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Bailing out! May 16, 2013

Posted by mikeschaffer in dressage, Natural Horsemanship, Riding, training.

If you have time to think, “Maybe I should bail” you have time to grab mane, reins, saddle, anything you can and stay on. I suggest this because most horses are not suicidal so staying on their back until you can safely dismount is the best place to be. The chances of getting hurt while bailing are significantly greater than when unceremoniously dumped on your bottom and much higher than sticking like glue and riding it out.

If you hold on for dear life (literally) you’re keeping your upper body UP and therefore keeping your head on top. If you let go before you have both feet on one side of the horse (as in the case of the emergency dismount) your upper body will rotate downwards in the direction of the fall as your leg on the other side comes over the top. So by bailing you end up doing a head first dive into the ground and a helmet is NOT going to prevent brain injury in that situation. If you hold on and still get dumped, the horse has to have gotten both of your feet on one side or the other so you land feet first or on your bottom, but either is far better than landing on your head. This is why I say over and over again, DO NOT LET GO.

As to the oft quoted nonsense about doing a “tuck and roll” landing – hah! This is the stuff of gymnasts and martial artists standing on rubber mats. They have learned to do it correctly and practiced it over and over and over again for hours and hours. So if you’re in top physical condition and have practiced it for so long it’s a reflex not a thought, OK. If not, and you are headed for the ground head first – stick your hands out there and break a wrist or arm if necessary, but always, always, always protect your head.



1. P)atrick - May 16, 2013

thinking about this, a lot depends on speed of horse over the ground when control is being lost. If the horse is at relatively low speed and frisking around and possibly bucking/rearing, that’s a different set of options for the rider as compared to when a horse tanks off/bolts to speed and then starts ‘twisting the night away’ as it pleases.
Over many years i have occasionally known the first two types of mishaps you write and the helmet didn’t burst although the impact will have bashed my brain. The tuck and roll is not in my repertoire.
But of course your advice to hang on/ride out if you possibly can is right, just occsionally physically impossible and sometimes we lose our nerve. (happy days?)

2. mikeschaffer - May 18, 2013

Hi Patrick,

No matter how terrifying the situation, if the last things to leave the horse are your hands, the chances of the first thing to hit the ground being your head are diminished. So if this article will make people more afraid of letting go than staying on, mission accomplished.

3. Jennifer R. Pournelle - September 21, 2013

Hi Mike,
While in general, I agree with you, It a horse is just snorting and crow-hopping around; being butt-ugly and testy, by all means cling for dear life and ride it out.

However, I feel the need to make a some exceptions here. Maybe I’ve just had the misfortune of riding several suicidal horses, or maybe I am mostly thinking of circumstances outside of an arena. But I can think of several occasions where voluntarily separating myself from my horse was lifesaving for one or both of us.

There are other potentially deadly options besides landing on your head:
(1) Being launched head first over the horse’s head, resulting at worst in cervical spinal injury, and at least in a dislocated shoulder (in the hand you were hanging on with). At high speed, few adult riders are actually physically strong enough to defeat the laws of inertia should the horse turn or stop suddenly. Ideally, if your horse bolts for the next county, you’d keep your feet in front of your hips and your hips in front of your head, and you’d be able to get the deranged beast turned into a circle before it hit a wall or went over a cliff. But if that just ain’t happening, best to organize an emergency dismount while you can. Yes, as you say, feet first, which means getting feet out of stirrups and onto the same side of the horse.
(2) Being cracked in the face by the horse’s head – resulting in concussion or unconsciousness; and/or
(3) Being fallen on by the horse going over backwards, resulting in a crushed pelvis & spleen. If a horse is snapping its head back, rearing, and threatening to go over backwards, grabbing mane, saddle, or a panic strap actually make the former more likely. If you can’t get four feet back on the ground – step off!. Yes, again, in an organized fashion, not a head-first bailout – but just plain dismounting is usually pretty easy in this case.
(4) Being fallen on by a horse losing its footing. This is related to #1 – a berserker may well crash and burn, and you’d rather not be under it, or between it and the looming obstacle, when that happens. If the horse is going down, you want to be away from it, not on it, and not tangled up in tack when it flails around trying to get up. If the horse is going down pitched forward, hanging on the reins won’t help it – and may well get you pulled over its head. Kick free of the stirrups, let go, and step off or push away as it goes down.
(5) Being dragged underneath the horses moving feet. The most common cause of this is not having the courage of your convictions. The other is slippage of the saddle. In either case, commit! If you commit to staying on, do it! As Mike says, At All Costs! Wrap your legs around its barrel, your arms around its neck, and pull on every bit of leather you can reach.BUT once both feet are on the same side of the horse, don’t dither. Point your heels in the direction of motion and let go. Don’t cling to bits of tack until your bottom half gets dragged under the horse.

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