15 years ago today, I was skiing in Vermont on Killington Mountain. Known as “The Beast of the East”, Killington is one of New England’s largest ski areas (insert heckling comments of Western U.S. and European skiers here.)
I had a little fall. It was no big deal really, I just face-planted after a bump. My skis popped off just as they were designed to, and I was going slow. My biggest concern as I started to slide down the hill was that buddy saw the whole thing. But I kept sliding down the hill, on my stomach, head first… gaining speed.
I clawed at the icy mountain to stop myself. Stopping on ice is challenging on skis, but it’s quite a bit more difficult if you’re lying down and you don’t know what to do. I didn’t. I continued to gain speed. Soon, I ran out of open trial, and out of luck.
A tree stopped my slide about 80 yards after it began. It also stopped the blood flow to my lower leg as the tree snapped my femur like a twig. I felt my leg wrap around the tree from above the knee as my body spun off in the opposite direction.
I can count on my fingers and toes exactly the number of years it’s been since that day and no higher. Next year I’ll have to borrow someone else’s. 5 weeks after that little fall, in a hospital in New Hampshire, my right leg was amputated below the knee. Just a flesh-wound really.
I tell this little tale because, well, I noticed the date this morning, and so it came up in my mind. But there’s another good reason to recount this story. I could have prevented it if I knew what to do after the fall.
There’s a skiing emergency procedure called ‘Self Arrest’ that involves digging the tip of the ski pole into the mountain under your own body weight. The pole acts like an ice-pick which slows or brings your slide to a halt if you’ve fallen on ice. It’s a tricky little move, but if you practice it before you need it, it’s a tool that’s at your disposal. There in-lies the lesson.
Emergency procedures are like people. “It’s too late to meet ‘em when you need ‘em.”
I didn’t know about the ‘self arrest’ move in my fall, so I couldn’t use it.
In any sport that involves motion, there are inherent risks that come with that motion. The greater the motion and variables, the greater the risk. Understanding the risks involved in a sport is the first step toward making it safer. If you understand what can go wrong, you can begin to make plans to avoid the problems in the first place. You can avoid dangerous scenarios and safeguard your gear against failure. You can also learn the emergency procedures for when things do get dodgy.
As a skydiver, I check my gear before every jump. I teach my students to check their gear 3 times before getting on the plane. On the ride to altitude, I check their gear another three times. Our gear quite literally says our lives on every jump. Feeling nervous? Check your gear. If your gear checks out, it’ll do its job. Don’t worry, whatever happens to you, I’ll be fine.
Doing gear checks on harness can make carriage driving safer as well. I can tell you that I’ve witnessed more than a few carriage accidents because simple gear checks were not followed. While you might assume I’m thinking of equipment failure, it often comes down to equipment not being used correctly. Someone gets distracted while hitching, and a piece of harness gets laid in place wrong. A gear check before each drive will get ahead of that.
Of course, we’re not always successful in avoiding emergencies. That’s where understanding what to do in an emergency makes a difference.
In skydiving, we practice out emergency procedures every single day we jump out of a plane. On the ride to altitude, we go through the body motions of releasing the main parachute and deploying the reserve. That trains our muscle memory to do the right thing when the right thing needs to be done. Most of who’ve had to use those procedures in a real-life experience describe it as rather matter-of-fact. “Oh, this parachute isn’t going to work for me. Ok, let’s get rid of it and open a better one.” It’s not until you’ve landed that the gravity of the situation hits you (sorry, couldn’t resist.)
In the days that I regularly taught beginners how to ride horses, I taught every one of my students how to fall down. Quite literally we’d go out to the arena and I have them hopping off the mounting block and fall on the ground!
If the art of riding is keeping your horse between you and the ground, the art of learning to ride is knowing how to take a fall, and get back up to remount your horse. The difference between embarrassment and injury is knowing how to handle the ground when you get there.
Some emergency procedures you can practice, while others you have to use your imagination. Even if you don’t get to practice the procedure, you’ll know what to do or what not to do. But if you don’t even know what those emergency procedures are, you may have given away your only chance for a good outcome.
I’m not writing all of this to put the fear into your heart. No one wants to approach a recreational activity with the question of ‘What’s the worst that could happen?” In skydiving, we grin as we rhetorically ask that question. We know. But we also know what the procedures are when the worst does happen, and then what to do when that doesn’t work… and then what to do after that.
That knowledge doesn’t stop us from taking the step out of that plane at 14,000 feet. It allows us to make that jump with confidence that if the fit hits the shan, we have the tools to sort it out.
We’re all looking forward to spring to get our horses back into regular work when the weather gets better. While you’re waiting for the weather, you can do some things to make that day bit safer. You can give your harness and carriage a good thorough gear check to be sure everything is in good working order.
There are things you can do with your horse as well. Get him started on some simple groundwork. That will increase both your skills with your horse and his compliance to your requests. It also means that when the weather finally does break, you won’t be hitching a horse who hasn’t been asked to work in months.
On February 21st I’ll be hosting a class all about emergencies in the carriage called “Runaway.” I’ll share some of tips, advice, and stories on carriage driving accidents. We’ll cover various gear checks and training that you can do to avoid dangerous situations. Of course, we’ll also talk about what to do when the situations arise anyway.
In the meantime, I hope you have a safe weekend. I’m headed to slopes. I think I’ll practice a few ‘self arrests’ while I’m there!
P.S. Don’t worry, I’m a better skier than I was 15 years ago!