Courtesy of University of Kentucky
The first step in returning to riding after a long layoff due to a significant injury (which may or may not have been horse-related) or illness is to seek medical clearance. Once a medical professional has given you the clearance to resume horse-related activities, a number of other items need to be considered, including physical and mental readiness to ride, the suitability of your current mount and dealing with fear.
First, your current levels of endurance, strength and flexibility as they pertain to riding need to be assessed. Throughout the course of your layoff, these abilities have likely decreased somewhat depending on the length of your recuperation. Performing exercises recommended by a physician, physical therapist or riding instructor to develop each of these areas is important prior to returning to riding.
In addition to assessing your physical readiness to return to riding, it is just as important to evaluate your mental readiness to ride. If your injury was due to a horse-related accident, this is especially important. Even if it was not, you may be surprised to find yourself uncertain about your ability to handle situations on horseback or around horses that previously were not problematic, whether it is due to changes in your strength, balance or other physical factors. If you need to regain confidence, make sure you return to riding gradually, start slowly and increase the intensity as you feel comfortable and ready. Depending on your usual mount, it may even be necessary to start back on a different, quieter horse as you regain confidence. Having an instructor with you or leading the horse can help you feel more comfortable.
If your injury was due to a riding accident and you plan to return to riding on this same horse, recognize that the horse may also need to regain confidence, especially if the horse was also injured in the accident. It may be helpful to have a professional trainer work through some of these issues with your horse. In addition, you may consider riding under the guidance of a professional instructor more often than you may have otherwise to help ensure that your return to riding is a safe and positive one. And while it might be difficult to make this decision, depending on the circumstances, it may be necessary to permanently select a more suitable mount based on your physical and mental abilities.
As you prepare to return to riding, you might also find it helpful to talk to someone who has recovered from a significant injury or long illness and who has successfully returned to riding. Being prepared for feelings you might not expect, understanding the length of time it will take for your body to return to its original riding shape and just having a sympathetic ear to listen can be useful in this process.
It is important to recognize and address any fears you might be facing or that might arise as you return to riding. A horse can react to a rider’s fear or discomfort before the rider is even aware of having these emotions. This can lead to unexpected reactions in the horse. It is therefore important to be mindful of your emotions and the effect that this would have on your equine partner. Dealing with fear is not trivial and may very well require the assistance of a professional counselor, but for your safety and for the safety of your horse, it will be well worth it.
Finally, it is important that you understand equine behavior and your horse’s unique personality. This will help you build a relationship with your horse, an important part of safe and pleasurable riding.
Could this happen to you: “A horse-related injury happened to me when I went to feed my three horses their grain in the field. One of them blind-sided me, ran me right over and knocked me out. It took me around four hours to remember enough info about my life that the physician would release me. I still don’t really know what happened or which horse ran me over.”
Advice: Horses that are usually calm can become aggressive over food and could potentially injure you or each other during feeding. Sometimes, they just don’t know exactly where you are for a moment, and accidents happen. The best safety practice is to feed each horse individually. Feeding from outside of the pasture is safer than feeding inside the pasture. Taking food or treats into a field housing more than one horse can lead to the handler being surrounded by horses, fights over the food and possible injury. Hang feeders from the fence for easy access; place them at least 20 feet apart, so horses can eat comfortably without other horses in their space, and at a height at which horses are unlikely to get a leg caught.