I thought the first rule of riding was not to be afraid. I was wrong

The Age’s opinion section is rolling out a series of summer pieces on the theme of ‘My Best, My First, My Worst’. These stories, penned by Age writers, range from humorous to poignant and thought-provoking tales of love, loss and summer fun.

As a near-death experience, it was strangely devoid of terror. I remember, when I was flying through the air, having been thrown from a horse, that I was curiously calm, as though my fate was out of my hands.

I had been writing a story about the annual muster of cattle in a Victorian state forest.Credit:Simon O’Dwyer

It all happened too swiftly, anyway, to contemplate a gory end.

I landed under a truck.

I had been writing a story for The Age about the annual muster of cattle in a Victorian state forest, and I was asked if I wanted to ride on horseback along with the crack local riders.

Well, of course I wanted to! Having grown up with the romantic movie The Man From Snowy River, I was mad about horses.

Horse riders cross a river during a muster.Credit:Simon O’Dwyer

I’d ridden (OK, mostly old plodders) on trail rides, oh, about 20 times. “Oh, yah, that would be good, sure I’ll ride,” I said breezily.

The organisers of the event, a day-long foray into the bush, said there was one horse that hadn’t been assigned a rider, but it should be OK, if I knew how to ride.

“Oh, sure,” I said, but the horse, it turned out, disagreed.

I arrived at a remote forest clearing where dozens of riders and their mounts had gathered, all decked out in jodhpurs, flannel shirts, boots, oilskin coats and broad-rimmed hats.

Mustering cattle.Credit:Simon O’Dwyer

My horse was unloaded from a float. He was a big beast. But I thought the number one rule of riding was not to be afraid. (Wrong. I should have been very, very afraid.)

I was boosted in to the saddle and gathered the reins. The horse whinnied and stumbled back and forward.

Then he bolted like he was shot out of a gun, past random trees, haphazardly parked cars, horses and riders.

Then he bucked me off. I remember flying through the air. At least my feet weren’t tangled in the stirrups so I was thrown clear. There was no time to think of my impending death.

Somehow I landed face-down under a truck, metres from trees and cars that would have squashed me, and from fence posts that would have impaled me. At least the truck wasn’t moving.

I was conscious and was helped to slowly get myself out from under the truck and standing. But my head felt like it was full of cotton wool, my body like it had been put through a blender and my vision was blurry.

An off-duty policewoman took charge. She poured me into her little car’s passenger seat.

Afraid I’d pass out, from head or internal wounds, the policewoman chatted to me as she drove down a bewildering array of country roads.

I had no idea where we were. We arrived at a small town’s bush hospital that was evidently more of a nursing home.

As the policewoman predicted, I was seen by a doctor immediately, instead of waiting hours in an emergency department at a big hospital.

The young doctor concluded I’d have some nasty bruises but had no broken bones (I thank all that milk I’d drunk) nor did I have any injuries to my organs.

An ambulance trip (my first) to a regional hospital and back for a brain scan (another first) confirmed I had a mild concussion. I had to stay overnight in the small hospital for observation. I had not stayed overnight in a hospital since I was born, 35 years earlier.

I was escorted past wards of ailing elderly people lying in beds, and into the hospital’s only single room.

It was the palliative care room. It had lovely prints on the walls, comfy couches and an en suite.

It also had a large green and white EXIT sign above a door, that was probably for fire safety purposes but struck me as maybe a little literal for palliative patients who no doubt had died in this room.

Wait, was I dying? I tried to quell my worries. I didn’t get much sleep but I survived the night.

The photographer drove me back to Melbourne.

I walked into The Age office somewhat battered, with a black eye and copious bruises and scratches but otherwise OK. One workmate disagreed with me over my skills as a horsewoman but I can see now he probably had a point.

I had to explain to my editor and fill in a very unusual work injury claim – being thrown from a horse.

As if I’d anticipated it, I’d done a lot of the work on the story before my disaster, focusing on the mustering tradition that united locals.

I made a few more calls, tapped out the story and submitted it. The lovely photo of the muster made the front page, and my story made page 11, with no mention of my little medical emergency.

Much later, I realised how incredibly lucky I was to have not been killed immediately, have died of internal injuries later or broken my back.

I bounced back physically within a week. But my battered pride took considerably longer to heal.

And I learned a lesson: the next time I’m asked to go on a cattle muster on horseback for a story, the correct answer is: “No thanks, I’ll stay here at the campfire and make the tea.”

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