How to cope with the mental aftermath of a fall

By Annette Paterakis

It is inevitable! Riding horses means you will fall off regularly, often with much speed and from a considerable height. When we are young, we dust ourselves of and get back on again, but as we get older our body and mind might not be as forgiving anymore.

In order to better cope with a fall, we need to know what happens in the mind first. Every night, when we are asleep we reprocess a lot of information during a sleep stage called, REM, the stage in which we experience dreams. Just like you file your documents into separate folders on your computer, dreams are the mix of information from your day that your brain is processing and filing. When we experience something dangerous or traumatizing, our brain will direct this peace of information into the “warning” or “special” file. Which means that this information will be easily accessible for a while, to make sure we stay aware of the potential danger.

Lets imagine you had a bad fall into an oxer, every time you get into a similar situation – riding towards an oxer – your brain will hit the alarm button, sending out signals to release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and your “fight or flight” system has been activated.

In other words, every time your brain regards the situation as potentially dangerous, it will not wait for something to happen again but instead, mobilize your body to either fight or flight for you to survive. This explains why getting back on your horse after a fall or approaching a particular fence can evoke body reactions such as shallow breathing, tense muscles or a tight feeling in your stomach. This in turn leads to you pulling more, not able to see a distance or pulling out into a circle.

Now the question is, how can we get “reset” and regain confidence after a bad fall? Here are 5 ways to help you get back in the saddle without fear.

Start small

By starting small and slow you can expose yourself to riding again within your comfort zone. So first and foremost, take your time and make sure you feel comfortable with every little step forward.

Prepare your mind

In case the fall or accident was particularly scary for you, make sure to prepare your mind first before mounting and rushing into it. The best way to prepare yourself on the ground is to visualize getting on the horse and feeling very comfortable and confident. This might take a while, so take your time and just imagine walking around in a trusted environment and really connecting with your horse, feeling every move. When this idea doesn’t scare you anymore, make it more challenging and imagine how you would trot and canter around and eventually jump again. The advantage of visualization is, that any tension, anxiety or fear will not be transmitted to your horse and you can build up confidence without new accidents happening.

Prepare your body

You can also use an easy breathing exercise to calm your nervous system down when you start to feel anxious. Ideally you want to train yourself by using this exercise – which will only take a few minutes – for at least a week before you get on the horse again. Sit or lay down in a comfortable position with your right hand on your lower abdomen.
Start with breathing deep in through your nose and out through your mouth two times.
Then just follow your breath deep into your lower abdomen (without forcing it) towards your hand (feel how your hand goes up and down with every in and out flow of your breath).
Whenever you find yourself distracted by thoughts or noises, just go back to your breathing.
Do this for as long as you like or a minimum of 2 minutes a day.
For more breathing exercises or an audio version, send an email to

Be present

When you feel ready to get on again, pick the horse you trust the most (if possible) and take your time to just connect with him or her first. Be present, the more you can truly be “in the moment” the less you can think of what happened in the past or what could happen again.


If after using these steps you still feel overwhelmed by fear, you might want to work on a more in debt reprocessing of the accident. To the Hippocampus – an area in the core of your brain and responsible for the formation of new memories about past experiences – the memory of the fall is still way to significant to let go of. As a result, it has become overactive and is responding in a very unhelpful way. If this is the case for you, find a (sport) psychologist or (mental) coach to help you reprocess the information by using different techniques such as EMDR or EFT.