One Sunday last month I was out on a trail ride and Calais, my little OTTB, was very hot and worked up. Early on in the ride we’d heard some dirt bikes revving further up the hill which didn’t help calm my excited pony. He’s always been toey around dirt bikes. I nearly turned back but I had had a rough couple of weeks and hadn’t had a chance to ride much. I was determined to go for a nice trail ride and relax a bit. We waited for the whine of the bikes to die out then continued on, just walking. Tt wasn’t very relaxing though with him jig-jogging and reluctant to go forward.
We eventually got to the point where the trail hits a gravel road and I had planned to turn right and head home but Calais seemed to have calmed down and things were going well so I thought we’d turn left and go a little further.
We walked down a long steep hill through the bush and when the trail flattened out, I took him for a good canter. It was a real struggle to get him going, which is very unlike him! He didn’t want to move forward at all and kept breaking back to a jolting jagged trot with his head in the air. I had to really sit and push to get him into a canter. He was really crabbing along, it wasn’t very comfortable! Once he got going, it seemed to help a little and he walked quietly for a while, puffing a bit.
Before long, he was jig-jogging again and running backwards, trying to whip round and take off. I tried dismounting and doing some groundwork to work through it, pushing him sideways and circling, changing directions frequently. It worked briefly and I got back on but before long he was back to being silly again. At one point he spooked at some survey tape which was running along the trail. He whipped round, ran backwards then whipped again and I nearly fell off. I actually screamed which is so unlike me. I am a nervous rider but usually I am a pro at internalising my fear and laughing it off. After that scare I got off with the intent of walking him till he calmed down a bit. About five minutes down the track I hopped back on as he seemed a little quieter, and besides I had rolled my ankle earlier in the day and there was no way I could walk the five k’s back home. I thought about calling my partner at home to bring the ute down so I could pony him off the back. That’s a handy trick I’ve taught him recently! But I had no signal on my phone, which is so typical where we live. You wouldn’t guess we are only an hour’s drive from a capital city, we may as well be way out in the sticks.
I hadn’t been back in the saddle two minutes when he reared straight up in the air and flipped over backwards, landing on top of me. I had no time to react, only to realise that he was going to land on me. I screamed out No no no no no no! but of course there was nothing I could do. It was terrifying. I hit the ground and then half a second later he came down on top of me and knocked all the breath out of my chest. He tried to get up, fell back down onto me, then got up next try and walked off home in a daze.
For the first five, ten minutes I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. It was an effort not to panic and I had to concentrate to breathe shallowly so it wouldn’t hurt. I didn’t pass out, unfortunately I was conscious throughout all of it. I couldn’t move! It was awful but I entertained myself by yelling out obscenities at my horse, telling him what a little shit he was for buggering off and leaving me in the middle of nowhere! I also got Boney M stuck in my head so I’m not sure what was more painful, that or my back! I was lucky that I had my phone on me to call the ambulance as I was riding on my own. I only had SOS signal though so I had to get the ambos to call home and tell my partner what had happened. My battery soon died and then I was truly on my own.
It started to get really cold and I had mozzies buzzing all around me. I pulled up some grass and made a little switch to keep them off my face. I wiggled my toes, totally relieved that I could! I tried to roll onto my side but it shot daggers up my back so I stayed still, looking up at the sky. There was a huge jagged tree stump right next to me and I was so lucky that I didn’t land on that. I could see little clumps of Calais’ red fur where he must’ve hit it himself. When I eventually saw him weeks later, his face was all cut up where he hit that stump. As far as I know its the only injury he suffered as a result of the fall.
I think half an hour passed before I had the revelationary idea to yell out for help. It really felt like an extremely insightful brainwave at the time, rather than the obvious course of action in a situation where my options were limited!? I got panicky when I first heard my partner yelling my name, and then I screamed so hard it hurt my back, but I didn’t care. I tried not to think about what would happen if no one found me. I had told Ben vaguely where I was going, and tried to explain to the ambos as best I could, but in reality I had no GPS, no phone signal, no way to pinpoint exactly where I was. I could see clear sky above me so I knew I was in a small clearing about a kilometre from an unsealed back road, but how to explain that to someone who doesn’t know the area? I tried to stay calm. Singing Boney M seemed to help.
