An accomplished horseback rider experiences just how quickly fast-paced riding can go awry and how to safely avoid future accidents....
As I plummet from a height of eight feet toward the ground at 20 mph, I think these thoughts: This will hurt. My helmet is gone. Don’t brace with your hands. Don’t fall on your shoulder. Don’t fall on your neck. This will hurt. This will really hurt.
I bounce several times across hard, volcanic ground. Lying very, very still, I smell dirt and grass. I’m lying on a base of volcanic cinders and rock. The air is quiet. I hear nothing except my labored breathing. The fragrance of crushed scrub grass is clear in my nose, as well as dry dust I’ve stirred up.
Stunned and unable to move, I lie very still on my right side. I’m in shock. This is hard ground, a few square yards within thousands of acres where I hunt coyotes on horseback. I’m alone because I happened to be far from my group when my horse bolted.
Later, I will find dirt, cinders and scrub grass in my hair, dirt down my knee-high riding boots, bits of earth in my shirt and down my riding pants so, I guess I might say I plowed the earth for a bit.
Lying very still, I can’t think. Then, because it is automatic, I try to stand and I cannot.
The inflatable vest I wear has triggered to inflate when disconnected from the saddle. I don’t recall that happening. I cannot bend at the waist. My brain doesn’t compute to unsnap the vest. I keep trying to stand by pushing myself up off the ground with my hurt hands. I look like a broken doll. I feel like a broken doll.
At the moment, all I know is that I have been violently thrown by my horse, a gelding* named Sunni. I’ve no idea where he is but I know on a deep level that I can’t worry about him. I must take care of myself. I’m not thinking clearly and continue to try to stand up, broken doll that I am.
I ride with the Grand Canyon Hounds hunt in the northern Arizona desert. Our staff, hounds and riders cover thousands of acres assisting large cattle raches with regulating the coyote population. Coyotes kill calves. Many of us are often out of sight with each other because a horse may not be fit, a horse may lose a how, a rider may want to ride slowly or the horse or rider may be coming back from injury.
After a time of struggling, I see two friends riding towards me from half a mile away. I know I’ve been seen and will have help, which is all I can process at the moment. Partial relief floods me. Partial because I realize I’m hurt but my horse is nowhere in sight. Partial because I’m already filled with embarrassment that I was thrown by my horse which bolted. Bolting is a bad and dangerous behavior.
The riders who arrive and those who will later are all good riding friends who have had their own challenges with their horses. There will be no judgments from them but I know today’s hunt is over for them because of me. . I am sufficiently hard on myself, even in shock.
When the riders arrive, I am still trying to stand up and am hit with a barrage of concerned questions I’m not ready for. I am sharply aware that I’m completely embarrassed about being thrown. I’m known in the hunt for my tough persona. My answers are influenced by my ego, even though I’m in shock and hurting.
“Karen, are you OK?”
“Not sure. Can’t stand. Can’t walk.”
“What’s your name?”
“Do you have bleeding in either ear?”
“No, I already checked.”
“Your pupils look ok. That’s good.”
“How do you feel?”
“How long will it take for my vest to deflate? I can’t breathe.”
Now, my friends know I’m not thinking straight. All I have to do is unhook my vest to breathe.
One of the riders is a nurse and takes charge. She dismounts and removes my vest. Tells me to sit down but I have to walk 30 feet to find a volcanic rock to sit on. My one leg won’t take my weight so I hop as best I can to get to the rock. God forbid I ask for help walking. Ego again. Volcanic rock is jagged so finding a kind place to sit is an issue and takes time. Every second is a struggle. She hands me a bottle of water and a snack bar, telling me to drink and eat. She keeps asking me if I know my name, where I am. I do know those things but answering takes a great effort and I’m dizzy as I hop around to find a non-jagged area of the rock that won’t bruise my bum.
My other friend gives me a jacket to fold and sit on. I’m now flooded with gratitude for such lovely help, which is at war with my embarrassment and shame for coming off my horse. I know that my horse has done a very bad and dangerous thing and that, itself, is shameful. We are supposed to bring out well-behaved mounts that will not inconvenience others on these rides. I take all of this personally. I have interrupted these riders’ time in the wilderness and I am embarrassed.
