If you fall off that horse, you've got to get right back on.
Show him who's boss.
If you work long enough around horses, you will get injured. News Flash: They are bigger than you. (Which is why, generally, you cannot muscle a horse into submission. You can "show him who's boss" with intimidating body language, or instantaneous verbal correction, but unfortunately, most people try the physical intimidation right before they get killed by their beloved equine.) Setting aside the numerous times my toes have been squished by a misplaced foot (MY FAULT. Don't put your feet where the horse will step on them, idiot.), here's a list of my thirteen most memorable bumps. Please remember that these are spread out over thirty years and over seventy-something horses.
1. Memorable only because it was the first.
My little bay Welsh pony, Rosita, disappeared right out from under me. We were getting ready to jump a 12" jump (a skip, really). I was six, she was sixteen. I lined her up and asked her to canter over it. Just as she was about to "take off" she disappeared and I fell to the ground, still in a sitting position. It's truly a bizarre feeling, to be firmly seated on an animal one moment, and then, with no anticipation of the fact, discover that you are sitting on the ground. Many years later, I now know that she was a bad little girl, but at the time butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
2. I'm going, I'm going, and...off we go.
There's a means of falling off which occurs after you've learned how to ride better. Instead of sailing through the air, you slowly and gently just slip right off. It is the most frustrating experience I know. Somehow you lose your balance and instead of losing contact with the horse, you just pace by pace, bit by bit, step by step, slip ever so slowly down the side of the horse. Unless your knee gets stuck on the saddle, you can even end this maneuver standing on your feet. The time I got hurt, I was on a hunt riding through a small patch of woods. Slowly drifting off the horse, trying to regain my seat I realized that well, no, I was going to end up on the ground. I decided to go for the standing landing. Achieved the landing with the first foot just as my body slammed into a tree. THEN the horse stopped. Oh, thanks.
3. My finger is not a carrot.
No, you do not have to have your hand absolutely flat when you feed a horse a treat--I don't bother anymore, because the treat invariably rolls off your palm onto the ground. However, I'm a little careful about where my fingers are, just the same. When I was ten, my new pony, Sea Misty, grabbed ahold of my ring finger one day as she was aiming for the carrot. She bit, I squealed, and she panicked. Trouble was, her panic took the form of a frozen stare as she repeated in her head, "Oh My God. Oh My God, Oh My God." She froze her jaw too, still clamped firmly on my finger. The more I shrieked, the wider her eyes became. A passing riding instructor ran up and bopped her under the chin. Her head jerked up (OW! My finger's still in there!) and then she let go. (Ow. Ow. Ow. Blood rushing back to the finger. Ow. Thanks. Ow.)
4. My head is not a stepstool.
Actually, I wasn't injured on this one, but I came reeeeeely close. Spring in New England: mud. A few horses leaning on the cross rails plus old fence posts plus two feet of mud equals flat fence.
A group of thirteen mares in the back pasture are suddenly trotting all around the fifty acre farm. Stallions are screaming, mares are grinning, trotting along with their tails over their backs. There's myself and one other human on the property. Rounding up thirteen horses is a stupidly exhausting process, and after much arm waving and racing about, we came to our senses and decided not to bother rounding the whole herd up. If we could get the one or two leaders in, the others would get bored and come home. So I'm doing the airplane thing (arms out to the side so that you "look larger") steering the lead mare back over the fence which fell over in the mud. Somehow in all my leaping, running, and arm waving, I forgot about the mud. Just as Lark is about to step over the fence, back into the pasture, she turned slightly back towards me and feinted just a little, to see if I was paying attention. I jumped forward to send her back, and landed in a mud-filled sinkhole well past my right knee. My left foot is on solid ground, knee under my chin, and the right leg is stuck in the ground. Lark stopped, measured the incredibly shrinking barn manager, and decided to show me who's boss. Walked right up to me, blew a puff of air in my face, and jumped over my head to freedom and another lap around the farm. No, she didn't step on my head, but she could have, and she would have if she had been a touch meaner.
