Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Why this pain is worth it

Sneezing. Laughing. Also running, yoga and sitting. This is a list of activities made more challenging when one has a bruised coccyx.

How, you ask, does one get a bruised coccyx in the first place? Mainly by bouncing hard in the saddle while learning to canter — as I did the other morning. I’ve been taking riding lessons in a bid to overcome the intense fear I experience whenever the horse travels any faster than a trot.

I’ve made progress, but it has come at a price, so that getting into and out of my car now involves several minutes of grimacing and gasping while I ease myself into position. Now I know what it feels like to have haemorrhoids, or be 90-years-old, or both.

I’ll put up with the pain, though, because this is important. I badly want to learn to ride properly. My fear of falling off horses has come to symbolise so many of my other fears; conquering this one means tackling the others, too.

galloping horse
One of the hundreds of horses I’ve painted over the years.

I have been obsessed with horses my whole life. My first word was “horse”; over the years I must have drawn hundreds upon hundreds of horses, in crayon and pencil, water colour and chalk pastel, even lipstick. I fell off a horse for the first time when I was four years old, and after that, my parents wouldn’t allow me to ride on the grounds that I was accident prone and likely to brain myself. They sent me to ballet instead.

For years I channelled my desire for all things equine into an obsession with horse racing, until at varsity I made a friend who had horses. One day, on an outride, I rode my mount up a brick driveway in an effort to get out of the way of cars travelling up our backsides. The poor gelding slipped and fell over onto his side; I was very lucky to escape with nothing more than a greenstick fracture of my left elbow.

Five years later, I fell off a horse for the third time while on honeymoon in the Midlands. My mount bolted with me and, not wanting to end up like Christopher Reeve, I elected to part company voluntarily. I ended up at a local chiropractor but even after treatment, climbing into and out of bed was even more painful than it is now. I’m convinced that this incident is what caused the panic attack I experienced on a horseback wine-tasting trail in Franschhoek a couple of years ago. (My ability to ride at a canter was substantially improved post wine tasting, it must be said.) Subsequently I’ve had panic attacks every time the horse moves faster than a trot, which is why I need lessons to deal with it, and why I can barely sit and type this blog without wincing.

Two years ago, my mother told me to give up on men and get on the back of a horse. That, she maintained, would be my path to happiness, something I wrote about here. As it happened, I then got involved with the Land Rover campaign and the link to happiness involved 141 horses as opposed to just one. But my desire to ride has persisted, and in my next road trip, scheduled for next month, I plan to combine both horses and cars as I track down the greatest horse I ever saw in the flesh, Horse Chestnut, who’s now at stud just outside Franschhoek (maybe I’ll try that horseback wine-tasting tour again).

My ultimate ambition is to ride well enough to gallop along a beach. Already I can picture it: the roar of the wind in my ears, the slapping of the hooves on the wet sand, the sense of exhilaration. If I can get that far, the bruised coccyx will have been more than worth it. No pain, as they say; no gain.

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  • OneFlew

    As you have discovered horse-riding is really quite physically dangerous. So if you have to sublimate all fears into one this is a risky one.

    It’s years since I’ve owned and ridden horses but suspect there is a problem with your seat. Cantering is ‘softer’ than trotting and should involve bracing with your gluteals and upper thighs without any coccyx involvement. Upright, slightly forward, not like riding a Harley.

  • Andrew

    Hey Sarah. I did something really bad to my coccyx many years ago (it might have broken but how does one know?). I was sitting at the front (bow?) of a small boat on an estuary in the Western Cape, and we went over a large wave which caused me to bounce really hard. It is really painful but it does go away eventually with no lasting repercussions. I had to laugh out loud when I read that you are giving up men and taking up horse riding! I am sure the friction on the saddle will give you endless satisfaction. Who needs men hey?!

  • Craig

    Every sore, sprain, bruise, and fall is worth it. Came back from a gallop through the countryside with long grass outside of joburg this morning and now ready to face the week. There are fears, but getting over them and believing in yourself is part of the high. Don’t know if I will be able to walk or use my fingers when I get old after all the falls, but there is nothing like the exhilaration of working together with your horse at speed. I have a profound envy for jockeys.

  • Peter Win

    Do it the right way ! Start with a motorbike…

  • Benzo

    I must agree with OneFlew: cantering is naturally softer on the bum than trotting. In the trot you move up and down, make sure you make a controlled landing using your legs. Easier on the horse as well.
    While cantering, you stay in the saddle, sitting slightly forward from the hip, legs slightly backward to keep the momentum going.
    Yes, I did break a hip once.

  • Benzo

    @Sarah:………… give up on men and get on the back of a horse……..

    When I was learning the trot, my instructor told me to imagine me having a romp with Princess Margaret. For you? Well trained horses are generally more docile than men, other than that you will be mostly on top if al goes right.
    Enjoy the ride while it lasts. :-))

  • Heather Auer

    Love reading your column. I love horses too but have the same fear. The Christopher Reeves episode made the decision for me not persue occupation.

  • Jack Sparrow

    Aye, horses – dangerous at both ends and uncomforable in the middle (couldn’t attribute sorry). And bloody high off the ground! But a 50km+ spin on a hard tail MTB on a gravel road will make you long for a horse’s saddle.

  • Gerry West

    Hi Sarah

    Really nice article. I started to attend horse races after mving to Aussie and now have a much better appreciation for horses. Do you follow Black Caviar’s amazing career?

  • http://none Lyndall Beddy


    I think you are frightening the horses you ride.

    If you are going to replace a husband with a horse then take the same trouble to get to know the horse.

    Horses all have different personalities and like to know the rider before they stop feeling nervous.

    You will make them skittish if they think you don’t know what you are doing.

  • Gavin Foster


    “Horses all have different personalities and like to know the rider before they stop feeling nervous.

    You will make them skittish if they think you don’t know what you are doing”

    The same applies to many men, believe it or not….

  • antfarm

    I recommend Noordhoek beach, very early.

  • Shumba

    Very interesting story Sarah!!!!