An extract from Karina Cheah’s essay “Equestrian Sports: Release and Waiver of Liability,” currently unpublished.
Assumption of Risk
1. Rearing. In the wild, it is a defensive posture, a challenge from one stallion to another. In domesticated horses, it is borne out of frustration or pain or fear – when a rider sends mixed signals, asking a horse to go and stop at the same time, or when their back hurts and they don’t know how else to respond. It is a rare behavior; it takes a lot of effort and muscle for a horse to go up like that. Horses that are unbalanced when they rear can flip over. If someone is trying to sell you a horse that has previously reared on them, they should tell you. It is a problem that can be resolved, if you know the reason.
Avalon was temperamental, but it wasn’t her fault; she had pain in her ovaries and had struggled to adjust to being in a new barn. She was on medication and the swelling had gone down, but the pain and frustration still flared. We were down at the creek because it was midsummer in Washington DC, the air a sticky, suspended film – too hot to do anything else. My old trainer, Amber, had just given me a leg up on to Avalon’s back. We never took saddles when we brought horses to the creek, so I was bareback, just scooting up toward her withers so I wouldn’t end up sliding back and sitting on her kidneys.
It happened quickly, a flash in my memory. Avalon went up. I pitched my weight forward, fingers tangled in her mane. Trying to keep my seat from sliding back. And then she was down again, all four feet on the ground, ears twitching the flies away. As if nothing had happened.
Amber grabbed Avalon’s reins. Her face was tight as she looked up at me. “You okay?”
“Yeah, fine,” I said, and I was.
2. Bucking. This, too, can happen for a wide array of reasons – discomfort, aggression, or excess energy, especially in the cold. When a horse really gets going, their head will drop between their knees and their weight will shift to their shoulders, enabling them to round their backs and kick their hind legs up especially high. If you turn a horse loose in a field and they take off bucking and running, it is fun, a combustive release of energy. If you get into the ring to ride and your horse is prancing and kicking up their heels, it is a sign to put them on a lunge line before you get on, to let them run and buck whatever is coursing through their veins out of their system. Bucking, too, is a problem that can be resolved if you know the source.
Socks is an ex-racehorse, named for the four white markings on his legs. In the winter, his owner Tracy would always remind me to grab a quarter-sheet when I went to ride, to cover his back end with fleece to stave off the cold and, hopefully, some of his antics. Socks did a lot of headshaking and kicking of his heels, especially when asked for a canter. I always sat through it and kept asking for the transition, and once he got the message, he would settle into his stride and go forward.
Albert, a dark bay gelding who was much bigger than me, was known to buck hard – partly in response to biting horseflies, and partly because his back was in pain. Why my summer camp instructors put me, a skinny thirteen-year-old still learning to canter, on him is a mystery. Why they put anyone on him, in fact, is a mystery, since he was in pain.
I managed to stick a few bucks, but I was too scrawny, didn’t have the muscles to pull his head back up from between his knees. I went flying into a fence instead.
I remember dirt and grass. Being wedged against a fence post. Getting up slowly. Bruises and scrapes and a twisted ankle that didn’t start to hurt until afterwards when I was back in my cabin, and the energy I had spent on looking okay – on trying to walk it off – drained out of me.
3. Unpredictability. Horses are thousand-pound prey animals with minds and fears of their own – easily scared by a flapping plastic bag, the soft rustle of a deer moving through the woods, the manure bucket in the corner of the arena on the chance that it could eat them. A startled horse might spin or bolt – forwards or backwards – away from the thing that has scared it. You may not even see the trigger.
It is hard to talk a thousand-pound animal off a ledge, to convince them to come back to themselves. It’s easier to do so when you’re riding; the horse still has your weight on their back to contend with, and you have two reins in your hands directly connected to the metal bit in your horse’s mouth. Horses are sensitive to changes in muscle movements, so sensitive that if you turn your head to the left or right over a jump, that minute shift in your weight signals the direction you want to go when you land and can help you pick up the correct canter lead. If you tense up, your horse will feel it. Feel that you’re afraid, and that there is something to be scared of. You will wind each other up.