5. Head, meet head.
Owned a Morgan from before the day he was born. He was my best buddy. He and I had been trail riding and bumming around under saddle for about a year, and we had been having a great time. He stood for grooming; when I held out the bridle, he grabbed the for the bit and dove his head into the headstall; and on the trail he slogged through mud, cantered over hills, and tiptoed over ice. He was eager and happy as long as he was making the decisions. The summer he was six, we put him in an arena and asked him to respond to leg aids, and move athletically. Nope. Not doing it. Third time I rode him in this manner I asked for a canter, at which point he threw his head back like a snake striking backwards and neatly popped me in the nose with the back of his head. Ow. Concussion. I stopped riding him for a week, and the trainer, who was very competent and patient, worked with him--he reared and tried to scrape her off on the walls of the arena. Yikes.
5. Foot, meet thigh.
Same horse, two weeks later. With careful, judicious and spare use of draw reins we had managed to convince my Morgan that popping his neck inside out to brain the rider was not a good idea. I was grooming him on the cross ties, brushing, picking feet, stuff I'd done a million times, mostly untied in his box stall. I decided to trim the tuft of hair sprouting from his ears, got the electric clippers, plugged them in, and settled myself into approved stance for turning on electrical devices when working around a green horse. Standing at the horse's shoulder, facing the rear, place one hand on the top of the horse's shoulder, remind him that you're there, hold the clippers in your other hand, and turn them on. Hand on shoulder reassures horse, standing at the shoulder ensures that the horse won't meet you if he reflexively kicks at hearing the clik-bzzzz of the clippers. But I had done this so many times, the stance was just a formality, really.
Damn horse cow-kicked and landed a solid blow right at the top of my thigh. Cows kick forward, horses tend to kick backward. But when horses cow-kick, they are deadly accurate--I've had a thermometer cow-kicked out of my hand--very fast, but not very strong. My horse hadn't aimed for the clippers, he aimed for me, and got me right below my pelvis. Ow. (I had a bruise more than a foot in diameter which swelled proud of my leg by about three inches.) I sold the horse. (Last I heard, he lives with a family who adores him, clambers all over him in the pasture, and only trail rides. I'd never trust him again, but he found his niche.)
6. My ER visit, Iteration One.
I fell off a mare one time in the indoor arena, which had a fairly deep dirt and shredded bark footing. Belly flopped to the ground, and had the wind knocked out of me. (Damn, I hate that. I fear getting the wind knocked out of me more than any bruise, sprain, or break if I fall.) I was riding alone (dumb) and figured that once I fell, the mare would stop running (dumb). Instead of meandering off to the end of the 400 foot arena and munching on the hay bales there, she kept on her prescribed course, circling the lower end of the arena. I never forgave her for this, although I should try to be less petty, but she then cantered right over my back, as I was lying on the ground trying to get my lungs to work again. The other barn rat walked into the arena just in time to see her trample me. She grabbed the mare, stuffed her in a stall, and drove me to the emergency room. When they took off my shirt I had a hoof shaped bruise developing on my left hip and on my right shoulder. The story of the bruises circulated around the ER. While I was waiting for X-rays, every nurse and resident in the hospital, it seemed, came into my room to stare at my back. "Wow. HOW did you get those?"
"A horse ran over me."
"Because it looks just like a horse DID run over you. Look at those bruises."
Oh god. Please can I go home now? Doctor? Hello? (I was fine, although my back hurt like a tooth extraction for months.)
7. My Er visit, Iteration Two.
While switching stallions one day from one pasture rotation to the other, I came across a stallion who had pawed the temporary fence and gotten a tangle of wire in between his hoofwall and the horseshoe. He was very patiently waiting for someone to come rescue him, his left foot slightly raised. I got the wire clippers and wrestled with most of the wire. The last bit was very firmly embedded in the crack between the shoe and the hoofwall, and I really didn't want him to put any weight on the wire, thereby risking a puncture to the bottom of his foot. Tugging just as hard as I could, I wrenched the last bit of wire free.
