Riding with Fear after the Crash

In Juli Thorson's 'Just Between Us' column in the October 2008 issue of Horse & Rider, Juli writes about the psychological aftermath of a horse accident and dealing with fear.

It wasn’t even my horse accident. But after witnessing a friend get bucked off in my arena, and dealing with the 911 aftermath (broken ribs, punctured lung, nearly a week of hospitalization), I wasn’t left untouched. In fact, I’d say I was scarred–by a new and unwanted visitor known as fear.

Until that day in early ’05, I didn’t know what it meant to be afraid to ride. I’ve been horseback since I was a tot, and live a life engrossed by horses, both personally and professionally. So it’s been unsettling, to say the least, to have gotten familiar with responses some of you may know well.

The Mind-Body Loop

There’s the mental video, stuck on perpetual replay, of a rider being catapulted to a hard landing. That feeling of being overwhelmed, against my will, by a sense of immediate danger if my horse so much as flinches. The swiftly stiffened joints, the trembling hands that follow. The body that won’t obey the brain. And the disgusted self-chastisement over an inability to “just get over it.”

Then there’s the weird element of how my fear factor only gets triggered in relation to my own gentle horse–the one whose lead rope I happened to be holding as my friend gulped dirt. My fear has remained dormant as I’ve climbed aboard all kinds of other horses, even ones I don’t know but whose reins have been offered to me in the course of my work for Horse & Rider.

I’ve come to dread my out-of-control feelings as much as I do the prospect of getting hurt by my horse. In fact, some days, just my fear of the fear has been enough to keep me from saddling up.

Google is Good
I was thinking about all this today while having a read of “Horse Wreck!,” this month’s feature (page 46) that outlines horse accidents suffered by a selection of famous riders. Each rider talks about lessons learned, but none mentions having to deal with fear after the wreck. And some of theirs were real bust-ups.

So what the heck’s wrong with me?

Since I was sitting at the computer anyway, I hopped over to Google, and did a search for “psychology of fear sports.” Lo and behold, I learned there’s such a thing as sports post-traumatic stress disorder, or sports PTSD. It’s a type of “fear conditioning” that has an unconscious triggering effect on the emotional circuitry of the brain.

The afflicted person doesn’t just have a visual memory of the traumatic event. He or she also gets prompted to re-experience all the emotions it generated–and often develops avoidance behaviors as a result.

While sports PTSD is usually seen in athletes who’ve been direct sufferers of a sports injury or a humiliating performance, it’s sometimes also diagnosed in persons who’ve witnessed these things, and who have a big stake in the outcomes.

A Start at Healing
“Wow,” I thought. “There is a reason for my fear.”

Talk about having a stake in the outcome… The bucked-off person is one of my dearest friends, and I was terrified that she might die before the ambulance came. Her accident happened in the arena I use every day, and had always thought of as a safe haven. And if it could happen to her, a former pro trainer, why wouldn’t I be anxious about it happening to me–on the horse I now associate with her wreck?

These chunks of knowledge, all by themselves, provide me with a huge sense of relief–and make me believe I have a better shot at some much-wanted emotional healing. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile, if you could use some fear-therapy knowledge yourself, try that Google search. And don’t be shy (no more use of the word “afraid!”) about sharing your story.

You can reach H&R Lifestyle Editor Juli Thorson by sending an email to justhorson@aol.com. You can also read and reply to her posts on the H&R Forum, and visit her blog, Juli Thorson’s Horse Talk.

This column originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Horse & Rider magazine.

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