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Preparing to Ride Again After a Knee Injury

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Panel Experts: Bernie Traurig and Tonya Johnston

Submitted by member: Krista

I recently had ACL replacement knee surgery. My horse has been in training while I was off. I asked my trainer to not get the horse “too fit” as I don’t want to have too much horse to ride when I return to riding. What advice do you have for riders who are a little insecure in the saddle when coming back from an injury?

My top concern is coming off a horse. Since I had the surgery, I really want to stick to the saddle like glue and yet, I am afraid that I might not. I guess this is really a question about the mental side of riding. I have been following my doctor’s advice and not riding until he gives the OK, even though my knee feels a lot better.

Answer by Bernie

I do understand your concerns.  I will try to help you with some of them and will refer you to Tonya Johnston, a mental skills coach, who has done some topics for us on

First of all, I would talk to your doctor about what physical therapy and conditioning exercises you can do that won’t affect you knee.  You need to stay in shape.

Secondly, you will need your trainer’s help to manage your horse well for the first month or so.  Manage her grain, and exercise prior to riding so she’s not too fresh.  Maybe have her ridden prior to your getting on or lunged or turned out (if that’s something she’s used to).

Hope this helps.

Answer by Tonya Johnston

It’s a wise move to be proactive with strategies for your return to the saddle – kudos! Virtually every rider has had to go through a time of getting back into the sport, so please rest assured that you are not alone in sorting through this process.

I agree with Bernie about making sure you are strong physically before you return, as this will have a positive impact on your confidence. Strong means muscle strong and cardio fit, both will be a boost to your positive attitude and ability to focus in the tack. I also support your idea of groundwork and spending time with your horse to strengthen your relationship and build (or re-build) trust.

I encourage you to really listen to your instincts about what feels right in your first few rides. Be kind with yourself (this is key!) and keep your expectations relaxed. The important thing is to feel positive and happy during your rides. This may mean riding more simple exercises, or just walking and trotting your horse, for example — anything that keeps you feeling comfortable and in control. Having good help on the ground from your trainer will be important, as well as feeling that the lines of communication are open for you to talk about how you are feeling.

I also recommend setting small performance goals for each ride so that you can give yourself positive feedback and notice places where you made progress each day. You want to have places to channel your energy toward that will help you ride well, rather than allowing your insecurities to become distracting. Focus on what you want to achieve (even if these goals are small, like keeping your weight even in your stirrups) rather than getting on for each ride thinking, “I wonder how it’s going to go today?” This is the type of thought that only builds fear and feelings of being out of control.

Most of all, appreciate the opportunity to be back on your horse. Riding is a wonderful gift. Enjoy every moment!


Video Recommendation:

Tonya Johnston Getting Over Fear

Getting Over Fear
Tonya Johnston
Mental Skills Coach, Tonya Johnston, shares some strategies you can use to get past an event or situation that is, perhaps inhibiting your performance and/or enjoyment of the sport. Tonya is joined by amateur rider, Lauren Craft, who sustained a serious injury during a jumping accident. Together they discuss how to overcome fear.
Running Time:  14 minutes and 35 seconds

View Video

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Tonya Johnston

Tonya Johnston, MA, is a Mental Skills Coach with a master's degree in Sport Psychology. She specializes in working with equestrian athletes, as well as being a horse show competitor herself. Tonya's consulting sessions for riders teach mental skills to enhance performance as well as build personalized mental preparation routines. Tonya's clients have attained competitive success at every level, including local through national titles, CCI competition, medal finals, and grand prix. A recent speaker at both the USEA and USDF national conventions, she conducts USHJA-Affiliated “Mental Skills for Riders” clinics throughout the country as well as in-person and phone consultations with individual clients.

Tonya’s Website:

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