By Bethann Coldiron
August 20, 2020
Falling off a horse feels like a right of passage that every equestrian will come to head with (literally) at least once. How many times have you traded stories in the aisle way of the barn with your friends? Sometimes, if we are lucky, we may even have said falls on our phones, allowing us to proudly share as proof and comedic relief (as seen quite frequently on Instagram and TikTok).
However, what these stories and videos don’t show is how daunting it can be to get back in your groove after a fall. After all, you just survived being flung from a 1,200 pound, half-wild animal. Being scared is normal, and anyone who says otherwise has clearly never landed head-first on hard ground.
Bethann Coldiron and Monty at the 2019 Appaloosa National Show in a non-pro ranch trail class, where they came in 8th.
About ten weeks ago on a drizzly and foggy June day, I was riding my 5-year-old Appaloosa ranch pleasure horse, Monty, when I had a bad fall that resulted in a mild concussion and a very broken tailbone. If I’m being honest, it wasn’t so much of a fall as it was me doing my best impression of a human catapult. It was a Saturday afternoon at work. I am an instructor at Hearts and Hooves Therapeutic Riding Center in Sherwood, Arkansas. We had just finished up lessons for the day. I had trailered two of my junior geldings with me to take advantage of the covered arena we have on-premises. I live in Arkansas where it seems to rain nine months out of the year and never dries up completely. As usual, it had rained that morning off and on, and at one point it rained so hard a small stream came through the barn. Neither of my horses batted an eye with the rain pounding on the metal roof.
I saddled Monty while a co-worker was going to ride my other gelding, Louis. Monty stood completely still in the barn and was very patient as I brushed and saddled him. We got to the arena and I lunged him for a few minutes. I like to lunge every horse I am going to ride for at least ten minutes before I get on. In my opinion, it gives the horse time to stretch their legs, get any bucks out of their system, and start to focus on their job. When I got on, he felt a little tense. It had been a few days since he was ridden last and it was an unusually brisk summer morning, but I was not expecting anything crazy to happen.
Suddenly, a new line of storms came through and Monty lost his cool. I was just about to get off when he tucked his butt and ran off. Have you ever seen a dog get the zoomies? That is exactly what my horse looked like. Stupidly, I was riding him in a plain snaffle versus my high port, medium shank show bit, and could not get him stopped. At this point, Monty’s brain had left the building and I was left with a 1,100 pound out-of-control 5-year-old toddler. Just when I thought that maybe I should just abandon ship and jump off, Monty made the choice for me. He turned left while I went sailing through the air to the right.
Have you ever had that mid-flight moment where time seems to significantly slow down and you mentally observe and prepare for your landing options? Well, my landing option was bleak and all I could think about was how this landing was definitely going to hurt! I first landed right on my head and then did a move that would give Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles a run for her money and proceeded to land right on my tailbone.
Ah, ambulance pics. We’ve all been there!
Instantly after landing, I knew I had broken a bone. It’s a wild feeling, but one I would suggest trying to avoid. The theatrics ensued, resulting in an ambulance ride to the Emergency Room, X-Rays were taken, some heavy-duty pain drugs followed suit, and some sympathy pizza was provided by my amazing husband. The next few days were rough. I laid in bed in a pain-pill induced coma and tried to move as little as possible. When I was awake, my brain was electric with all the thoughts and feelings:
“What could I have done differently?”
“Wow, I suck.”
“Maybe I should just sell both horses if I am going to keep getting injured.”
I realize this sounds dramatic (even though I know most of you have been here before), but this was not my first rodeo with concussions and other bad injuries. In 2013 I got kicked in the face (yes, you read that right, and yes, I do have an awesome scar!) walking behind a witch of a mare. That kick resulted in a concussion so terrible I was slurring my words for two weeks. The side of my face was so swollen it looked like someone had implanted a golf ball underneath my skin. Doctors told me that reconstructive surgery could be necessary (thankfully it never was), and I suffered from migraines for months. The Emergency Room doctor told me if the mare had been wearing back shoes I’d probably be dead and it is truly a miracle she didn’t take out my eye, too. My short-term memory is still bad and I have permanent nerve damage in my neck from whiplash.
In 2010 I was riding an OTTB that I was retraining for barrel racing when he suddenly exploded and turned into a bronc. I could not stop him and he was running towards a pipe fence, so I had no choice but to bail. Unfortunately, I landed on my back like a rag doll, fracturing two vertebrae in my spine. I couldn’t walk normally for months and you can still feel a slight dip in my spine where it came into contact with the ground.
My doctor, of course, knew about all of this, and straight-up told me if I got another severe concussion the damage might be irreversible. That frightened me a great deal. I am only 30 and plan to live a long life that doesn’t involve being a vegetable.
