I’ve always considered myself a confident rider, with a good seat thanks to years of riding cranky ponies, stoppers and green horses. Some would say I can be over-confident: when I was 25 and freshly returned to riding after a long break, I went fox-hunting in Ireland and promptly broke my ankle. While I’d ridden well while schooling cross-country the day before, and was assured by all around me that my fall was a freak accident, I know that if I’d had a little more time back in the saddle, I wouldn’t have gotten popped out of the tack when the 5 year old I was riding stag-leaped over a wall from a standstill.
I had a long physical recovery, then immediately started riding again. I was surprised that I wasn’t nervous: the accident was just an accident, and I felt as at home on a horse as ever. I realized an important factor in my mental recovery was that I’d gotten back on and continued to ride. While concussion specialists don’t recommend this, I didn’t have a choice, and luckily hadn’t hit my head. My unplanned dismount I was in the middle of a field in rural Ireland, and the only way to get back to the trailers was to ride there. After I fell off, I could barely walk on my own two legs, but after a leg-up from an onlooker I spent another few hours on horseback, jumping some of the biggest jumps I’d ever tackled while unable to bear weight in my right stirrup. (There was a lot of grabbing mane and praying.) By the end of the hunt, I was so high on adrenaline I couldn’t feel my shattered ankle, and would have happily kept riding.
While this is an extreme situation, by getting back on and even enjoying myself I overwrote the trauma of the fall and headed off what could have become a severe fear issue. Neuroscience was on my side: the ability to literally move from a traumatic event to a physically or emotionally safe place helps quell our fight or flight response, allowing our brain to integrate the trauma without long-term negative consequences. In The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel van der Kolk calls this “effective action,” and writes that “being able to move and do something to protect oneself is a critical factor” in whether or not a bad experience will leave “long-lasting scars.” By riding on, I reestablished the back of a horse as a psychologically safe place for me.
"I’ve entered a new season of my life where I have a clearer view of the risks of riding and the impact of an accident."
A few years later, in the spring of 2020, I came down with a severe case of covid-19 during New York City’s first wave of the disease. Bedridden for nearly a month with an infection that was then barely understood, I listened to the unending wail of ambulance sirens, knowing each vehicle racing to the hospital held a person with the same sickness as me. I didn’t know what saved me from their fate: was it my youth, my overall good health, or just random luck?
My body had never really failed me before. It did as told, whether I wanted to stay out all night dancing or ride four horses in a day. Now I didn’t know if I would ever jog up a flight of stairs again, much less make it around a course of jumps. People my age were dying, and it occurred to me, maybe for the first time, that I could die too. What I’d always envisioned as a firm barrier between sickness and health, life and death, was in fact a thin veil that could be punctured at any time by something as simple as inhaling the wrong aerosol — or an unlucky moment on a horse.
Shortly after I recovered, I turned 30.The combination of my new coziness with my own mortality and hitting a milestone birthday shook me, and thoughts that had never come up in my many years of riding were now floating to the top of my consciousness.
Flatting a friend’s tried-and-true gelding after his day off, he propped and spun while we were walking on the buckle. It was the sort of equine silliness I normally would have laughed at, and it was my fault for not keeping his brain occupied, but I was unnerved by it, and realized that if he’d done that at a trot or canter, I’d likely have come off. Driving to the barn while particularly stressed out one day, I found myself clenching the steering wheel, replaying in my head a video of a friend who’d taken a hard fall during a lesson and broken her rib.
Fear of falling or injury is a rational response to our dangerous pastime. The fact that I am now more aware of it than I was ten years ago doesn’t mean I’m a coward; it means I’ve entered a new season of my life where I have a clearer view of the risks of riding and the impact of an accident. I am not somehow immune to fear because I had a surprisingly easy mental response to my accident in Ireland. I now view my lack of nerves after that fall as an unusual stroke of luck thanks to the circumstances in which it happened, and my newer anxiety about the dangers of riding as a normal and perhaps even healthy response to the risks of our sport.
"Thinking that I’m weak because I don’t feel up to a hot horse or a tough course on a certain day doesn’t serve me, doesn’t serve my riding, and doesn’t serve my horse."
I’ve also realized that it’s time to let go of some of my old beliefs about myself as a rider. I don’t need to be the toughest, bravest, and stickiest rider around any more. I couldn’t be that rider even if I wanted to: I’m not a super-fit teenager who lives at the barn, I’m an adult woman with a full-time job and a bum ankle. I grew up with a “get it done” mentality towards riding, where bravery, a good seat, and skills with tricky horses were rewarded, and I still feel that intrinsic pressure. But thinking that I’m somehow weak or a bad rider simply because I don’t feel up to a hot horse or a tough course on a certain day doesn’t serve me, doesn’t serve my riding, and doesn’t serve my horse. This is my hobby, something I do for the joy of it. I don’t need to tough out situations that feel unsafe, or prove anything to anyone.
While sorting out entries for a recent show, my trainer suggested I do the adult equitation. I’ve always evented and ridden jumpers, and didn’t even really know what the division entailed. “Do I have to flat?” I asked, not relishing the idea of a crowded under-saddle class. “You’re an adult,” he said. “You can do whatever you want. If you don’t want to flat, just skip the flat.”
This was a mind-blowing statement. It had never occurred to me that I had that much control over my own riding, that I didn’t have to grit my teeth and ride through something I didn’t want to do because it was what my trainers expected of me, or what I expected of myself. Even as I constantly told my friends “this sport is supposed to be fun,” I am not sure I truly believed myself when I said it.
I still experience riding nerves, and I’m sure I always will, but I find they usually melt away when I swing a leg over the saddle. At their worst, I can sort them out with a moment to center myself and take a few deep breaths. Just knowing that I don’t have to do anything and I am in control of my own rides and my own decisions has eliminated a lot of my ambient anxiety. If my horse is having a meltdown, I can get off and hand it to a pro. If showing in a new division doesn’t sound enjoyable, I’m not going to do it. The back of a horse is still the place I feel most at home. I plan to keep it that way.
LISTEN: 'Thin to Win' and the Toxic Culture of Diet and Weight in Equestrian Sport
Feature photo by Sophie Harris, SEH Photography
Written by Jessie Lochrie
Jessie Lochrie is a writer based in Los Angeles whose work has been featured in Longreads, The Outline, The Awl, and more. She spent her formative years galloping ponies through the woods of Massachusetts before receiving a B.A. in Literary Studies from New School University. You can find her in the jumper ring or at jessielochrie.com