If you remain steady – if you can relax your body – your horse will know that, too. Sometimes, they will also steady themselves and come back to you. Other times, there is no fighting instinct. Horses have sensitive ears, and their vision is monocular – their eyes, on either side of their head, work independently of each other, sending different images to different sides of their brains. Their eyes are programmed with excellent peripheral vision, helping their minds amplify visual cues that are subtle and sometimes invisible to the human eye – the swish of a wing, the snapping of twigs, even the movement of a predator’s eye. If something changes suddenly in a horse’s vision – a deer moves in the leaves, or the manure bucket seems to change shape in their periphery – they will rely on their instincts and forget about you. It’s why when I approach a horse, I call out to them first, make a clicking noise out of the side of my mouth to alert them to where I am. I always walk up to Spencer or Merlin or Moose with a hand held out for them to smell as a reminder. Scent is a powerful memory trigger. We have met before.
4. Falling off. This is a potential consequence of the unpredictability of horses; on some days and with some horses, it is sometimes inevitable. I am a relatively sticky rider – I can usually stay in the saddle when a horse spooks or bolts or bucks – but some situations catch me off-guard.
I don’t know the number of times I’ve fallen off a horse. Not from being concussed one too many times, or from having too many falls to count. I simply don’t keep a running tally. Falling off is relatively regular, an accepted part of equestrian sports. Its consequences are almost in their own category. Torn muscles. Broken bones. Concussions.
I remember stories, not numbers. Sliding off of Max as a nine-year-old after being asked to drop my stirrups for the first time. He watched me get up with sorry eyes as though he thought it was his fault. At fifteen, I ducked my shoulders right before a jump and flew over Toby’s left shoulder into the dirt. He stopped, too, waiting for me to disentangle myself from his legs. Pixel dumped me into the sand the day before I flew to Norwich, taking advantage of my distraction while I talked to Amber – Amber of Free Rein Farm in Maryland, where I now ride – and dropping his shoulder the way a startled cat will jump to tip me off the front. After Amber made sure I was okay and yelled at Pixel for pulling such a dirty trick, I got back on.
Walk it off. Get back on the horse. It’s a literal English idiom, a rider’s mantra that remained consistent at every barn I went to. If you can get back in the saddle right after a fall, do it. Don’t end on a bad note; don’t give yourself or your horse time to become afraid.
My younger sister Kanitta was supposed to fly home to DC from Colorado in two days for winter break. I’d gotten home from Norwich a few days ago for the same purpose. In the late afternoon, Mama got a text from Kanitta, telling us she’d fallen off in her riding lesson, probably had a head injury, and would get examined on the Colorado College campus. Mama texted her back asking if she was all right, waited a few minutes, and then started to fret when there was no response. “She’s not answering,” she said.
“She’s probably fine,” I said. “She’s probably getting checked out.”
“Well, I would like to know if she’s okay,” Mama said, with that worried edge to her voice.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” I said. “If she wasn’t, someone else would have called.”
I meant it. Riding has always been a thing that Kanitta and I share, independent of our parents, where we both know the language and the parameters and the dangers. I know the range of possibilities for head injuries, not just in riding but in general; if Kanitta were that severely injured, she wouldn’t be texting.
“I guess,” Mama said, and I knew she would only be reassured when Kanitta called.
It was almost dinnertime before Kanitta gave us the full story. She sounded fine – only a little tired, which was normal. Taps, a big grey gelding owned by Colorado College’s riding coach Tracy, is excitable and territorial, known to charge at other horses if he thinks they’re too close to him. He and Kanitta were coming out of a line of jumps, and he took off on landing – she’s not sure whether it was out of excitement or territorialism. They came around the corner and Taps threw a buck; he went one way, and Kanitta the other. “It was like, a real buck,” she explained.
“Oh, I see,” I said. “Like, he went full dolphin.” Head between his legs, back rounded. That kind of buck almost always unseats a rider.
“Exactly,” Kanitta said. “I really want to know if I could have stuck it. I think if he hadn’t been going around a corner, I honestly probably could have stayed on. Anyway, I got back on, because that’s just important, and then I was walking around talking to Tracy – just, like, repeating myself a lot – and she was like, ‘I’m pretty sure you have a head injury.’”
I was laughing at her slightly sarcastic retelling. “Well, it’s good you got back on. Important for confidence. Big horse girl vibes.”
