North Fork Outdoors: Falls are part of the horseback game

Lots of outdoors persons, here and elsewhere, enjoy horses and horseback activities. And so do we. But, as in any exercise involving the outdoors, accidents are part of the game, and working with half-ton animals presents risks that are pretty specific to that activity.

A couple of weeks ago at a field trial held on the historic English Setter Club grounds in Medford, N.J., about a half-hour from Philadelphia, a surprising number of accidents took place over the course of only a few days. Having so many mishaps in such a short time was unusual.

At mid-week, during a fast-paced stake, one experienced handler tried to turn his horse rather sharply; when the animal stumbled, he went over the top and landed on his collarbone, breaking it in the process. Over the weekend, two more riders went down when their horses fell; one bailed off just in time, the other suffered a fractured finger and a few bruises. To round things out, another experienced rider with a newly purchased horse failed to notice how much air the animal had blown out while riding and didn’t cinch up in time. During dismounting, the saddle assembly slipped off, depositing the rider, butt-first, on hard, dry soil. Badly bruised, that rider was also through riding for the weekend.

A couple of wags commented that this had something to do with bad karma, running a big field trial during Holy Week (with Passover in the mix as well), but a very well-known dog trainer, who also spent her youth breaking in quarter horses, confided that she had long ago stopped counting cracked and broken bones accumulated while riding horses!

As we’ve explained in previous essays, most of us get into horseback activities from the periphery. If you go into the Rockies with guides to set up a hunting or fishing trip, you ride in a pack train, horses and burros, or you just don’t go. If you compete seriously with pointing dogs in any trials other than walking trials on grouse and woodcock, sooner or later, you’ll be in the saddle, handling, judging, or simply observing those dogs.

After only a few rides, you get the feeling that there’s more to this game than simply plopping your butt into a comfortable saddle and using reins or legs, especially if you’re called upon to ride off by yourself on a steed from the wrangler’s string. Horses have a terrific sense of who’s a “tenderfoot” or “greenhorn” and who’s not, and “rental” horses are notorious for taking advantage of such situations. Now maybe you’ll want to get serious about riding lessons, and buy proper riding apparel, designed specifically for the riding you’ll do. Riding jeans, proper riding boots, chaps, and certainly a good helmet are starters, and you may quickly find that your very own saddle will serve you well over several seasons.

If you get serious about any horseback-related games, you eventually come to the conclusion that you’ll do a lot better with your own horse. Here the story takes a new turn, similar to the anglers who commit to offshore fishing and progress from skiff to cruiser. Horses (we use the plural form because they need companions) require pasture, barn or boarding, plus trailers and haul vehicles. Now you’re really hooked, and so are your life savings!

But back to the “safety” theme. Even when beginning to ride, you should know about tying lines, adjusting stirrups, saddling and bridling the animals properly in case the wrangler misses something while setting up your rental ride. You’re the person most affected. A loose saddle for a rider is like a poorly tied knot for an angler. Stirrups too long? No control? Too short? Cramps or balance issues? If you begin to work around horses, you realize how much lifting has to be done — everything from dragging heavy bales of hay and six-gallon Jerry cans of water to supporting horses’ feet and cleaning hooves. I’ve never used a lumbar support so often in any other outdoor activity!

But, again, like all outdoor endeavors, when things come together, it’s something else. Late on the Sunday of the Medford, N.J., trial, I was called upon to run a dog in place of one of the injured handlers. While I judge quite a bit and help out handlers as a “scout” when dogs go AWOL, I seldom carry responsibility for steering a wide-ranging field dog around a big course. But the dog knew its mission and, within a few minutes, I found myself watching her two fields ahead, swinging along a long edge, searching for game birds. Then the veteran judge cantered up alongside and asked me to turn at the end of the cast. As I called and swung the horse, the dog spotted me and swung 90 degrees at the far end of the field, just the maneuver we wanted.

And this is why we ride!