More riders have seen the standing horses and have now ridden up. A decision is made as to who will ride back for a vehicle to come get me. I cannot walk and I cannot ride, even if I had a horse. The discussion is lengthy about what vehicle could be used. Only a 4X4 vehicle can navigate this volcanic land, with no roads, where we ride. All the other trucks are hooked up to horse trailers that we have driven to the hunt fixture.*
The two riders who volunteer to ride back for a vehicle will spend 90 minutes riding cross country to where our horse trailers are parked. It is a miracle that one 4X4 vehicle will be available for rescue without unhooking rigs. Getting to me will take an hour drive since I came off far from any dirt road. The two riders who drive the vehicle to me will need their horses ponied back to the trailers.
Meanwhile, I’m pushed to drink and eat. My pupils are checked for dilation and ears are checked for blood. My right wrist has sprouted an orange sized lump under the skin. I recall falling on that wrist. Everything hurts. I’m more and more embarrassed as the shock ebbs. Normally, I am resistant asking for help because I am very proud. I am now totally dependent on everyone to get me back home.
Where is Sunni? I can’t believe he is nowhere in sight even though I can see several miles of scrub desert. We ride on thousands of acres. Is he caught in the reins? Has he rolled in the saddle? Is he tangled in the stirrups? Any of those possibilities can cripple him. Some lost horses aren’t found for days in this remote country. Some lost horses are never found and die.
With all this support and help, I am driven back to the trailer area where my horse is tied up and unsaddled. I’m thrilled Sunni ran to other riding friends in the huntand was led back to the parking area.. He and I are driven home where many friends help me unload, stable him and get me into the house where I ice and rest.
Many days later, I am diagnosed with a fractured fibula, torn anterior and posterior rib cage muscles, severe bruising. For months, the right side of my body, right arm and hip will look like Japanese eggplant. Due to my own prior concussions, I figure I have a mild concussion because I hit the ground without helmet protection. For months afterwards, I have trouble finding the right words when I talk.
As pesky as my injuries were, I was saved from far worse by the Hit-Air vest I wore that day. It inflated by the time I hit the ground and saved me from any or all of the following: fractured neck, fractured shoulder, fractured spine, brain injury. That my wrist was not broken was pure luck. The most painful and long lasting injuries were the damaged rib cage muscles.
I waited four days to tell my daughter, Rachel, about the event. I knew she would be tremendously upset and might insist I give up this kind of riding. This is a running issue with us. I’ve ridden this way for 30 years and we both know the risks to rider and horse.
My daughter was a professional river guide on whitewater. She knows how I sweat blood those years knowing the risks she faced with her job and love of guiding. I know that she sweats blood over my hunting. It is a magical thing to have this tacit understanding with her that she recognizes hunting is in my blood and my soul. I admire her for this understanding.
When Rachel gets upset, I do, as well. I wrangled for those days over how to tell her. I’ve been hurt by riding over the years and I dreaded how she would react. Why did Sunni bolt? Has he done that before? How could I be sure he wouldn’t do that again?
At the end of that uncomfortable but honest talk, we came to an understanding that I would change Sunni from a hackamore to a snaffle* bit. I would do more groundwork* with him. (I trained one horse out of bucking and another horse out of dishonest behavior.*) I would wear the safety vest when training as well as hunting when riding him. I would never again drop the reins on his neck and trust him to stand.*
Rachel asked me to consider selling Sunni. I replied that no horse is perfect. Every horse has a fault. If I sold Sunni, I would need two years to acclimate to a new horse. Sunni has 95% great attributes: He is sound.* He is strong and fit. He is comfortable to ride. (Not all horses are comfortable) He is healthy. (Not all horses are healthy.)
Bless her, she listened and heard me out. I’m much more careful and cautious now.
At 74, I’d really like to put an end to fractures and concussions.
Karen's Arabian Horses "Sunni" & "Sophie"
Horseback Riding Glossary:
*A gelding is a castrated stallion.
* A fixture is the named location for where horse trailers are parked.
* A hackamore is a mechanical halter with no bit.
*Groundwork is walk, trot, canter in a corral. It is repetitive and boring which is why I’m not fond of it.
*A light metal bit in the horse’s mouth.
*Training in an enclosed space to promote obedience.
*Behavior that can hurt the rider.
*Dropping the reins on the next is usually a safe move on a trustworthy horse.
*"Sound" means no structural issues with alignment, bone structure or musculature.
*Copyright 2020 Karen Custer Thurston
Photo #1: Victor Nordi-Mathison/Unsplash
Photo #2: Jonathon Safi/Unsplash
Photo #3: Karen Custer Thurston