Finding the confidence to send your horse down the alley again after a scary fall can be difficult. Futurity veteran, open champion and acclaimed trainer Leslie Willis offers some advice from personal experience to help you get back in the saddle after a serious riding accident.
In March 2018 at the No Bull Grand Slam in Lexington, Virginia, multiple futurity and open champion Leslie Willis had qualified three horses to the Shootout Round—5-year-olds Ryon Rocks and Silver Seis and 10-year-old The Country Corona. With a $5,000 purse on the line, she was focused on winning. However, during Willis’ run on Silver Seis, she suffered one of the worst riding wrecks she’s ever experienced.
“Our Shootout was the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” Willis said. “I had [Silver Seis] fall on me about 11 horses before I ran ‘Corona.’ It was probably one of the worst falls I’ve ever had, and one of the weirdest falls. It was between the second and third barrel, and he tripped and went end-over-end, knocking himself out and sending me for quite a spill. Luckily we were both able to get up and walk out, and all I can say is thank God because that’s the only way to explain it.”
First Things First
One of the most important things after a barrel racing accident is to make sure both you and your horse are not seriously injured, especially if you experience direct trauma to your head or believe to have neck, back or internal injuries.
Miraculously, neither Silver Seis nor Willis suffered any severe injuries. Only 11 horses later, Willis hopped aboard Corona and won the Open 1D Shootout.
The Chester, South Carolina, barrel horse trainer says her adrenaline was pumping so high that she didn’t notice the aches and pains from the fall until after her Shootout-winning run on Corona.
“I’m bruised and banged up. When I got up I was fine and told them I was fine,” Willis said. “After I got off Corona and everything calmed down, I realized ‘Oh my arm hurts, my back hurts, I’m sore.’ We’ve watched the wreck several times to make sure Silver Seis didn’t pass out, and I’ve studied to make sure it really was a trip. He was still bright-eyed when he went down.”
Once you’ve checked yourself out, seek veterinary attention for your horse. Thankfully, Willis was at a large barrel race with veterinarians on-call. Silver Seis was immediately placed under the care of No Bull Barrels on-site veterinarian Josh Harvey, DVM, of Decatur, Texas-based Outlaw Equine, where the gelding’s heart and lungs both checked out clean.
“They first thought maybe he had a heart attack, but they ruled that out before I ever ran Corona,” Willis said. “They were in the process of checking his lungs when I ran, so I knew my horse was in good care. The peace of mind that at that point the vet could do more than I could do made it a lot better.”
Even in the weeks following an accident, monitor yourself for any unusual pain or symptoms of injury. It’s important to schedule follow-up appointments for your horse as well, as some issues could crop up days or weeks later. Willis had Silver Seis evaluated immediately after the accident, again within a few days, and a third time within two weeks of the wreck.
Getting Your Confidence Back
One thing that helped Willis mount up so soon after the accident was going from a 5-year-old to her trusty 10-year-old Corona, who approaches his left barrel first compared to Silver Seis’ traditional right-hand first barrel.
“It was easy for me to step on a different horse and go a different direction,” Willis said. “I got on Corona, and I’m glad it was Corona because I didn’t have to think—just ask him to go forward and fast and turn three barrels.”
She says if you’re struggling to find the confidence to run barrels again after a wreck, take it easy for a while. Find something else to do with your horse, even if it’s just riding around the house or on the trails, to help feel comfortable in the saddle again. If you have multiple horses, ride the ones you feel the most safe on, such as an older, seasoned and bombproof mount or a kid’s horse.
Don’t push yourself to compete before you’re ready. When you are ready to run again, ease back into it if you’re feeling nervous. Willis adds that if a fall rattles you to the point that barrel racing becomes scary and something you dread, there is no shame in finding a new discipline to enjoy with your horse.
“If you love to run barrels, maybe take it easy the next couple runs and get your confidence back,” Willis said. “If the barrel racing is not something you crave, then find something in your life that you do crave and that when you wake up in the morning you think about it 24/7. You have to crave our sport in order to do our sport.”
Willis says walking away from a riding accident relatively unharmed is something to be thankful for and learn from, if it could have been prevented. However, freak accidents happen in any aspect of daily life. Willis encourages riders to keep that in perspective, get on the next horse and not live life in fear, in or out of the saddle.
“The emotion of it set in Monday morning, and it hit me that it was as bad as it was. I teared up and thanked God that I was at home and my horse was at home and we were both walking around with no broke limbs and just a little bruised and banged up here and there,” Willis said. “A bad wreck is something to be scary. It does make you stop and think. But like my husband says, we take chances every day when we get in a vehicle, and I’ve had just as many bike accidents—I can’t ride a bicycle to save my life. Anything that we do, you can get hurt.”