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Getting hurt; the mind body response



Our brain auto-responds to perceived threats. What it determines to be a threat and how it has learnt to respond, affects your day to day. Here's a story of what happened when I was thrown off a horse. Two times in fact.


The wider context is that I have on-and-off ridden horses all my life. I have loaned three horses; two long-term and one was a short spell that did not work out for a number of factors that aren’t so relevant for this story.


I had thought to myself: "It’s been too long since I’ve ridden. I loved riding every week. I need to start again. It feeds into multiple value strands that I have. I need to make room for it." And so, I started the search up again.


I found three suitable ads, but I really felt good about one in particular. Friday was the evening I went to go and meet loaner and horse. As I turned up someone was leaving the arena, having just ridden the horse. I queried this and the loaner told me reassuringly that she was looking for two people to loan the horse. Did I want her to ride first, or should I get on? I’m a confident rider, so I was happy to jump on. But I did feel a hesitation. An uncertain pause. I had been feeling slightly nervous as it had been a while since I’d last ridden and my last loan was a firecracker that had dented my confidence a little.


Anyhow, I get on and I feel this horse wanting to pick up pace quickly. I’m sitting back in the saddle, gently pulling back on the reins, and using my voice to calm her. I can feel my body tensing, but I’m breathing deep breaths. “Slow, slow,” I'm cooing, attempting to reassure myself and the horse. It’s not working, she’s picking up speed as she meets the first corner and she’s transitioning from trot to canter. The owner had told me not to canter on her as she’s too speedy and needs work. I am now wondering how I can regain control, but the world is moving by much quicker now and the horse is veering very close to the fence.


Something happens and I’m jolted forwards over the side of her and she bolts off.


Well, this was a shock and in my mind, I’m wondering, “do I leave it there? Does this mean I don’t loan this horse?” but something else is tugging at me. I still can’t pinpoint it but it probably spans pride, embarrassment and disappointment. I want to loan this horse. I want to be a competent rider. I don’t want to appear scared. Can you guess what happens when the owner asks if I’d like to try again? I say yes. Propelled by this mix of unarticulated emotions and their accompanying thoughts.


Well, whatever you can say about this decision, the outcome was that the horse bolted sooner and faster and the fall was further and harder. I landed hard on my shoulder and mildly secondarily on my head. A sharp burst of yellow appeared across my eyes as I felt my head crack against the helmet, crashing on the floor. I didn’t try again.


The owner was shocked, apologetic, and caring. She told me how the horse had just been ridden twice and was really calm. How the horse had never done anything like this and was the “calm horse” that reassured other horses when on a hack.


Over the coming hours and days, I noticed some things that happened, which are things that happen commonly when we experience trauma or something so overwhelming it goes beyond our resources to cope in that time.


Self-directed blame: It’s my fault. I started thinking about how my last loan seemed to be very hostile towards me, very bullish and bitey and then, considering that, the loan before that! I realised she had gotten pushier and bolty towards the end of our loaning term. This could only mean one thing surely. It’s something about me that was making these horses bolty! I mean the woman even said – she was so calm and rode so well just minutes before I got on!


Here's the reality check: This horse was very young. She hadn’t been ridden for 3 months and then in the space of 2 hours she had been ridden by 3 people – she was probably overwhelmed and stressed! My experience with the other two loans was much more likely due to the horses having multiple loaners, inconsistent riding cues and preferring not to be worked (I was working with a trainer each time, who said similar things). Furthermore, I had so many lovely rides with my longer-term loan and got amazing feedback from my trainer. My brain just couldn’t access that.


Fearful future predictions: I was now worried that I would forever be unable to ride horses due to such a knock to my confidence. That I felt like a terrible rider and that this would in turn create such stress and anxiety, that horses would sense it every time and end up throwing me off.


Reality check: This is not at all generally what horses do when they sense someone is nervous if they are adequately schooled, broken in and ridable. If they are not these things, it probably won’t make much of a difference if you’re calm or nervous. You need to be a horse wrangler to sort that out!


Bodily hypervigilance: I then started to consider that I could have a concussion and maybe a more serious head injury and wondered how best I might be sure I was ok. I started to think through waiting times in A&E and that I didn’t want to do that. I noticed I felt sick and questioned if that was a symptom.


Update: My head and health are fine. I am cut and bruised, and my shoulder is very sore where I landed on it, but with gentle rotations and movements, I’ll be ok.


Decision questioning & confronting my own fragility: “Wow things can just happen, and you have very little control over whether they kill you” – not so much a verbal thought, but a definitive confronting of this reality.

Things happen all the time beyond our control and yet we survive the vast majority of them. It can feel alarming to realise there is the possibility that we don’t. The question comes – am I one bad decision away from death or serious harm?


Reassuring reality: Realising that we don’t have control all of the time, doesn’t change the degree of control that we have. So nothing has changed. When you survive highly distressing things it can make it feel like you are at higher risk of these things happening again. Take a violent assault that happens on a night out. Going on nights out can then feel much more dangerous. But the actual risk ratio remains low. It is our brain that then feels the need to recalibrate and protect us.


All of these things that I noticed, I could trace back to the trauma response. I could spot what my nervous system was trying to do, and I could gently facilitate it to calm slightly. Gradually I could apply practical solutions to my concerns. I allowed myself to go back to the memory, rather than push it away. I talked to my friend and husband about it to help me process. I allowed myself to be comforted by distraction.


The thing is, when highly distressing things that threaten our equilibrium happens, we need to acknowledge them, and we need to have support and resources to cope with it. The reality is, we’re not taught how to do this or prepared for these eventualities and yet, for most of us, we will have things happen over the course of our lives that will overwhelm our capacity. Whether it’s being thrown off a horse, bullied at work, assaulted, manipulated, incapacitated by health, or whatever other tribulations, remember – it’s not your fault and you deserve support.

While I wouldn’t consider being thrown off this horse a trauma with a capital T, it was distressing. It took a bit to unpack. And that’s a reminder too that we shouldn’t minimise the things that happen to us that don’t equate to big life traumas. The little and middling things add up to have quite the effect on the mind and body. So, make space for some acknowledgement.


Try this yourself

And on that note, here’s a little exercise for this week. I’d like to invite you to make some space for one difficult thing that happened this week. Whether little, middling, or large. Name it. Notice how it feels to do so. And from there, ask yourself what you need or what could soothe you. Even if that’s a small thing too. What happens in your mind as you create this space to acknowledge? Where does your mind go when you explore what needs arise from this? Is it really practical and problem-solving? Or does it explore options that gently meet your emotional experience, rather than trying to fix things? Whatever arises, just notice.

This can serve you beyond the difficulty that you have explored right now.

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