As I was walking him back to the barn, I noticed blood dripping down his leg, splattering onto my boot. I stopped him and rubbed his leg to find the injury. No injury, but his leg was a lot bloodier. Then I realized that I was the one bleeding.
With that last tug, the other end of the wire had skipped over the back of my wrist, just at the inside knob of bone, and gashed a deep cut. I hadn't felt it at all, and it still didn't hurt. I put the stallion away, rinsed the cut in cold water (Ow), Betadine surgical scrub (Ow Ow), and then poured hydrogen peroxide through the trough of the wound (Ow! Ow! Ow!). Then I bandaged the whole thing with a layer of sterile gauze, holding the edges of the wound together with a bit of strategically placed electrical tape. At the ER, I told the triage nurse what had happened and how I had treated it. She said, "Why are you here?" Huh? It never occurred to me that a nurse could even ask the question. She said that if I didn't mind a scar, then there was no need to check me in. If I wanted stitches, then she'd have to check me in, and that would cost money. Wha? (I opted not to bother with stiches. I had to get back to the farm to feed anyway. My priorities were stranger back then. And yes, I have a scar.)
8. My ER visit, Iteration Three.
This is not so much a horse injury as it is a horse-truck injury. The truck the circus used to transport horses was a (badly) converted semi-trailer truck. There were stalls made from square tubular steel, with a hay loft over them. It was all too tight, and very poorly designed. (This is what you get when you hire a coked up heroin-addicted bareback rider as your chief welder and designer.) Anyway, I was balancing on a strip of square steel tubing which was welded to the interior walls, trying to force a hay bale up into the too tight space above. As I balanced on the 2" ledge (provided only as a place to tie the horse's heads once they were loaded), I was inching my way down the length of the truck, bracing my arms against the hay rack above, pressing my body against the wall to hold me in place.
Yeah, well, there was a DOOR, an UNLATCHED door, along the exterior wall. I reached it, pushed against it with my entire body weight, the door opened, and I fell from a height of about seven feet on my back. I landed with my neck on a metal pipe, still lying on the ground from the previous day's welding. I never went to the hospital, but my neck did hurt, and I'm sure I had a concussion. About ten days later I visited my aunt in the hospital--she had just been informed that she needed her right leg amputated due to a diagnosis of cancer--and she noticed me rubbing my neck. I told her of the injury, and she made me go to the ER. Just the X-Rays were sooo painful. I was diagnosed with a cracked C4 vertebra, and was fitted with a neck collar. I returned to the circus that night, wearing the collar. Within two days I had given up wearing the collar, as it was too painful to keep my neck that straight. My priorities were stranger back then.
9. Injury to my shoes.
When a mare was about to give birth, we tried to check on her a few times every night. One night I was going out on a date, and my aunt asked me to please stop by the mare's stall when I got home, to check on her and wrap her tail. (Foaling is a messy business, tail hair gets tangled around stuff, but you don't want to keep the tail wrapped, as it can limit circulation. If it looks as if she's foaling soon, you wrap the tail in the late evening just as a precaution.) I came home from a really great date about midnight and parked up at the foaling barn. Still, obviously, wearing my fancy clothes, I walked into the mare's stall and noticed she was slightly sweaty, but neither her heart rate nor her respiration showed she was in labor. It was basically a humid night, and she was uncomfortable. I checked her udder: a few drops of colostrum, but the bag wasn't distended. I ran my hand over the top of her hip and stroked the edge of her tail. OK, she's not jumpy, so I stood directly behind her as I wrapped her tail, so that the tail wrap would not be puckered or uncomfortable. I lifted her tail to slide the wrap under the base, and the mare silently broke water: a gushing stream of warm amniotic fluid, all over my dress shoes. I guess she was waiting for me. Too funny.
