There is an art to falling off in a way that minimizes your chances of getting hurt. And learning that art is just as important as learning how to sit the trot properly or get a clean flying change.
When you become unseated, the most important thing you can do is not stick out your legs or arms. If you try to break your fall, the odds are that what you'll break is a bone.
The second most important thing to remember is to roll away from your horse. You don't want him to fall on you--or to step on you when he's getting up or running away.
Remember the tumbling classes you had when you were little? Just about every kid has to go through these; they're mandatory because (especially as kids) we all fall down, so gym teachers try to teach us how to absorb the shock of falling. In tumbling, you learned to tuck and roll. If you think of falling off as an act of tumbling at speed, you can see the logic of following the same guidelines. Of course, we adults typically want to analyze, calculate and make a fast decision as we fall, but that can be a real mistake. Kids don't get hurt as often as we grownups because they just tuck and roll instinctively, without a lot of deliberation.
Rule number three: If you fall, don't hold onto the reins. Holding on is a good way to dislocate your shoulder, or to give your horse such a yank in the mouth that he'll get even more upset than he was when you and he first went your separate ways.
One of the most important aspects of parting company with your horse is how you handle the moment when the fall is finished. In most cases, you have a "window of opportunity" in which to get up quickly and get a hand on your horse. Usually he stands stunned for a few seconds, surprised that his rider is no longer with him. That's when you can grab him. If you miss that chance, he's probably going to take off, leaving you to face a very long walk home.
So we urge our students not to dwell on the moment and lie there assessing or analyzing, but to get up quickly (though not in a way that startles the horse) and take hold of the reins for the safety of the animal. If he runs off, he could get hurt--so the thought to have in your head as you're falling is "I've got to catch my horse." The odds are that the environment you fall off in is not safe for him without you. If it's in a ring, fine; but a cross-country course or a trail is a whole different story.
Naturally, the exception to the "get up fast" rule is if you're badly hurt or stunned. If you're at an event, the first-aid crew will be there soon enough; you don't want to make your injury worse in the meantime.
When you're riding outside the ring, carrying a cell phone is a good idea--so that in the event of a fall, you can call for help. Check that you've programmed your emergency numbers and the stable number into the phone before you head out. And carry the phone on your person, not on your saddle--because it's useless to you if your horse runs off with it.
David O'Connor won the eventing gold for the U.S. at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Karen O'Connor has been named U.S. Female Equestrian Athlete of the Year nine times. Together, they captured the team bronze in Sydney. They also hosted their first-ever Virtual Winter Training Camp in February 2006 (virtual camp photo gallery).
Life in the Galloping Lane offers insights into the O'Connors' lives and training techniques. To order the book for $20, call 1-800-952-5813 or visit HorseBooksEtc.com.