Through the Maze: Riding After an Accident

“Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.”

Peter Levine

Part One

It’s raining today. Clouds mumble thunder, but it looks like they also have snow on their mind. It is, in other words, a perfect day for writing.

Writing, to my surprise, is rubbing elbows with fear this morning. The act of dissecting fear and regaining the confidence to ride ignites the same sensations of cold hands, shallow breathing, and a brick wall of procrastination that has lasted half the morning.

It used to be the same with riding. A sunny warm day would appear. As soon as the thought about going for a ride became conscious, my hands got cold, my breathing sped up and I would find reasons to not get out with my horse.

mazeIn this next series of blogs, we will be taking a comprehensive look at how to navigate your way through the maze of trauma and fear after a horse accident. We will thread together brain anatomy, breathing, movement, and different therapies you might find helpful.

 I am not a therapist, but after being asked by many horse people about feeling good about riding after a horse accident, it became clear that outlining the process I’ve gone through may be helpful. While not all the answers are here, and some may not fit for you, my hope is that the information will provide the spark you need to start finding your own way back to riding with joy.

Moving toward confidence from fear  with horses is about a lot of help.  It’s also letting go of any notion that this is an A to B, straight-line, beginning-middle-end process. Most of life’s trips are like driving in the dark:  we can only see as far as the high beams shine. And wouldn’t you know it? Sometimes the high beams don’t work. Perhaps we only have the fog lights to guide us.

Healing from a horse related trauma, and regaining confidence, is like a maze. With the fog lights on. In this maze, we can only see a short distance in front of us, and the map is created by the very act of finding our way out. We can get curious and keep following the threads, away from the terror and fear Minotaur, or we can stay where we are. The choice is ours. 

Often in this journey, either the brain or the body is ignored.  However, when they are woven together and given equal importance and focus, that is the alchemical transformation of leaden fear into the gold of confidence.  Books and exercises, along with confidence building clinics are all extremely helpful. However, if they aren’t including the combination of body and brain, it’s been my experience that we are only going to progress so far in our way to riding with less fear.

I say less fear, and not fearless because it is clear to me that after an accident, there remains a bit of fear when we do decide to ride again. We will chat more about this later, and how fear and riding do not cancel each other out. 

For now, let’s take a look at the first part of our map, which is the human brain.

One theory that has been helpful for me is the Triune Brain theory. 


It’s largely not used by brain professionals, but I have found in it an elegant simplicity to explain why thinking your way out of trauma is often unsuccessful.  Peter Levine, psychologist and founder of Somatic Experiencing work, refers to this theory, so I would like to share it here.

It’s based on the idea that the brain evolved in three different stages.

The first and oldest part of the brain is called the Reptilian brain, and is mostly concerned with basic functions such as regulation of heartbeat and breathing, as well as the fight or flight states.

The Paleomammalian (or Limbic) brain evolved next, and is also home to the limbic system. The functions of this system arose early in mammal’s evolution and are responsible not only for emotion, but the motivation to reproduce and raise offspring. 

The last part of our brains to evolve, this theory suggests, is the Neomammalian (or Neocortex). This is where more advanced functions such as planning, impulse control, abstraction and perception reside.

Here’s the key: we cannot use one part of our brains (the Neocortex, the newly evolved brain) to talk, reason, plan or manipulate another part (the reptilian brain, the oldest in our evolution) out of fear and terror. It’s almost as though the brain is Europe. One continent, different languages. 

I have a question for you: when you remember a horse accident, does your breathing stay long slow and deep, or does it get shallow? Stop? Does your heart rate increase? All of these things are your survival systems coming online. The brain cannot tell the difference between something actually happening, and something that you are remembering or visualizing happening. Once the brain goes on alert, the body is quick to follow.

This is what I mean about one part of the brain not convincing the other part. When there is a choice between survival and thinking, survival will win. And much like horses, if we are fearful we cannot be curious, and curiosity will help fear dissipate. 

Our brains and bodies are intimately connected, woven together of gazillions of parts, big and small, to form this one unique expression of a human being.

And this amazing brain (and it’s partner the body) can be both the screwdriver, and the loose screw. 

I raise my hand first when it comes to admitting there’s a lot I don’t know. But what I do know, is the most unhelpful thing you can do to try and resolve the fear you are feeling as a result of a horse accident, is sit on a horse, with your racing heart and your Lamaze panting breathing, and try to reason your way out of fear. 

