University of Vermont AAHS

WHY DO RIDERS FALL?
by Jan Dawson

What causes a rider to make an unscheduled departure from the back of a horse?. The focus is on those times when rider looses her or his seat with little or no help from the horse, not situations involving bee stung horses or times when equipment has failed or when the horse has fallen also.

What has to happen for the rider to be able to fall off? What can the rider do to insure that he/she does not fall off?

The short answer is, "Just keep one leg one each side, little lady, and you'll do all right." Hey, if it was good enough for western movies it should be good enough for us. Right. In this case that cowboy was right and it is not a joke! Beginners and novices fall off more than other people. And what do you see in the typical beginner position? What is the first thing that you notice? Most likely it is the out-of-position leg. "Oh, that's okay; we are working on that and it will come with time.", says the instructor.

It may come with time but to leave the issue up to experience is to admit that the beginner or novice is going to be left to his own devices to figure out, not just balance, but how to stay on the horse. There may be a better way.

A different perception may be to view the out-of-position leg as the beginning of a fall. That fall may not happen that day or that week or that month, but as long as the leg is out of position the rider is at risk because the anchor for the upper body is not in place. All you have to add is a higher center or gravity (weight on the stirrup rather that the seat or the heel) and an unexpected movement. Sometimes you don't have to add anything. Consider the beginner or novice in early trot or canter work, or even jumping or trail riding. Whether by choice or otherwise the horse goes forward at the trot or canter and the rider is in the fetal position, legs too far back and leaning forward over hands held at the waist. Not only can this rider fall, it can be a one point landing on the head.

Before the unfortunate rider falls something else usually has happened: The rider's center of gravity has become too high. The rider's center of gravity should be at all times as close as possible to that of the horse. If the weight is solidly in the seat or solidly down in the heels it is not so easy to dislodge the rider. Being able to maintain the center of gravity as low as possible goes a long way in maintaining the position of the leg. The reverse is also true: A correct position of the leg aids the rider in maintaining a low center of gravity.

Stiffness in the body may also contributes to a fall. Consider the classic example of the broomstick on the diving board verses the piece of boiled spegetti or a pile of Jell-O. If the rider is reasonably in balance with the horse stiffness in the body is required for a rider to be unloaded under normal as opposed to rodeo or rodeo-like circumstances.

In practice this means that instructors need to concentrate on helping the rider achieve a secure and correct leg position almost before they do anything else. If the leg moves or becomes unstable when the skill level increases they should go back to where the leg was stable and try again. It helps to have a pocket full of exercises designed to position the leg then teach the upper body to move around over a stationary leg, rather than the other way around which is exactly the way most beginners and many others ride.

Once the upper body has learned to move around over the correct leg, the instructor must show the student how to relax or unlock the lower back to avoid the stiffness that can contribute to a higher center of gravity. Most children will not need help to do this. They will do it instinctively. Many adults will not, some, even after years of experience. To tell if the lower back is unlocked and supple just watch the riders hips. If the hips sway front to back, the rider's lower back is locked. If the hips move laterally with the left and right sides dropping alternately the lower back is unlocked. This should also help the horse to move better as the horse never uses both hind legs at the same times, consequently his back never moves both sides at once.

Riders should also be cautioned against pinching with their knees as this also causes the center of gravity to rise. When this is pointed out most riders will feel it as squeezing themselves out of the saddle.

It is not possible to put too much emphasis of teaching and maintaining a correct leg position. Western or English, it doesn't matter. The leg must be still and securely placed directly below the mass of the riders weight if the rider expects to remain aboard ;the horse indefinitely, through good times and bed. If the leg leaves it's "home" position it is the beginning of a fall; maybe not today, this week or this month, but it will come. "That's right, little lady," just keep one leg on each side of this critter and you'll do just fine.

For suggestions on how to teach this secure leg position please see the AAHS Riding Instructors Handbook available now through the United States Pony Club or at your booksellers next summer.


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