By Ellie Johnson
I just finished a 2 day clinic, and I am pretty sure I fell off my mount, “Punkie” at least 30 times over the two days, but I stopped counting after the first dozen falls so I can’t be sure. And you know what? It was the BEST. CLINIC. EVER!
By now you are probably wondering what is wrong with me, so let me explain myself. This was a clinic given by the LandSafe Equestrian team, Danny and Keli Warrington. For those of you who haven’t heard of LandSafe, their mission is to reduce rider risk by educating riders how to fall correctly.
Landsafe was established in 2017 in Maryland by Danny and Keli. Since then, they have been trekking back and forth across the country giving clinics on the West Coast every other year.
I came across LandSafe last year when I started looking for a way to manage my fear of falling off. After a bad accident that put me in the hospital with a traumatic brain injury and a gap in my memory, I had both a fear of falling off and a big loss of confidence in my riding. (And yes, I always wear my helmet!) Needless to say, this had a very negative effect on my effectiveness as a rider and on my enjoyment of the sport. I thought if I could practice falling off in a controlled, slow motion situation, I might have less fear of “what might happen.”
Fast forward to this weekend when I was lucky enough to get a spot in a LandSafe clinic in my area. The clinic started with gymnastic exercises to learn the correct position for reducing rider risk in a fall. Specifically, we needed to get used to bracing with our arms in front of us as we tucked out heads in. The arms are important to help decelerate the fall and protect our heads. It was definitely not an instinctive position for me or for any of the other participants. As we ran through multiple exercises to practice rolling from heights and to each side, Danny and Keli corrected our positions and gave individual feedback about what each of us should focus on.
The second part of the clinic each day was focused on falls from horseback. After learning the rolls on the ground, we then had the opportunity to practice them coming off a horse. “Punkie,” the equine fall simulator, was set up in a heavily matted “bounce house.” We learned in slow motion how to safely come off of “Punkie” in a variety of scenarios – a fall or buck, a rear, an off the shoulder roll, and an emergency dismount in motion. Some of the take home points in this segment were to drop the reins when coming off, look away from the ground to help position your body for a good roll, stay small and tight in your roll, and most importantly keep your chin tucked in and your arms braced out to protect your head.
Danny and Keli’s passion for educating us to be safe was apparent all weekend long. These two are supremely qualified to teach this program. Danny is a former leading steeplechase jockey turned international three-day eventer. His commitment to sharing his knowledge of safety and self-preservation is invaluable. In addition, his knowledge of rider instincts and reactions helps him to quickly identify what each rider needs to correct in order to develop safer responses. Keli is an accomplished gymnast and equestrian who has also competed through the CCI* level in eventing. She does a wonderful job of demonstrating the techniques for each exercise and then gives each participant positive feedback as they cycle through. With only 10 participants in the clinic group, there is plenty of individual coaching.
I came away from this clinic wondering why this isn’t a mainstream part of our training as riders. We spend countless hours teaching ourselves and our horses to perform better and better. Where most other sports devote some training to self-defense in the event of a fall or accident, we equestrians don’t prepare ourselves for that scenario. (And the majority of those other sports do not involve a live 1200 pound partner!)
Our efforts to protect ourselves have certainly improved in recent years with so many more riders wearing helmets, but a helmet can’t prevent a poor landing. Only training and practice can prepare a rider to fall in a way that reduces risk of injury.
This clinic exceeded all of my expectations. I learned good techniques for falling and this will enable me to ride better because my confidence has been restored. While no two falls are exactly alike, the basic principles of how to protect myself are the same. I may not be able to predict how or when a fall will come, but good muscle memory of what I learned at the LandSafe clinic will help reduce my risk of injury if or when it happens. I wanted to share my experience with other USDF members because this education is priceless, and I don’t think very many people have considered it as a valuable part of our training as riders. I hope my great experience at the LandSafe clinic will inspire other dressage riders to give it a try and invest in their safety.