Sunday, March 7, 2010

It's Your Head, Protect it!

Earlier this week, Olympic dressage rider, Courtney King-Dye was airlifted to a hospital after a fall from a young horse she was schooling. I understand she normally wears a helmet but didn't have one on at the time. She is in an induced coma with a head injury and bleeding on the brain in two places. She is expected to recover, though details are sketchy at this point.

This incident made me think about the dangers we face every day when dealing with these large animals.

Many years ago, a very good friend of mine was in a lesson. She was riding a school horse. The horse was dead broke and dependable. She was walking him around outside after her lesson. She stopped to talk to someone. The horse rested a leg and caught her off gaurd. She lost her balance and fell off. She hit her head on the only rock in the entire area, which resulted in a severe head injury. She was in a coma in the hospital for a month. When she came out of it, she didn't remember anyone and had the mentality of a child. She was about 40 years old at the time. I never knew what happened to her, but I heard she ended up in a nursing home with no hope of a recovery. She lost her "future" because of a freak accident and no helmet. She did have the helmet on during the lesson but had taken it off afterward.

The tragic incident with this friend changed my attitude about wearing a helmet. I was in my 20s at the time. I've religiously worn a helmet ever since. To me it's like wearing a seatbelt, without it, I feel naked.

Where I ride, everyone wears a helmet, no exceptions. Yet, I know a lot of barns aren't like that. Dressage trainers are notorious for not wearing helmets. Even worse, at upper-level dressage, the majority of the riders wear top hats at dressage shows. Western riders and trail riders are even more inclined to not wear helmets. The trail rider wearing a helmet seems to be the exception, not the rule. Why is that? Take my friend, for instance, whose entire life was changed in one moment by a freak fall from a horse. Riding outside means trees and rocks and all sorts of terrain not meant to have contact with your head if you want to keep it healthy. It doesn't matter if you're just going for a leisurely walk on a beautiful spring day. Accidents happen. Horses spook. Riders lose their balance.

About ten years ago, I was riding in the outdoor arena. I forgot to wear my helmet (probably the only time this has happened in years). Being lazy, I didn't go back to the barn to get it. The outdoor arena was very cushy bark, so I figured I was safe. While practicing changes on the diagonal, my bomb-proof gelding hopped up in the air to do a change. I flew off and hit my head hard. I realize now, I had a small concussion. I didn't know it at the time, but I did walk around in a fog most of the week.

Do you wear a helmet? Are you one of those that hates to mess up your hair under a helmet? Do you think you don't need one because your horse is one-hundred percent safe? Do you hate how hot your head gets under a helmet? Do you succumb to peer pressure? Do you think a head injury won't happen to you?

Think again. Head injuries are the number one horse-related injury. All it takes is one mistake on your part, one moment of inattention, one unexpected incident. Please consider wearing a helmet. Go to the local tack store and buy a good one. It's your brain, the only one you'll ever have. Make sure it's an ASTM/SEI certified helmet, which means it meets safety standards.

If you don't wear a helmet, I hope you'll reconsider your decision. It's your head, protect it!


stilllearning said...

Total agreement here.

My "lightbulb moment" came after I had kids. I fell, narrowly missed hitting my head, and lay there thinking "how would they have gotten home? who would have taken care of them?". I've always worn a helmet since, even for those "short" rides. My hair is always a mess anyhow :)

Laura Crum said...

Jami--That is a really good post. And yep, I am one of those who has never worn a helmet--except in my teenage years when I jumped horses at a riding school that required helmets for this activity. Am I mounting a defense for not wearing helmets? Nope.

Your post really made me think that I ought to do just what you said--trot on down to the tack store and buy one. My kid wears a helmet. Why don't I?

The reason why is complicated, but I think I'll go into it, because it probably applies to a lot of folks. I was raised in the western "cowboy" tradition of horsemanship by an uncle who was a team roper. Team ropers don't wear helmets. Ranch cowboys don't wear helmets. Cutters don't wear helmets. Cowhorse trainers don't wear helmets. Almost every single horse event I participated in, no one wore a helmet. When I take my kid to a team roping, he is the only person in the arena wearing a helmet--and there are lots of kids. I think you get my point. A lot of the reason I don't wear a helmet is simply peer pressure--everyone would think I was weird. Is this a good reason? No.

Another reason, for me, is that I never wear hats of any kind. They really bug me--they even give me headaches (I know, not like the headache I'd have if I came off and hit my head.) But I am really uncomfortable with anything on my head. Is this a good reason not to wear a helmet? No.

Finally, yeah, I ride gentle horses. And yeah, I could still come off. I've ridden for many years and, knocking on wood here, I have not come off in a long time. But, again, is this a good reason not to wear a helmet? No.

I'll think about it. Like stillearning said, for my kid's sake. Good post.

Topaz said...

When I fell off the Bay Bolter last spring I know my helmet saved me from a heck of a lot of brain injury. I now have memory problems from that concussion (I forget to do things all the time) and can't even fathom how much worse it would have been without my helmet. With the variety of helmets on the market now there's no reason you can't find one that meets your criteria (fit, ventilation, attractiveness) with some effort. It may take a lot of effort, as every model/brand fits differently, but there will be one out there. In the case of finding a helmet, that effort may save your life.