It’s the easiest way I know to feel like a failure, feel weak and cowardly and give credence to those internal voices that snicker “you’ll never ride again.”

It doesn’t work – I wish I could tell you it did. In Part Two, we will be chatting about what does work. 

We will next take a look at the power of breathing coupled with movement.  If you’d like to nose around on Peter Levine’s website (click on his name earlier in the article), you’ll find some pretty useful information there. And you’ll be ahead of the game, once we get into the next section of mapping our way out of the maze.

37 responses to “Through the Maze: Riding After an Accident”

  1. […] Source: Through the Maze: Riding After an Accident […]

  2. I like the way you write. The analogy of a maze and the mention of shallow breathing, cold clammy hands and procrastination are right on in my own experience. I came off a horse and incurred a concussion 20 years ago and then in 2007 came off a horse and received 15 stitches in my head. Both horses I had few rides on after starting. In both instances, it was my own lack of attention and reading of body language that led to my injuries. Nevertheless, fear was a by-product. The answer for me was going slow and gaining more information/knowledge as to horse behavior and training. I no longer ride as a simply a passenger. I am engaged with the horse, paying attention to whether or not the horse is with me and I am with my horse, both in mind and body. This allows me to head off a troubled horse before he gets to that point. I look forward to your subsequent blogs.

    1. Thank you, Jeff. I had to wade through the by product of several previous accidents, too and it isn’t a cakewalk, that is for sure. I am glad to hear things are better for you and I *so* agree: going slowly and paying attention are two big keys to staying safe.

  3. This is so whete I am at. Been white knuckling. It ever since my accident. The fear comes out fast without me expecting it and have blacked out 3 times while riding, so what I am doing or not doing is not working. I loik foward to reading more. And to love riding again!

    1. Jackie, I am so very sorry to hear about your blackouts. Whew. I’ve had times where I have frozen and thought I was going to faint, and I know what an awful feeling that is. I will be sure to write as clearly as I can about what has helped me. In the meantime, I think you might get a LOT out of Peter Levine’s work. His book “Waking the Tiger,” was instrumental for me in understanding my anxiety and fear.

  4. Brilliant Crissi, really well written, loved it. I must be a weirdo or something, if I told you about half the accidents I have had you would wonder why I even sit on a horse. I seem to be able to disassociate the incident with emotion, or maybe I just think I do……hmmmm…….I need to think about that!

    1. Thanks Mo! You’re not a wierdo, just brilliant yourself. 🙂 I’ve always wondered how you manage to ride like you do, after hearing about some of the horrifying accidents you’ve had. Can I chalk it up to being Scottish? Or a Calhoun? 😉

  5. Thank you Crissi, this really resonates; both with the EFL training I’ve done around brain, body and trauma and also with my own procrastinations in getting back on my horse. Peter Levine is a great resource.

    1. He is, isn’t he?! He makes so much sense to me, and I like that his work is so approachable and doesn’t flood the nervous system.

  6. My fear has been in place since childhood. Then enhanced by a bad wreck that put me in the hospital in 2006. I really understand what you describe and have discovered some techniques that do help- never cure. I look forward to hearing more about your journey.
    One way I work it out is to examine the fear. Is it legitimate fear? Is the horse not ready to ride? Or, is it what I call “toxic” fear? One that has no purpose but paralyzes?
    Good work! Excited to hear more of what you’ve learned.

    1. Thank you for writing, Linda. I am not the bravest of souls, either, so fear is a familiar friend. I like your curiosity (examination) of fear – it’s a good tool to have in the face of what seems insurmountable and uncontrollable.

  7. I had two accidents in succession. One very serious where I almost bled out alone on the trail. Then a new horse and 2 broken bones. I am in the process of working through my fear now. And it is work. Constant repetitive work. Forcing myself to keep moving on with my horse. To try the next step. To ride faster, longer, or alone. To leave the arena. To leave the woods and venture into open fields. I think alot about why I fear…what is the fear. Why am I more afraid some days than not? I look forward to the next article.

    1. Micki – I am so sorry to hear about your accidents. How absolutely frightening. It is a lot of work, I agree. And thinking about fear, what it does and how it holds on to is is certainly beneficial. That way we are making things conscious. If you haven’t already, check out Peter Levine’s work – he’s a genius and Somatic Experiencing has been integral to my healing. I think it could be a big support for you too. I admire your tenacity and bravery!

