Fall Training

Might fall training help?                 Harry McMillan     www.peak-photo.co.uk

Most rider injuries - in any sphere of horse ridingoccur as a result of falls. There are ways to fall that can reduce the likelihood of injury. The British Racing School historically ran a fall training course. This was initially envisaged for jockeys. Unfortunately they no longer have the Equishoot simulator and therefore only offer in-house gym-based fall training. Sadly this is no long offered externally.

At the MEA conference in 2021, we were lucky enough to have Michael Eames, from SAFE FALLS come and talk to us as well as demonstrate some of the skills that they teach as part of their courses. 

Some of the pictures on our website will hopefully prompt some thought about falling! Although it is not always possible to adopt a safer position, training can help riders to think about falls and practice a more tucked position and roll.

Many pictures show riders with arms outstretched to break their fall. All upper limb and collar bone injuries combined are the commonest cause for riders needing hospital treatment. It is a common reflex to put out arms to break a fall but this may be more safely achieved by a tuck and roll approach. Other pictures show riders hanging onto their horse’s reins during and after falls. This is a widespread habit that ought to be reviewed.

Other pursuits that involve falls or heavy landing teach and practice these as part of routine training, e.g parachuting, judo

Fall Training Explained

by Jon Pitts of Fit to Ride

Racing, and in particular jump racing is one of the most dangerous sports statistically worldwide. On average, the current average fall rate for a professional jockey sits around 1 in 11 rides, and the danger lies in not only the fall itself, but also the other horses in the race that are in the process of jumping the fence at the same time.

This is all very straightforward and logical to equestrians, and something that within the racing industry is widely accepted as an inherent risk. Equestrians of all abilities are brave for even getting close to a horse, and in this lies much of the background to the work that we have done at the BRS in Newmarket, in conjunction with the Injured Jockey's Fund as part of fall and safety training. To the vast majority of the population the potential and unpredictable nature of a very powerful creature of constant nervousness is too much to cope with. Of the 65 million people living in the UK, only 2.5 million are comfortable around these powerful animals, and this is something that we tend to overlook as part of what we do as riders. To most people we are mad, certainly brave and often perhaps a little foolhardy in battling anxiety to gain the thrill from riding and competing horses.

Much of my work is involved in the neuroscience behind skill acquisition and performance under pressure. I'm lucky to work in a variety of sports including cricket, football, golf and tennis, but it is my work in equestrian sports that has taught me the most about performing under stress and anxiety. To the brain, modern day fear of failure in more mainstream sports triggers anxiety, but in racing and the intensity of cross country riding in eventing takes this to the next level because there is real potential for serious, life changing injury and even death.

When I first started working with jockeys there was a pretty blank page as far as falls were concerned, and I distinctly remember being told 2 things to remember: firstly, that the jockey never falls, it is always the horse that falls, and secondly not to mention falls as the jockeys don't like talking about it! Not a great place to start. Over the years I've been privileged to have been close to and have worked with some of the best, most gifted and ultimately the toughest sportsmen and women I've ever known. It takes time to get their trust and be let into the inner sanctum, where everyone knows what each other is going through but it is never talked about. Being a jockey is brutal; there really is no other word for it. Alongside the danger, there are consistent pressures in terms of performance from owners and trainers, as well as trying to consistently eat as little as possible to "make weight". For instance, imagine lying on the ground with a fracture or worse, knowing that you need to get to your feet as quickly as possible before the race moves on and attention moves away from the scene, so that your boss has no idea that you're injured. This is the sort of pressure these guys are under pretty much 365 days a year. The majority of falls that occur are what are called "front door" falls where the horse pecks on landing and the jockey is thrown clear at 30-40mph. As in eventing, more serious falls and injuries occur when the horse rotates or is brought down and the jockey ends up in the landing zone and around fallen horses. The happiest jockey is the one who walks away from a fall unscathed, and the grumpiest jockey is one who has a fall in sequential races.

