Rebuilding Confidence: Navigating the Mental Recovery After a Fall

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I’m going to address a subject that is hard for me to talk about, mostly because it’s a little bit embarrassing to discuss my failures. But I think it’s an important topic to discuss here, because at one time or another, we’ve all been there. I’m talking about falls.

More specifically, the falls that leave you hurt beyond the physical ailments, and cause lasting damage to your confidence.

I had an incident at the horseshow in Ocala last February that fit this bill. Since I work full time in Boston, I was commuting down for the weekends to show. This was the one weekend my parents and brother decided to come along to watch. Of course.

It was the type of fall that looked terrifying to the spectator. My brother later told me he thought I’d come up spitting out teeth, if I was even conscious. Adding to my embarrassment and sense of failure, the horse was a sales horse that belonged to my trainer. Talk about feeling like you just did something completely unforgiveable.

Luckily, the horse was just fine. I took a trip to the urgent care, thinking I had possibly broken some ribs or perhaps something in my back. After some x-rays revealed that nothing was broken, I got on a flight home the next day with some prescription meds and a support pillow (as you can imagine, trauma to the back made plane travel a tad uncomfortable). It seemed the only real casualties were my confidence and my broken helmet (huge shout out to KASK for preventing a concussion).

Physically, I started healing pretty quickly. With mild pain meds, lots of ice packs, and learning to use a foam roller, I actually didn’t need to take too much time off from riding. Within a week I hopped on my retired horse, Laser, for some tack walks back home in Boston.

The emotional and mental recovery was not as swift.

Since my fall was the result of my own miscalculation in a 1.20m speed class, I was already feeling a couple different fears. I was starting to doubt my ability to find distances, was becoming wary of going fast, and was thinking perhaps I was just not cut out for this level of competition. I had to make a plan for my comeback that allowed me to take my time, but also forced me to push past those fears. I knew the longer I waited, the worse it would get. So, here’s how I went about my emotional and mental recovery from one of the scariest falls of my life: 

  1. Change the scenery

Needing a break from Ocala (where it seemed my bad luck never ended), we took a little road trip to a smaller show on the west coast of Florida. Honestly, this was pivotal to my recovery and it was the perfect way to dip my toe back into the show ring. I had a fresh perspective in a less stressful environment, and I was able to block out the memory of the fall and concentrate on the task at hand – getting back into the ring in a positive way.  

  1. Take a huge step down

This is incredibly important in order to rebuild confidence. Like I said, I had to get back into the ring before the fear totally overwhelmed me. So, I did a bunch of smaller, less intense classes that allowed me to concentrate on feeling comfortable in the ring. I didn’t have to worry about big jumps or technical tracks. Trust me, I had a lot of time faults in those first few rounds back. But each time I came out of the ring, I was able to chip away at those internal fears.

  1. Realize its not a linear progression

After spending some time in the smaller divisions, I started to creep my way back up to where I was before the fall. But it wasn’t always a simple, straight path. I certainly had days when I just was not ready to keep moving up. I had to listen to myself, and when I felt that I needed an easier class to help rebuild the confidence, I moved back down again. Yes, it was hard not to feel like I was taking big steps backward in my recovery. But honestly, just getting back into the ring was the victory.

  1. Give it a lot of time

For me, this was the biggest surprise. I really thought that after a few months, I would be totally back to normal, with my fall in the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, this was not the case. I was surprised by how much my confidence was still wavering, even 6 months later. I guess this is indicative of being an adult amateur – when we see what COULD happen, the fear takes hold of us. We start to worry: What if the next fall is even worse? What the hell am I doing in this crazy dangerous sport? How many more ER trips are in my future? Trust me, these are all things I thought about daily after my fall. And those questions still exist in my head, but with time I was able to quiet the noise.

The mental and emotional recovery from a traumatic experience is slow. While I feel like I took the path of recovery that was right for me, I still can’t say I’m 100% healed. Moments of fear and doubt still creep into my mind. What worked for me was to try to balance all my emotions on any given day during my healing process. If I was at a show, and was feeling particularly fearful, I would still force myself to go into that ring. But maybe I would be okay with time faults, or adding in the lines, or making a circle mid-course in order to take a deep breath. If I made it to the jump-off, maybe I just rode it like a regular round without amping up the speed. That was my compromise. I had to dive back in and really try, but I allowed myself a little bit of an “out” in order to build the confidence back up. It’s still a work in progress. 

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