  8. Oh, Crissi. Beautiful. I so love the way you write. Intelligent, honest, open. Luckily I’ve had no traumatic horse accidents and yet, much like “old” age, fear showed up uninvited one day and barged through my front door. It can be a series of small events or even an over active imagination that can steal our joy and replace it with all those awful things that are fear: self doubt, avoidance, physical discomfort.
    But even if I had not one ounce of fear in my entire body (ha!) I would still look forward to where you will take us next with this blog. Thank you!
    p.s. It was a joy to see you and ride with Mark at the OH Equine Affaire. 😊

    1. Thank you Jo! It’s wonderful hearing that this was helpful and you’re right: fear is a greedy thief. It was one of the highlights of our time there to connect with you – you’re a treasure!

  9. Well done Crissi! Many become frozen in their fear and embrace the trauma. Sharing your Journey will help your own Passage as well as help others find the courage and compass to find their way through the morass of fear and doubt. Many in your position would not be so open and honest. Kudos! Timo

    1. Thanks Tim! It is indeed helping me clarify and uncover areas where I’ve healed, and places that need more work. Thanks for letting me know that you liked this!

  10. Thank you for this wonderful insightful piece. I can relate: I ended up in a ditch breaking four vertebrae in the process last September and my head so wants to ride again but my body is letting me down.

    1. Thank you for your kind feedback! The more I learn about trauma, the more I’m beginning to see that the kind of fear you are experiencing starts in the body (according to Peter Levine). I will be talking about a very effective and simple way to let the body release held trauma. So often after any accident – especially one like yours – we are immobile. This, while necessary for physical healing, is disasterous for our nervous system. I’m so sorry about your accident – I know what healing from that costs and I hope this series is a help to you.

  11. Thank you for writing about this. It comes at the perfect time for me. I have really been seeking a way to help my body release the trauma of multiple pelvic fractures and a cold long lonely army crawl to get to help sustained after my little mare fell on me in January 2012. I am finally able to get back onto a very experienced kind older gelding without fear, but it feels like a very slender buffer zone of confidence, so I am taking it super slow. Thank you for exploring this topic and writing about it for us in an intelligent and realistic way. I love the image of the Minotaur and the maze because the whole progression through it all has been completely nonlinear.

    1. Hi Alison – I’m sorry to hear about your accident, it sounds like it was a very traumatizing one. My horse fell on me, too, from a standstill. Crush injuries and broken bones take a long time to heal. The mind / spirit can take even longer. I’m glad to hear you are taking it slowly and I truly hope the rest of the information that is shared here will be of help to you!

      1. Thank you for replying. We all will benefit from your exploration of this topic.

        1. Thank you for letting me know – I’m really interested in how we can all move through these times and come out the other side, stronger!

  12. Crissi, I’m looking forward to your ongoing exploration. Though my 2 significant horse accidents have challenged my confidence in terms of questioning my ability to have the skill to bring this horse and myself to our full potential; it is another kind of fear that paralyzes me. I lost my closest friend and riding partner tragically and violently last June. I had no idea that he was so essential to my riding confidence. It has been a struggle to move forward without him.

    1. Hi Laurie – I can’t imagine how much you miss Jim. I will always remember his kind spirit, and his curiosity and wanting to always learn more. I understand that kind of struggle too. Thank you for letting me know how you felt reading this. We need to plan a get together, don’t we? Please take gentle care of yourself.

  13. Wonderful writing! I too had a fall that took away my sense of fear-less riding! It took about 5 years to come back from that and I would have to say that it’s been my work as an Eponaquest instructor and working with my horse on the ground that has truly helped with the trauma from that event. She is not the horse that spun, but she is a rescue and comes with her own set of issues. Building a true relationship from the ground up, has allowed me to be more present to myself and to her. If I have had a rough or busy day, I am less likely to get on her now, unless I can ground myself and truly come into the present moment. I love Peter’s work and it speaks the the truth of trauma and it’s connection to somatic response. Thanks for sharing this, I look forward to the next installment and have shared with a friend.