10. Injury to my elbow.
My show career in a nutshell. I about fourteen, scheduled to ride an extraordinarily well-trained mare in Hunter/English Pleasure. We should have picked up a ribbon, but she decided that day that the announcer's stand was Too Terrifying Too Be Endured. (Yeah. Whatever. Evasion.) She shied from it every time we went past. No rider is supposed to discipline or "school" a horse during exhibition, and this horse knew she was getting away with murder. The judge was simply wonderful. He stopped the class, pulled the riders into the center of the ring, and came up to speak with me. He told me that I could excuse myself if I wanted to, but that he wanted to give me the chance to ride the mare past the stand. We trotted past it: whoosh, she shied. "OK," called the judge. "Circle around hard and try her again." (How amazing was this, that the judge would school my horse?) "Just when she gets to the point where she wants to shy, cue her for the canter." Tried that: whoosh. "Ok, go around again, this time in the other direction." Trot transition to canter: whoosh and a buck and another whoosh, and I'm on the ground. Damn, damn, damn. In front of eighty-odd people too.
Later on, I sent the judge a thank-you card for allowing me to school the horse. He wrote back, enclosing his judging schedule for the rest of the summer, saying that he looked forward to seeing "That Dragon properly contained." Very nice man. But my elbow still locks up from time to time if I'm carrying a heavy bag. Damn Dragon.
11. Lesson: Never wear steel toed boots.
Wear rubber muckers, wear sneakers, wear boots, wear clogs, I don't care. But never wear steel toed boots. Because the day the horse DOES step on your toe, and DOES squish the steel (even though the boot manufacturer says it can't happen), you're in for an unpleasant discovery about the relative strength of steel and toes. This never happened to me, but I count it as an injury, because I had to drive the barn rat with the bloody boot to the hospital, and I had to stay calm during the drive while I watched more and more blood seep from the top of her flat boot. She kept all of her toes, and I kept my stomach contents down, but ugh, that was a bad time.
12. Lesson: Hitting is stupid.
Hitting looks like it would work. Hey. Get off me. Slap. Should work. (Actually, poking with your index finger works a whole lot better to get him to move over.) But hang around barns long enough, and you'll come across a fair amount of hitting. I'll still slap them on the flank, or on the shoulder if they're misbehaving; it can be totally appropriate, depending on the horse and on the circumstances, but you have to know what you're doing.
(The circus horses bit, and they bit all the freaking time. They were trained with grain and were consequently incredibly persistent about grabbing with their teeth. Clothing, flesh, it didn't matter. And they bit each other: they were terrible. Bite me--get slapped on the lips. Sorry, but you do. Not hard, but, hey, lay off. After two months of daily nip, slap; nip, slap; nip, nip, pop; nip, slap; they finally quit biting me. But only me. The other grooms sometimes sported welts.)
But as in any learning curve, you reach a point where you're overconfident in your knowledge, or in the application of the technique. I once got in the middle of a dominance match between two mares (dumb place to be). I thought I could get the boss mare to lay off the weaker mare (dumb thing to think). I was working in the paddock, when the boss mare lunged at the weaker mare. I grabbed the boss mare and hit her on her face (dumb). Weaker mare skittered off, boss mare just looked at me as if I'd grown a new head on my left shoulder. My palm swelled up to the size of a small peach. Ow. Big bony head, little bony hand. Ow. What were you thinking? OK, not thinking actually. Learned a pretty elementary lesson though. Hitting doesn't work and is stupid besides.
13. A pain in the heart.
For all of that, they are big, and they get in our way, and we mostly get hurt by accident. As a rule, people do more damage to horses than they do to us. Of the ones I've known, I try to keep track of the living ones, and the ones I've tracked down are all doing well. As for the ones who've died, well, that's an injury unto itself; you were so well loved while you were here.
Canyon, Karada, Rosita, Sunstream, Hero, Big Red, Phario, Tiger, Brigade, March, Sea Misty, Val, Noah, Leonie, Reminisce, Scotia & Rotious (both mother and daughter in one barn fire), Ibn Tirf, Lark, Kataali, Rio, Bene, Dixie, Curly, Binni, Prince Hal, Lady Fair, and .... God, there are at least ten more, too many to even list.
More thirteens: Kate on proper posting etiquette
and Doug, on Cosmo