The BHA's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Michael Turner is extremely passionate about his jockeys and he has spent a lot of time examining how we can lower the instances of injury on the racecourse and is very active with research. He has a very difficult position, being both the guardian of the sport's safety record in the face of the public eye, whilst also trying to make sure the jockeys, hungry for success, don't take excessive risk. It is slowly becoming critical that we improve safety in both racing and eventing. The IOC were known to be very twitchy about eventing prior to the Beijing Olympics following several deaths, and the repercussions of eventing falling out of the Olympic Games in terms of funding and coaching for example, is unthinkable. Today in Australia jump racing is now banned from all but one state after the weight of public opinion saw its demise. Anyone who has been to Australia will know that they are hotter on health and safety than us, but it still serves as a warning to us, and a reminder that in the modern world of super fast social media we can no longer afford to be quite so reliant on being in our own little world.

The arrival of the fall simulator at Newmarket, thanks to the Allborada Trust and the IJF finally made it possible for us to explore the dynamics of front door falls. The machine itself was originally designed in France in light of several high profile eventing deaths from rotational falls. The trouble is, it is quite basic in its biomechanical principles, and doesn't actually rotate! When the Australian Eventer Clayton Fredericks first introduced me to the machine, it was clear to me that it was actually more suitable to racing falls. It's pretty simple in its function: it rapidly accelerates down a 15 metre track and tips up at the end onto large safety mats. It is also limited in its speed and jockeys will say it is too slow.

However, what it allowed us to do was to identify the dynamics of falls, the impact zones to the body and an understanding of how technique can reduce the forces acting on the falling body. As part of the training, I have designed a range of exercises that lead up to the use of the machine to hone the tuck and roll that we look for. I believe it provides two critical improvements. Firstly, when conditional (apprentice) jockeys arrive fresh to the sport it allows them to hone their technique in safety rather than learning on the racetrack. A professional jockey riding every day gets consistent practice, but without that the response and technique will dull. Secondly, it allows a jockey returning from injury to "knock the rust off" and fire up his technique again. There is some statistical reasoning behind this: it is common for a jockey returning from injury to suffer another injury in quick succession.

In the previous paragraph lies the neuroscience of skill acquisition in relation to falls. When I deliver lectures to the wider equestrian public on safety training through my Fit to Ride programs I often use the following way of describing it. If you stood an average adult at the edge of a mat and asked them to perform a forward roll, most would stand there for a split second before performing it, and the chances are it would be a stiff, uncomfortable thing to do. Now, we all know how to do a forward roll, drilled into us as part of long forgotten physical education when we were much younger. The pause is basically the brain going to its memory banks, searching through to find the file marked "school" and opening it to bring forward the technique required to perform the task. The trouble is, if your brain has to do this in a fall situation then it will be too late. Worse still, if there is no memory of what is required then the brain is likely to freeze.

So fall training revolves around working with the ground, honing the technique and absorbing the forces. Tucking and rolling also allows us to be familiar with being upside down, and rolling across the ground with the aim of getting as far away from the impact zone as possible. The critical part is then providing the knowledge and opportunity to practice: consistent, accurate skill requires repetition, and once we leave our formative brain development years skills will dull if not maintain sufficiently.

There are sadly some falls where we are limited in how we can reduce the risk, but there are also scenarios that we can practice and be prepared for. To protect the sports that we love through the interaction with horses, it is important that we continue to nudge the equestrian industry into facing up to the risk and doing something about it rather than ignoring it.

Jon Pitts is a Performance Coach who has worked with British and Irish Jockeys for the past 15 years, often acting as a consultant to the PJA, BHA and the IJF. As part of the BRS teaching team he has worked with the staff and jockey coaches to develop the knowledge of jockey performance and the design of specific training programs. Previously part of the GB World Class support team, Jon now works as part of the Australian Equestrian High Performance Team in the Olympic disciplines. Through his initiative Fit to Ride, he delivers performance, confidence and safety programs for riders and teachers of all ages and abilities across the world.

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