Further proof this was not my first rodeo with bad falls and concussions
On top of that, I’ve known and seen people take some serious hits. One friend of mine got injured on a leisurely ride in a pasture just walking on their horse, who tripped in a hole, causing the rider to flip over the horse’s front end and she broke her neck. Another friend got thrown from a colt into a pipe fence and broke his collarbone. Every equestrian recognizes that riding is one of the most extreme sports in the world and that we take our life into our own hands every time we swing our leg over a horse, and yet we still choose that risk for the reward we get out of spending time in the saddle with such magical creatures. But after a bad fall (or a few bad falls) and watching or hearing about other people close to you get hurt, you'd be crazy to not get a little nervous or even fearful about your own wellbeing.
Even with my unwavering passion for riding horses, this fall left me shook. One person who inspired me while I was convalescing was NFR world champion barrel racer Fallon Taylor who broke her neck in 2009 while riding a client’s horse. She’s been very vocal about the experience and is an advocate for wearing helmets in western riding events. While I was laid up in bed, I visited her YouTube page and watched her interview with motivational speaker Ed Mylett. If you haven’t watched the video, I highly suggest it. It is also available as a podcast episode on Mylett’s podcast, The Ed Mylett Show. Taylor tells Mylett that during her initial ER visit, a doctor told her she had a very slim chance of fully recovering. Riding horses would certainly be out of the picture as she’d be lucky if she even walked again. She knew then that this injury would be the hardest thing that she would have to overcome in her life. SPOILER ALERT: Taylor is back riding, thriving, and is one of the most successful barrel racers in the history of the sport.
I knew if Fallon Taylor could overcome a freaking broken neck, I could certainly overcome a broken tailbone. I was really inspired how Taylor was able to channel all of that pain that she experienced into something truly great. She never gave up, even when she was hurting. She proved to her doctors that she would ride again, and in that she has lit a fire under numerous equestrians to prove that they can overcome any obstacle.
Bethann rides again! Thanks to the inspiration from Fallon Taylor and an unwavering love for horses, Bethann was excited to get back in the saddle and enjoy her horse, Monty.
As soon as I could safely drive, I took Monty to my trainer and biggest riding advocate, Carol Jones. I knew Monty needed special attention while I recovered. It did hurt my pride knowing there was a gap in his training, and that had been my fault, but I knew that under Jones’ care he would be able to overcome his fear of loud noises, which Jones and I surmised had set him off in the first place. Monty stayed at boot camp for two months. Any time Monty goes to Jones' farm, I don't really have any set expectations of what she is going to do with him. I just know that when I get him back, he always feels like a whole different horse—she's that good!
When I was ready to return to the saddle, within each lesson I took with him, I could feel my confidence slowly coming back. At first, I took things slow. My trainer would warm him up first while she explained what she had been doing with him, and what I needed to do when I brought him home. During my first lesson back with him, I couldn’t even swing my saddle on him and could only walk and do a standing trot. Anything else was excruciating, but it taught me patience and to not rush the process. Eventually, I worked up to doing everything myself, which really helped me gain some confidence back. I told myself that if I could achieve one thing I couldn’t do during my last lesson, that was good progress.
Aside from working with my trainer to get Monty and me back on track, I also reached out to other “horsey” friends on social media and asked them what their worst wreck was and how they had overcome their fear of getting back in the saddle. In typical 30-something fashion, I enjoy making off the cuff videos of me voicing my frustrations with riding, and I find that getting advice and words of wisdom from friends is very beneficial.
One of my good friends back home in Texas told me to “ride smarter, not harder.” She suggested that I try and gauge how my horse is feeling and what his body language was communicating to me. Is he feeling a little fresher today? Keep that in mind and don’t be shocked when he crow hops a little (aftera all, he's 5 not 15). Another friend told me to lunge Monty until he told me he was ready to stop and listen. That trick has worked quite well. Now I do it before every ride, even if I am going on a short trail ride. It has helped him learn to focus, and now I think he associates lunging with work. I also try to visualize what I want to accomplish before each ride. Giving myself goals has been extremely beneficial.
It has been nearly 10 weeks since my fall, and while my booty still hurts, I feel more confident in my riding than I ever have before. If you have recently fallen off a horse, my biggest piece of advice is to not give up. Equally as important, give yourself time to heal—both body and mind. I think we’re encouraged to get back on the horse as soon as possible, but the truth is sometimes we do need time to process what has happened. Falling can be very traumatic mentally and you should not feel rushed to get back on. Your body will let you know when it’s ready. It’s important that we stay connected to how our body is feeling to allow it to tell us when we’re ready to get back on.
Bethann Coldiron is a non-pro rider on the Appaloosa circuit. Her discipline is ranch versatility. A former professional writer and editor, she now writes for fun and also has a podcast called Equi-Talk where she discusses all things horses. You can follow her on Instagram @bethanntexann.