Horse Safety Advice From a TBI Patient

Updated on September 22, 2018
Ellison Hartley profile image

Ellison is a professional horse trainer and riding instructor. She runs a summer camp program and offers kids a safe introduction to horses.

The last article I wrote was lighthearted and fun. I talked about how some of us are horse-crazy forever and that those who live with and love us should just accept it.

Today, I feel the need to write about something a bit more serious. As some of you know, I sustained a traumatic brain injury in a non-riding accident with a horse on March 13 of this year. I developed post-concussive syndrome which has left me with a long recovery and affected not just my life but my family members' lives and our business.

I never would have thought that all these months later, I would still need a walker to walk and suffer from chronic fatigue, headaches, and dizziness.

This is Lily, the pony that I had the accident with. As you can see, she is normally sweet calm and tolerant of pretty much anything. She just had a bad day on March 13 and so did I.
This is Lily, the pony that I had the accident with. As you can see, she is normally sweet calm and tolerant of pretty much anything. She just had a bad day on March 13 and so did I. | Source

It Happened to Me and It Could Happen to You

We always think "Oh that won't ever happen to me." Well, the fact is, it can happen to me and it did. Same goes for you.

I have broken young horses to ride, done eventing, done dressage, trail riding, I had even started to learn how to vault last year—among just all the stupid things I did with horses as a kid back when I was fearless and thought nobody was watching.

This is the first time that I have been badly hurt. I have had broken bones and such over the years, but never anything as life-altering as a TBI. I have even had other concussions before in my riding career, and never took them seriously because I was fortunate enough to not have any ill effects from them besides a headache for a couple days.

Or so I thought. This time it was my 5th concussion. I had never heard that concussions build on each other, and each time you have one it makes healing from the next one that much worse.

Would knowing that have kept me out of the saddle or out of the barn all these years? Of course not! If I would have known though, I may have taken them more seriously and rested and followed instructions after the accident. It can make a real difference in how you recover and if you recover fully.

After my accident on March 13, I tried to push through a headache, dizziness, and nausea I was experiencing. That is what horse girls do right? Suck it up buttercup! If I would have known that in my situation having had head injuries before that resting after another concussion was even more important, I might have listened. Probably not, but maybe!

I had never even heard of post-concussive syndrome until they told me that I had it and that was why I wasn't getting better yet. It can take months or even up to a year for some people in my type of situation to get back to normal. Some have persisting symptoms that never go away. I pray every day that isn't going to be me. I have gotten some better, it has just been life changing and I have a long way to go.

It happened to me and it could just as easily happen to anyone else who rides or interacts with horses on a daily basis.

That's me on the top of that crazy vaulting move, probably just about a year ago. Now I can't walk without a walker.
That's me on the top of that crazy vaulting move, probably just about a year ago. Now I can't walk without a walker. | Source

No Matter How Safe We Feel, They Are Still Animals

I know that probably seems like I'm stating the obvious a bit, but it needs to be said. I love my horses like family. Teaching lessons for 20 years almost I have spent hours and hours with some of the horses I own. I absolutely adore them.

It becomes very easy to forget that they are still huge animals and their instinct for self-preservation comes before everything else. It becomes easy to forget that even the oldest, calmest horse might spook and react the wrong way at the wrong time.

As I found out, all it takes is one small little piece of the puzzle to go wrong and it can mean someone getting seriously hurt.

All of us that work with horses or ride horses know this. It says it in every horse book and you heard it in beginner lessons. The thing is when we are around horses day in and day out, we get to know them so well—their personalities and habits, likes and dislikes, that we push that danger factor to the back of our mind.

We are all guilty of it. When you are working with a good horse and communicating well, it is like you are on the same wavelength and speaking the same language. The thought that they might react to something and hurt you is the farthest thing from our minds.

We need to remember that no matter how much we love them and think we know their reaction to every little thing, no horse or other animals (for that matter) is ever one hundred percent predictable and we need to remember that.

All About the Horse Fantasy

I had it when I was a kid, that horses are so beautiful and they will bond with you and once they do they will never ever hurt you. This is the farthest thing from the truth.

You can bond with horses, for sure. The thing is that nothing we can ever do is going to suppress their need for self-preservation and their flight instinct.

It's not just kids that are living this fantasy. I have seen grown women who jump out in front of a running horse or put themselves in other dangerous situations. When you say something to them about it, you get some version of "oh he would never hurt me!" Which, perhaps if horses had the ability to think that way they might say, but they don't!

When horses get scared, they just think to get away as fast as possible with no concern for what might be in the way of their escape. That is something about horses that will never change and for all of us to be safe, we need to keep this in the forefront of our minds.

Horses react first no matter what, without concern for us if they are worried about their own safety. Cool was playing in this picture and no one was inside the field so no danger involved. I figured this article needed something lighthearted !
Horses react first no matter what, without concern for us if they are worried about their own safety. Cool was playing in this picture and no one was inside the field so no danger involved. I figured this article needed something lighthearted ! | Source

"I Only Ride Well-Trained Horses"

That is another one you will hear frequently. Another statement to which I will reply, it doesn't matter! It doesn't matter how well trained they are. Instincts are mother nature's way of keeping animals safe in the wild; they are innate responses. Even the best-trained horses can still react the wrong way at the wrong time.

Most of the time when accidents happen that is all it was, the horse or rider or handler reacted the wrong way at the wrong time which led to something bad happening.

I have spent my life with horses and believe wholeheartedly that there aren't many truly hateful and mean horses in the world. The ones that we interpret that way a lot of the time were just not well handled. Maybe they experienced a trauma of some kind. I can only think of a handful of horses out of all the ones I have met (that is a lot) that I would say were mean tempered.

That doesn't matter though, because most of the time we don't get hurt because the horse was being mean or bad. Not that it never happens, but it is more often a horse reacted like a horse( an animal with instincts)would be expected to react and we weren't prepared for it.

When I sustained my TBI, I was bridling a lesson pony who I knew to be sensitive with her one ear. I bridled her as I normally would and she reacted in an unusual, unpredictable way and that is how I ended up in the ER and still struggling all these months later.

She was not trying to hurt me or be mean. She doesn't like that ear touched, for some reason that day the way I did it wasn't agreeable to her, so she reacted and I got hurt. It was all an accident.

Accidents Do Happen Around Horses

It probably seems strange that someone who teaches kids and summer camp for a living would be writing something to make horses seem like they have the potential to be so unsafe.

Well, the truth is, that they most certainly do and there is no denying it. When we treat them like dogs or do things carelessly without paying attention, we are putting ourselves at higher risk than we already did when we decided our sport of choice would include a thousand pound animal with its own brain.

This picture was taken on July 13 (exactly three months after my accident) was the first time I made it back out in my barn. This is my main man, Kemerton and I. He is old and crippled now. It seems like now we relate more than ever!
This picture was taken on July 13 (exactly three months after my accident) was the first time I made it back out in my barn. This is my main man, Kemerton and I. He is old and crippled now. It seems like now we relate more than ever! | Source

Make Safety Awareness a Priority

Barn safety should not be a quick few sentences skimmed over at the beginning of a riding lesson or summer camp. We need to teach not just the how to be safe, but why it is so important to be careful.

We need to teach the nature of the horse. A horse whose instinct is to flee from something it perceives as danger. They react first no matter what without regard for our safety.

We can teach horses respect and train them to listen to our cues. One thing we cannot teach them is to look out for our safety. That is our job.

Wear a helmet, take all the safety precautions you can, and teach the children that you share your horses with the importance of safety protocol and awareness of the size and instincts of these animals that we love so much.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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