Zen and the art of falling off a horse – Aikido Dan helps riders take a tumble

Some 85% of horse-related injuries are from falls, but riders who are properly "fall trained" are less likely to be injured, an expert says.
© Al Crook

While most horse riding instructors help their students to stay on the horse, a New Zealand initiative is helping them to fall off.

At least, it is helping them to fall off “better”.

Bill Angus, a lecturer at Massey University and an Aikido instructor for many years, said that around 85% of horse-related injuries are from falls, but riders who are properly “fall trained” are less likely to be injured.

“Surprisingly though, research also suggests that riders who are falls-trained are actually less likely to fall in the first place. This may be due to them having increased confidence in an unstable situation,” said Angus, who has been running Aikido clubs and training since 1978; he is a 2nd Dan Yoshinkan and a 1st Dan Aikikai.

He started out giving fall training to apprentice jockeys with New Zealand Thoroughbred Racing, and this had grown into a curriculum of research-based safer falling which is being offered to all horse riders across New Zealand, through Lively Arts NZ.

“Our approach is based on the doctoral research into jockey fitness and injuries of a colleague at Massey University, Dr Kylie Legg, who is redesigning the NZTR jockey apprenticeship programme based on scientific and experiential outcomes.

“Our ongoing research on this considers falling statistics, types and injuries sustained from falling and surveys studies on the benefits of falls from various physical activities where falling is common,” Angus said.

He said the form of the basic fall that is taught is fairly straightforward – a diagonal roll across the leading shoulder to the opposite hip, body tucked into a tight ball.

“This protects the body by absorbing a lot of forward momentum, the mass in motion. It distributes the impact of the fall around the body, and allows the rider to continue to roll out of danger. It gives a much safer physical structure than the standard tuck-and-roll advice that relies heavily on having the arm strength to catch the approaching ground, and results in the typical jockey injuries: broken wrists, elbows, shoulders, clavicles, necks and worse, especially where horses may be following.”

The falls training for horse riders is suitable for all ages, levels and disciplines. Lively Arts NZ has recently completed falls training sessions with several pony clubs.

“As long as people can do a basic forward roll on a soft surface they’re good to go. We start gently from the floor on judo-style mats with the basic protective rolls that address the most common riding injuries and can show the basics in just a few hours.

“Learning safe falling takes time and we aim with these classes to guide riders to a level of proficiency that is going to potentially save their necks and keep them on the horse,” he said.

» Equestrians can book a clinic at their club, rally or event, and local classes are also available.

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