman’s Riding Horse" - a go anywhere hack. She politely suggested that the mare was picking up on his tensions and, with hindsight, she was right.


After the visit the Old Man read up on every relevant horse book in his library. He 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. The Old Man made an appointment to visit locally an Alexander practitioner - indeed eventually he went back six times. It was very evident almost from the beginning that the technique was no quackery. It suddenly became clear, that if he were to continue riding then he would have to learn how to release the stresses inside himself. The essence of his problem was that: ‘He had lost my bottle‘. Deep inside him, he was too frightened to ride a horse. Perhaps what he was suffering from could best be described as Post Traumatic Fall Disorder. The rehabilitation process was going to take time and he 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 he 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 himself but to others within his circle of horsey friends and acquaintances that he had a serious problem. He would need their help and understanding to get through the process.


Having diagnosed the problem, the next step was to go back to fundamentals. The Old Man decided to hang up his riding boots for a couple of months. There was no point in reinforcing the 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 he would have to find someone to ride my horse whilst he was indisposed and luckily his 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 the horse once or twice a week. It 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.

In the interim the Old Man arranged to have himself 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. He also visited the sports masseuse and she worked on the tight muscle groups.

Luckily he 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 his wife would exercise the horse, it was also appropriate to go back to the basics with the schooling of the animal. He devised a series of work programs. He walked down into the village; they did lunging work in the arena; they started on desensitisation work - much of it ‘in hand‘. He 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 he 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 he 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 what was needed was someone who could retune his 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. The 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 he had 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 he 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 his style of riding he 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 him and he had only rarely come off, despite having ridden about a hundred horses of varying temperaments.

Eventually the Old Man was referred to Rosie - who came with impeccable references. However in trying to meet with Rosie’s instructions he needed to concentrate and at the same time he began to leave behind his new found nervousness when actually riding the horse. Once he had learned, with Rosie’s help how to get the horse down on to the bit - even for just a stride or two, herealised 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 him though was that he was back in the saddle in a controlled environment learning what it felt like to ride my new horse properly.


His 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 the mind away from the nervousness he had experienced before. I also became aware of just how sensitive the mare is - the slightest adjustment of his weight created a response from her.


Seemingly the cure for his "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 the Old Man until he can happily direct the horse up into the woods and come back to home via the pub down by the main road. It is suspected that it will take months before he can. Owning an agile, forward going, responsive but slightly skittish horse does not help me but rider and mare are now going round the lanes of the village in ever increasing circles - often with the wife walking along side. Soon they will 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 the 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. They 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 to get out on the horse and make use of it.


It was just over a year ago that the Old Man would l be eagerly charging about with gay abandon the local pathways and byways of hereabouts on a powerful but willful cob. In those days the couple 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", the Old Man felt reluctant to mount even in the safety of the arena, that very same horse on whom he had enjoyed years of fun. Every sudden movement, however benign, by the horse would send alarm up through his nerves to the brain.


Nowadays adopting a positive but relaxed attitude is a must. The posture has been reset: he must sit up at 90 degrees with a natural curve in his spine; the 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 the body weight must be carried equally in both sides of the saddle; the eyes should be looking to the front. After all these years he was learning to ride all over again. No more leaning forwards with the weight on the stirrup bars. The Old Man believes he is on the mend but the old habits die hard. In times of stress he instantly reverts 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 the Old Man do without his young, pretty, dapple grey mare?

PS + Sorry readers, the article had to be edited into the Third Person
 
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