The Unscheduled Dismount

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Jec A. Ballou

By Jec A. Ballou

Interestingly, the average riding lesson never delves into the skills necessary for a maneuver that nearly every equestrian faces at some point – the emergency dismount. Sometimes also called the unscheduled dismount, this rapid exit from a horse’s back includes a moment of urgency, a little terror, and a brief heroic belief in one’s superhuman capabilities. In a nutshell, it involves voluntarily flinging yourself off the back of your horse – most often at high speeds – onto the hard ground.

Personal preferences determine whether the rider in question opts to tuck and roll, lands on her feet, or keeps hold of the reins. After her first emergency dismount, a rider tends to bring her own individual style, or trademark, to the maneuver. And from then on, this tumultuous parting of company from one’s mount becomes a bragging right. It’s a way of holding onto our human integrity, maintaining a sense of control. It’s our mortal way of believing that, in the face of no possible good outcome, we made an optimal choice to rectify a bad scene. Yes, instead of going down with the ship, we bailed out early. And therefore that proves our intelligence.

Style aside, though, the emergency dismount is never a good thing. It’s generally accompanied by life-ending reflections or other “Is this how I’m going to die?” sorts of thoughts. And, let’s face it, most riders really intend to stay mounted once they get on board. Who, after all, wouldn’t prefer to be jogging around rhythmically on her horse rather than tucked into a tight ball flying through the air ready for impact with the ground?

For obvious reasons, the emergency dismount is a major bummer. Not only does it bang you up but it bruises your ego, too. When your barn mates ask how your ride went, you hate to answer, “Well, things didn’t go quite as planned…” In my lifetime around horse people, though, I’ve observed that after a few initial hours of feeling embarrassed and battered, riders use the mishap to explore the reaches of metaphor. Put simply, they start bragging. In fact, they end up bragging about the unscheduled dismount more than they would about a perfectly flawless ride.

It starts innocently enough with the rider admitting to his or her coach that, after an unexplained something or other spooked her horse, she decided to bail off. Then later she tells the same story to her friend, except embellishes it with a colourful detail like this: “At first, I hit the ground running, but then I figured I’d tuck and roll, because why not? Well, after the roll, I was right back up on my feet.”

Later that afternoon, she retells the story to a group of fellow riders, adding a little more flare: “After somersaulting through the air, I ended up on the other side of the arena fence, but I broad-jumped back into the arena, ran alongside my horse, grabbed his reins…”

By the time, the story reaches its final version, the rider performed a stunt that involved hitting the ground and then somersaulting under the horse’s galloping hooves, then she sprang back up on her feet and swung her leg up (while sprinting at Olympic speeds, mind you) and did a flying re-mount onto her horse. So, basically, she never dismounted in the first place. Not only was there less shame in this version of the day’s happenings because it maintains the guise of control, but it was so grossly exaggerated that her friends thought Hollywood would be calling for stunt training any second. In sum, it was far more exciting – and in some ways, fruitful – than just another day in the arena.

Admittedly, I’ve spun my own fanciful tales about emergency dismounts. I’ve added a fictional somersault here and there, exaggerated the speeds of the occurrence, etc. I mean, it’s just a lot better than saying that things got bad and I jumped off. So, now as a trainer, I know to believe only a fraction of what follows when a student starts saying, “Well, things didn’t go quite as planned…” And for this reason, I think I’ll petition the American Riding Instructors’ Association to develop standard operating procedures for these emergency dismount maneuvers. I’m envisioning something like this: 

Step 1 – Admit things are getting bad quickly;

Step 2 – Recognize that you are neither John Wayne, a circus trainer, nor a rodeo rider;

Step 3 – Say a Hail Mary and jump! Forget about gymnastic routines, cartwheels, or other heroics.

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Main photo: Photo: Shutterstock/Steve Horsley