I've been worrying about this day for more than two years. So in a perverse, Pollyana-ish way, I'm glad it finally came to pass.
Two years ago, I fell from my horse and hit my head hard enough to wipe out an entire day. I'd hit my head before from previous falls during my 40 years of riding but never lost that much time or memory.
So that August 2010 fall not only got my attention, but also gave Mr. Anxiety a nuclear weapon to use against me. This new-found head injury fear burrowed into the super-sized worry compartment of my brain and refused to leave despite all the confidence-building exercises and voodoo I threw at it.
It didn't help that shortly after the fall I stupidly read an article about a football player who wiped out his entire life after falling in the shower. This was a possibility I hadn't even imagined, and I have an extremely well developed imagination.
Armed with the specter of forgetting my children, my husband, MY HORSES, I had as much hope of evicting this new head-injury fear from my mind as a landlord has evicting someone from a rent-controlled apartment in New York City.
So truth be told, despite all my bravado in these columns about how I've gone to this show or that show, marching around courses atop Katie or Woody, or chasing cows with my Paint, Jimmy, always at the back of my mind was the image of my two grown sons appearing as strangers to me, trying to coax me back into their existence by saying things like, "Don't you remember how you always made us carrot cakes because you thought that could keep us away from chocolate?" And me looking at them blankly, wondering who those two handsome young men were.
I've spent the past two years worrying about the next fall; my anxiety fortified both by research that shows head injuries are cumulative and my heritage. (Woody Allen made millions off Jewish anxiety.) Every time one of my horses spooked or I got left at a jump or a horse tripped or—and we all know there are a thousand “ors” when it comes to riding horses—Mr. Anxiety hijacked the rational part of my brain (kind of like shooting fish in a barrel) and screamed "I told you so! Get ready for the ambulance ride and don't blame me when you can't remember that you love anchovies."
Then I'd get re-situated safely in my saddle and beat back Mr. Anxiety into the dark, dank dungeon where he belongs. And I'd snark back a few I Told You Sos of my own: "See, I can ride a spook," or "See, my horse takes care of me and politely waits until I extricate myself from her neck." But clearly I needed to erect soundproof walls in his dungeon because I could still hear the menacing breath of Mr. Anxiety, just waiting for his moment to pounce.
The Dreaded Day Arrives
Which came a few days ago. My normally quiet Thoroughbred mare had bucked like a banshee the day before on the longe line. So I longed her to see if the aliens had released her yet, which they had. She seemed fine, or fine-ish. She was a little distracted, but rideable until she turned the corner and saw the overturned trough/dragon in her pasture. She spooked hard and bolted. She's spooked maybe twice in the three years I've had her, so this was a surprise. Even more surprising was her reaction when I landed on her neck. Woody, the Doctor of Confidence and bonafide saint, would have stopped and reached around to grab me. This mare is not in saint contention. She took off even faster, heading directly for a jump. Just as I wondered if she was going to jump it with me clawing at her neck, scrambling to get back into the saddle, she darted right.
I slid down to her side, then off, in that sickening slo-mo where you have time to contemplate all the horrible things that await you as you smack into the earth. Mr. Anxiety was roaring in laughter.
Before I hit, I remember thinking, "How much will I forget this time?" I landed first on my shoulder, then felt my neck snap to the right, sending my head into the sand. I actually felt my skull bump against the helmet's padding. I lay there for a split second waiting for the blackout. It never came. I looked around. Nothing was blurry; nothing was confused; I was fully cognizant.
So take that Mr. Anxiety. I came off a horse, and it didn't require an ambulance. It didn't even require a trip to the hospital. However, I did call the doctor to see if I should go. She assured me a CAT scan was not in order, and I wouldn't be given one since I wasn’t knocked out, dazed or confused (at least any more confused than I normally am).
"Sometimes its good to come off just so you know you won't shatter." Those are the words of Anne Gordon, a rider and, like myself, a woman of a certain age who has had her share of falls.
I couldn't agree more. I fell, I didn't shatter, and I remember exactly how much I love anchovies. It was oddly liberating to come off, to realize that not all falls have to be catastrophic or even damaging. It quiets Mr. Anxiety a little, sort of like putting half a sock in his mouth. I know I will never silence him, but that fall makes his dungeon walls just a little more soundproof.
An Ode To Charles Owen
Still, I'm not an idiot. Riding is dangerous. Period. When the fear starts outweighing the pleasure, I will stop. Until then, I will arm myself with the best defense against injury: good horse decisions and even better equipment. Which brings me to helmets and my love letter to Charles Owen. I felt my head slam against the inside of the GR8 Charles Owen helmet and nothing bad happened.
Two years ago, I was not wearing a Charles Owen; I was wearing an imitation. I have no way of knowing if the falls were similar. What I know is that both times I was wearing an approved helmet, both times I hit my head. One time I was injured badly, the other time not.
I'd splurged on the Owen helmet when I started riding after the fall that wiped out a day. I'd gone to my local Dover store and uttered words that have never come out of my mouth, "I don't care how much it costs, I want the best."
Almost in unison, my Dover buddies said, "Charles Owen." GPA was also an option, they said. Both companies meet not only American safety standards, but British as well. The Owen knockoff I'd been using met only American standards.
While I was willing to spend $500-plus for a GPA helmet, I was much happier spending less than $300. Because as luck would have it for my checking account, I have a Charles Owen head instead of a GPA head. The GPA didn't fit. Above brand, fit is the most important thing in head protection.
Every rider should know that helmets need to be replaced after a fall. Even the ones that cost more than I make in a month. Charles Owen and many other helmet companies offer staggered rebates on damaged helmets. Danielle Favreau Santos, director of marketing for Charles Owen, lead me through a graphic and convincing demonstration why I shouldn't cheap out and keep riding in my helmet, which looks fine to me.
She told me to remove the lining and look at the circumference of white padding inside the helmet. "I bet you will see an indentation where your head hit." Sure enough the padding dipped in on the upper right side of the helmet about 1/16th of an inch. "That's 1/16 of an inch less padding there to protect your head."
She explained that helmet padding is made from a high-density type of Styrofoam with microscopic air bubbles. On impact, she said, these bubbles pop. "Slowing down your brain from impacting against the side of your skull. Just like a car destroys itself to protect you in a crash, so does your helmet. It absorbs the impact so your brain does not."
Are you listening Mr. Anxiety? I'm bubble wrapping my brain. Go bother someone else.
Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.