“For real,” Kanitta said. “I was literally in the dirt, and the first thing I did was ask if there was a video, because I was like, ‘That was my fault. I can fix it.’ And I was worried about my friends and their horses, because they were all running around, and Taps was still loose.” Someone caught him, and Kanitta got back on, but only to walk around.
Mama wanted to know about the concussion. Could Kanitta get on a plane and fly home? Yes, that was one of the first things she’d asked when she went to the hospital. Headaches and fatigue were the main symptoms. No screens for more than fifteen minutes at a time. No driving, and definitely no riding, at least not until getting clearance in a follow-up appointment. “I should be pretty much back to normal by the middle of next week,” Kanitta said. “I really just wanted to get on Taps and do the line again.”
Riders will say they’re due for a fall if they haven’t had one in several months or years. I said so to Amber, when Pixel dropped me over his shoulder and left me with a bruise on my ass that took weeks to fade. Kanitta had said the same thing before her lesson. “The zipper broke on my helmet bag right before, and I was like ‘Hmm, I hope that’s not a bad omen,’” she’d said on the phone, and we both laughed. “And then I was like, ‘Well, I haven’t fallen off in a while.’”
We learn early – sometimes even before we fall for the first time – that we should not blame our horses when we hit the dirt. Often, a fall is the result of rider error. Tension in your body can cause a strong reaction, like headshaking or kicking out – especially in very sensitive horses – and can unseat you. Misjudging a takeoff spot or rushing up to a fence can lead a horse to stop if they don’t believe they can make the jump, and you, an object in motion, will stay in motion, flying forward and off.
No one in the equestrian community wishes for anyone to fall off, but we accept the spills and tumbles as an unfortunate and necessary part of the sport. They teach us important things about our riding – often things to not do. Even though her fall wasn’t down to a mistake, it’s why Kanitta kept saying that the whole thing was her fault, that she could get back on and fix it. Pixel catching me off-guard with his shoulder drop reminded me to pay more attention. After I crash-landed off Toby in front of that jump, I never ducked my shoulders at a fence again. To fall is to learn from mistakes, but on a much bigger scale, with greater risks.
When I lead my horse into the arena for a ride, I am not thinking about where the risks are. I am fixing my stirrups to the right length and making sure my girth is tight enough, so the saddle won’t slip to one side when I start trotting. I am reaching over to pet Spencer or Merlin or Moose’s nose when they turn their heads to investigate what I’m doing at their side, ears forward, eyes curious. Once I’m settled into the saddle, I am double-checking that my stirrups are the right length and thinking about the best way to balance my aids – hand, seat, legs, and voice – for this particular horse, so that I can have a ride that is good and productive for both of us.
Subconsciously, I still know the possibilities. If my horse bolts and leans hard on the bit, I will not be able to stop him with only my reins. “You’ll never win a pulling match with a horse,” my different coaches have all said, usually when I am in the saddle as a reminder that my seat and voice are just as important as my hands. My horse could spook or buck unexpectedly, and he could unseat me if I’m not centered in the saddle. If I end up on the ground, I will get up, brush off the dirt, and get back on if I can.
Walk it off. Get back on the horse. Even though Kanitta didn’t do the line again, it was important for both of them that she get back on Taps – so that she could end on a better note, and so that he didn’t make an association between falling off and getting out of the rest of the lesson. I got back on Pixel for the same reasons. Amber didn’t even bring me a mounting block; she gave me a boost back into the saddle herself and handed me a crop. “You sure you’re okay?” she said, and I nodded and went back out to the rail, nudging Pixel into an active walk. His ears were turned slightly back, waiting to catch the sound of my voice.
 A 25- to 35-foot-long rope that clips to the horse’s halter or bridle, allowing them to move around you in a wide circle. It is usually used to work with horses on the ground to help them warm up or get rid of excess energy.
 A castrated male horse.
 When a horse canters, it will always “lead” with one of its two front legs. The correct lead – left or right –corresponds to the direction you’re going and helps most horses balance at that gait.
 Hayes, Karen. “Understanding Your Horse’s Eyesight.” Horse & Rider, April 22, 2020. https://horseandrider.com/horse-health-care/horse-vision-and-eyesight.
 Hayes, “Understanding Your Horse’s Eyesight.”
 A short riding whip, meant to be used in addition to your leg aids to ask the horse to move forward.