It was three hours before they got me out of there in the ambulance. By that stage it was nearly dark and I was shivering, my feet numb and teeth chattering with the cold. The fork in the trail I had taken took us deep into a water catchment area, past locked gates, which the local rangers had had to come and unlock. We really shouldn’t have been there and now I look back and wish I’d just taken the short loop home! I couldn’t know what would happen but more than once I thought to myself, maybe we should just head home, but I hadn’t listened to my gut. The rocky terrain made it hard for the ambulance to get to me, so the ambos had to come in on foot. My partner found me first after a flat out run through the bush. I was so grateful when he found me, I knew then I could relax and everything would be okay. I was super woozy and kept closing my eyes and wanting to snooze. I remember being really annoyed that Ben wouldn’t let just let me sleep! The rescue helicopter kept buzzing closer and closer, then it’d get further away again. It seemed like it circled for an age, but it couldn’t spot me, even though I was wearing my bright pink jodhpurs and my purple jacket! And Ben stripped off his flanno and was waving it above his head. I honestly don’t know how they didn’t see us. They eventually had to go back to the airport to refuel.
Three ambos reached me about an hour or so after my partner found me. They were lovely chaps. Not long after they’d covered me in one of those silver crinkly space blankets and given me the green whistle thingo to help with the pain, a bunch of hikers arrived with the police. They’d heard Ben crashing through the bush calling out my name and had assumed someone was lost and needed help. I rememeber hiding under my space blanket, feeling super embarassed but I asked Ben to thank them for me all the same. I was super woozy and kept closing my eyes wanting to snooze. I was still “with it” enough to maintain my extreme phobia of needles. I remember saying, Can’t you just give me something orally? As if I was a horse that could have bute paste or something! In any case they couldn’t find a vein in my arm because of the shock, so they had to inject painkillers into the back of my hand. Lovely.
Later, they backed the ambulance up the trail to within 100 metres of where I was. It was too narrow for them to turn, so they had to reverse inch by inch the whole way, about a kilometre give or take. That final stretch to where I was laying was too rough for the 2WD ambulance and so they had to carry me down to it on a stretcher. Luckily the rangers were there because it took six guys to lift me. It wasn’t much fun and I gasped several times with the pain although I know they were all treating me as gently as they could. It was lovely and warm inside the ambulance at least, what a relief to know I was finally going to hospital! Ben asked me if I wanted him to travel with me in the ambulance and I said No, you have to go home first and make sure Calais is ok and untack him! Don’t worry about rugging him, he can go without but please make sure Charlie and Jonathon have their rugs on. So funny. Typical horsey girl!
Turns out, I broke my pelvis in two places and fractured three vertebrae, as well as tearing my liver. I’m so glad I was wearing my Vipa III cross country jumping vest, which I had just bought two weeks before to upgrade from my old vest which made me look like the Michelin man! If not for my vest, with its thick foam padding, and of course my helmet, things could have been a lot worse. Honestly I think my vest saved me and although it cost $250 second-hand, they retail for just under $400 and even then it’s totally worth it. Vipa vests are the best, all the jockeys wear them and now I know why.
Really I feel lucky. Six weeks later, I’m out of the wheelchair and hobbling around with crutches, though I hope to be free of those any day now.
That first week in hospital, I was flat on my back in bed and I had so much time to think about what happened and replay things over and over in my head. Although I still don’t know what caused Calais to rear and flip, maybe he saw a snake and was trying to avoid it? I’m not sure, but I do think that back pain could have been a contributing factor. Calais was distracted the whole ride, and using groundwork to “reset” his brain only worked briefly. He was very reluctant to move forward, even when I asked him to canter I had to really push which is not like him at all!
Although he’s not an easy horse to ride, being a hot headed chestnut with quirks that take a lot of patience, he’s not really nasty and has never done anything like this before. Bucking and baby rears, yes, but nothing this extreme. I feel apprehensive about riding him again, once I am able to. My doctor says I need another four to six weeks before I can ride again (not what I wanted to hear!) but we’ll see. I am lucky to have my older schoolmaster horse, Jonathon, who will help me get my confidence back before I get back on Calais.
Before this fall, I’d never even broken my arm before so I guess it was just my turn! The reality is I had mostly been doing arena work with Calais since bringing him back into work, and the few occasions when I’d ridden him out on the trail, he’d felt pretty explosive. I really feel it is something that I need to look into further but I’m not sure I’ll have the guts to ride him again, not for a while anyway. Maybe not ever. I had brought him back into work with a view to selling him over summer once he was competing 1m showjumping. That plan is out now. One good thing about being unable to ride is that I have time to write again, so that’s something. It’s good to be back!