    1. Thank you Sheri! I’m in a very similar space – if I’m at all shaky, I don’t ride. On really shaky days, I don’t even get my horse out. I am so glad to hear that you are finding your way back too. In some ways, I’d say we are better people / horseman because of these awarenesses! (Though I wouldn’t wish horse accidents on anyone either, we may as well glean wisdom where we can)

  14. I’ve had a number of little wrecks, but nothing huge. Never the less, about 5 years ago, I started realizing that I was becoming engulfed in a paralyzing fear of riding my lovely, quiet, sensible horse. I have to wonder how much it had to do with turning 60 and all the slow-downs my aging body is embracing. I’ve looked into many, healing modalities: acupuncture, homeopathy, an antidepressant, Trauma Release Exercises, yoga, body work with my horse. (Masterson Method has really increased my confidence and connection with my horse.) I’ve read and read (including Dr. Stephanie Burns’ Come Closer Stay Longer). I’ve most recently begun a journey with Intrinzin ( , which I heartily recommend to anyone to build a fantastic relationship with a happy and free-moving horse. I’ve been able to stick with them long enough for them to help. My trainer is the most supportive and understanding human being alive.

    I’ve gone from not even being able to read our horse magazines without debilitating fear, to riding in a certain way in certain situations. But it’s not enough. I yearn to work cattle, go for a long trail ride, and live without the fear and dread that comes up whenever I even think of interacting with my horse, and pushing through it as much as I can at the moment.

    I’m so looking forward to hearing about your journey. I don’t expect to be the young rider I once was, but I sure am going to fight to the end to get back the joy of looking forward to a good day with my mare.

    1. Hi Cristie –
      Thank you for your kind comments.

      I know what you mean about not even being able to read magazines. You’ve come a long way from there and I’m glad to hear you have such an awesome trainer. I believe it’s entirely possible for you to work up to doing the things you’d like to with your horse, and it sounds like you have some pretty cool resources too!

      I love your courage and tenacity – that is going to go as far as anything else you could do.

      Thanks again!

      1. Thanks for your encouragement. This is certainly taking a village for me!

  15. I am sitting here now with a broken ankle from a scary fall from my horse, down a ravine. It could have been so much worse, so am grateful that it wasn’t. Two years ago a broken arm and 5 3-4 years before that a broken back (different horse). I try very hard not to get nervous but I do. I’m very much enjoying your writings. Can you please recommend which of the books by Peter Levine would be a good start? Thank you very much.

    1. Hi Amy – I’m sorry to hear about your broken ankle. And, I’m so glad that it wasn’t worse.

      The two books of Peter Levine’s that I’ve found helpful are “Waking the tiger: Healing Trauma,” and “In an Inspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.”

      I hope they’re helpful. I’ll be posting a new blog sometime in mid June.

      Get well soon!

      1. Thank you! I will get started right away. btw, I don’t know what happened in my original post that shows 5 3-4 yrs. Should have been 5-6 yrs. – gremlins!

  16. I’m looking forward to your take on what we can do to help with the fear. I had a very traumatic head injury about 5 years ago that is still in the stages of healing. I knew even with my head in bandages that I’d ride again and I wouldn’t give up. My first ride back was on my trusty Arabian who “knows” me, he takes care of me. His whole body shook on my first tentative ride. Never seen anything like it. He was trembling from head to toe, probably cause of the responsibility I laid on him. Surprisingly, I myself wasn’t all that nervous. Now though, at times, I find myself with some weird irrational fear and thoughts that go through my head, like “what if”. One trainer told me years ago, “you’re just waiting for your horse to “explode” aren’t you?” I said, “yes”, he said you can’t think like that, you can’t get on thinking that way. So every time I get on, I remember that, and I relax. The other thing I myself do to calm down is either sing (badly lol) or whistle. It’s distracting to me and to the horse and I can get into a rhythm of sorts. Oh, and I also BREATHE! Just let it out. Sometimes he let’s his breath out too.

    1. That is fascinating about your Arab. Shaking is a classic release response after a trauma – it’s almost like he was doing this for you. It sounds like the both of you are really bonded and close. Your fears and thoughts are neither weird, nor irrational. It’s your body’s way of keeping you safe. The biggest thing I’ve learned about trauma is that it is stored as much or *more* in the body, as it is in the brain. Until it is released in both places, those thoughts and fears will keep circling, like hamsters on wheels. Singing and whistling are great! They switch your frame of mind, and as you notices, help you breathe. Breathing is one of the cornerstones of moving through the fear – and the subject of the next blog, being released next week. Thank you for writing, Jeannine!

  17. I read Peter Levine “Waking the Tiger”. It was recommended by my therapist as I am severly traumatized from childhood experiences. Whoever suffered from trauma should read this book!

    1. I agree Marion! I also had some severe trauma’s during my own childhood and have done a ton of work around them. Peter Levine’s work (and EMDR) has been integral in my ability to heal and thrive. I wish the same for you!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: