Client Story: Zoé Conter – How to bounce back after a bad fall

By Annette Paterakis

Ever wondered what mental training is really all about? You are not alone… When thinking about what a mental coaching session is like, many riders might still picture someone lying down on a sofa and opening up about their issues to a dull therapist with a crazy imagination. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth! So, in this series, I unveil the mystery by sharing some of the challenges that clients of mine have faced and how, together, we turned things around. For this case study, I’m sharing Zoé Conter’s story with you.

Zoé needs little introduction. She is only 21 but has already established an impressive track record of success. From winning a team gold and individual bronze medal at the European Junior championships in 2016 to riding 5* shows, Zoé has been there and done that. However, in May 2018, whilst competing at an international show in Rome, she had a nasty fall with her horse and ended up breaking her neck. Falling off is one thing but getting severely injured is another. How do we bounce back after an accident like that?

The story

Zoé and I have been working together since 2014 and I have witnessed, close up, her ups and downs in the sport. So when I found out she had fallen off and broken her neck, I was shocked to say the least. About a month later we met up and she told me exactly what had happened. She was at a show in Italy with a new horse. She had ridden it a few times at a show before but never in a big class, so she decided to ride him in a qualifier class. They started off really well, until they entered a combination a little too big and her horse planted its legs right in the middle of the oxer. They both flipped over and Zoé ended up fracturing the fifth cervical vertebra in her neck. She was straight away flown to Belgium and, during the operation, the doctors were still worried she might be paralyzed. Luckily, the operation was a success and Zoé recovered reasonably quickly, but her doctors made sure to tell her how lucky she was and how it could have all ended very differently. Obviously she was relieved and realised how lucky she had been, but at the same time she was worried she might not be able to get back to the level she was competing at before. However, after five months of intense physiotherapy and dedication, she was able to get back in the saddle again.

The challenge

During those five months she had spent many moments contemplating how it would feel like to be back riding again. Now, finally back on the horse, it felt really good. That is, until her horse tripped and her neck flipped back and a cracking sound appeared from the injury area. Luckily, everything was fine, but in that moment, many emotions including fear entered her body. She suddenly felt vulnerable and realised how fragile both her body and mind still were. Zoé reached out to me and explained what had happened and how she was scared of falling off and getting injured again.

Fear is not something we often talk about as equestrians, but it is one of the most basic emotions we can encounter. Fear is the brain’s way of trying to protect us. The brain just wants to keep us safe and it has many different ways of doing that.  One of the ways is to process information, file it and give it meaning in order to predict the future so it can protect us. When we sleep, we go trough different sleep stages, one of which is REM, or also known as the dream stage. When we are dreaming, our brain processes all the information and experiences of that day. When we get ourselves into a dangerous situation, like falling off a horse, our brain will save this information into a special file. Let’s call it the DANGER FILE. So every time you now get into a similar situation, your brain recognises it as dangerous and it will trigger your survival system in an attempt to keep you safe. Unfortunately, this survival state triggers our fight, flight or freeze response and, on the horse, this response translates into, for example, you not seeing a distance but attacking the jump like your life depends on it, you starting to pull for that second, no wait, third distance, or you just sit there and do nothing. Needless to say that this primal response system is not very helpful when riding horses.

So back to Zoé, rationally, she knew she should just relax and trust herself and her horse. She had been doing her breathing exercises, just like I taught her, but the fear was still taking over. So we had to find a way to reprocess the information of the fall and change the DANGER FILE into a different file: the, I survived and I’m SAFE FILE. In order to do this, we needed to work on the level of the subconscious mind, as this is also where the information is stored. Over the years I have searched and found different techniques that successfully do just that. One of the techniques I use the most is EFT, which stands for Emotional Freedom Technique. Without going into too much detail in terms of how it works exactly, (find more info here: let me walk you through the process Zoé and I worked on.

The process

When emotions are scary and unhelpful, we tend to push them away and pretend they are not there. Over time, we become so skilled at doing that, we fail to recognize what’s really going on inside us. EFT is a great tool to actually acknowledge the emotions we feel so we can genuinely let them go. I asked Zoé to pick the worst moment from the time of the accident until now. For her, this was actually not the fall in Rome, but riding towards a double combination during a training session a few days before. So while using the EFT technique we, step-by-step, went through the experience of jumping at home, going through that double combination, feeling the fear kick in and seeing the image of what could happen. The first time around, her fear intensity was a 10 on 10, but as we repeated this process a few times, she started to feel better and better. When using techniques like EFT, we can let go of the emotions around a specific memory or event, which enables us to give it a different meaning. Zoé too had created a new meaning around what had happened in Rome and during her training that week. As a result, the fear subsided and then disappeared completely.

The outcome

In just one session, Zoé was able to acknowledge her fears, accept them and create a new meaning around it all. As a result, she has continued riding and jumping and has even been able to get back to the level she was at before her accident.

In her own words, Zoé describes her experience as follows: “Before my fall in Rome, I was pretty happy about how I was riding lately. I was riding very confident and was determined, which are two very important factors when competing I think. During my recovery, a few questions kept my mind busy all the time: ‘Will I ever compete at the same level again?’, ‘Will I be scared?’, etc. All very terrifying when you can’t do anything about it in that moment. The moment I started riding and jumping again, I told myself, ‘I am not scared, nothing happened, I am not scared.’ I thought it would be easy to just pick things up again where I left off, but it wasn’t really. I got really scared a few times, and I thought it would only be a one-time thing, but the anxiety kept on coming back. That’s when I decided I needed Annette’s help to get that fear out of my head. After one session with her she helped me actually acknowledge my fear first before we could get rid of it. For me, that has been one of the most important phases in my comeback. I stopped denying that I was scared and instead I acknowledged my fear. It’s a hard thing to do, but in the end it was reality and I needed to face it before I could move on.”

What about you?

Have you ever had a bad fall and you feel you haven’t completely recovered from it mentally? Then rest assured, there’s lots you can do:

  1. Take the time to learn more about EFT (see link above), download The Tapping Solution App on your phone and read the book, “The Tapping Solution”, by Nick Ortner.
  2. Sing up to my Master Your Mind Online Mental Training App. Lesson 7 is all about breaking down mental barriers and overcoming traumas, using EFT. More Info.
  3. Consider whether you would like to work through a bad fall or trauma with a mental coach. Feel free to get touch so we can have a chat, free of charge. Contact Me.