I used to work at a Girl Scout camp and there was a rule that you had to wear a helmet anytime you were anywhere near the horses. Lots of people complained about it, it was summer and even with ventilated helmets it was hot. Then I watched a horse bring its head down on top of one of the other instructor's heads. She got concussed, even with a helmet on. They don't just protect your head in falls.

I could go on and on with stories about how helmets have saved their wearer from more severe injury. Remember that once a helmet hits the ground its protection has likely been compromised and should be replaced (some manufacturers have discounts for replacement.) They should also be replaced five years from the manufacture date, as the internal materials start to break down and can't do their job as well.

Anonymous said...

I always wear a helmet, and so do my daughters - as you point out, accidents can happen in a blink of an eye on even the most bombproof horse. Both my daughters have had falls where they ended up under the horse and got clocked in the head by a hoof - and I can't imagine the injuries they would have sustained without helmets - the helmets were cracked and it could have been their heads. I certainly understand that peer pressure in certain areas of the horse world is a powerful thing, but is it really worth a brain injury?

Laura Crum said...

Kate--you're right. But lets see how many people who ride western write in to say they wear a helmet. Right or wrong, they mostly don't. I have to say, in a lifetime spent with horses and other horse people, I don't personally know anyone who has sustained a serious head injury coming off a horse. I know people who have been killed coming off, but the cause was never head injury. I know one little girl who broke her neck and died in an English riding lesson --wearing a helmet. Again, I'm not defending going helmetless (I do make my kid wear one, and I ignore the odd looks we get at the ropings). I'm just explaining that to a lot of people, this issue doesn't come up in the same way it does for you English types. The assumption is that one doesn't wear one, just as English riders mostly assume that they will. OK--maybe western riders are just dumber--I'm willing to buy that.

Jami Davenport said...

Laura, I do understand where you're coming from. I was born and raised in Eastern Washington, grew up riding on the open range, and NEVER wore a helmet. It amazes me how few bull riders wear helmets.

Even now when I go out with a group on a trail ride, I am usually the ONLY person wearing a helmet. Granted, my mare is 17-1 and prone to shying so I have a long ways to fall. Regardless, you can get just as hurt on a 14-2 hand Arabian or Quarter Horse. Sometimes even worse because when those short-backed horses buck they can get some snap in their backs. My big horse can't buck to save her soul. Not only is it too much work, but she doesn't have the quick snap that sends a person flying.

Linda Benson said...

Good Post, Jami - I will weigh in here as one of those Western riders who has never worn a helmet, even riding green colts and chalking up lots of endurance miles riding on the sides of cliffs (when I was younger.)

I did finally wear one last year though, for the first time, at the insistence of a friend while riding her Tennessee Walker (and in respect for her rules.) And I have to say that contrary to what I expected, the helmet was surprisingly comfortable and lightweight!

And I have thought about it since, but I haven't bought one yet. I have to say that the worst I've been hurt so far was not riding, but when my head became trapped by a rope against the inside of a trailer when my little mule decided to set back on the rope while loading. But then I hauled her and rode her anyway, and later found out I suffered a bad concussion and had migraines for months afterwards. Yes, a helmet would have helped in that circumstance, if I would have had it on.

For me, it's not so much style, but habit and custom, and stubbornness, and a notion that this probably won't ever happen to ME.

But yes, it can and it does, and I will give it more thought.

Thanks for the post, Jami.

Mikey said...

Yes, I am one of those Western riders, and I go English once in a while. After last Sept's head injury, grade 3 concussion, I ride with a helmet. I've gone twice w/o one, and felt a bit naked. I think, especially for competition, everyone of all ages should be required to wear one. Good luck getting ropers to wear one though. My child wears one always. I think it's not so much peer pressure to NOT wear one, for me, it's the freedom I miss, having my hair blow in the wind, galloping across the desert, as shallow as that sounds. But the flip side is, it reminds me to keep my chin up and look between the horses ears, instead of looking down, like I catch myself doing way too much. And it keeps my head safe.
I also had an accident when I was 8, runaway who took a handy jump that was nearby. I came off, split my helmet, cracked a cheekbone and broke my arm. Big black eye. That helmet definitely saved my life that day.
It's not if, it's when it matter how good a rider you are or how good your horse is. You ride enough, you're bound to have an accident. I hope Courtney gets better soon and we'll keep her in our prayers.

KB said...

I have a horse that is as safe as one can be, and I haven't fallen off a horse since I was about twelve years old (30 years ago), but I wear my helmet every single time I get on. I am a trail rider (western, I guess, although I ride in a treeless endurance saddle). Most everyone I ride with wears a helmet, although most of the people who I see on the trails don't. I can't imagine asking my child to wear one and not doing so myself- my son would never let me hear the end of that.

A friend of mine always insisted that if it's your time to go, nothing will save you, so wearing a helmet was pointless. On Thanksgiving of last year, a friend of hers was mounting her horse, the horse gave a hop, and he fell off and landed on his head. He is STILL in a nursing home today, snd his family is now changing his diapers. Think a helmet is uncool? unattractive? How do you feel about someone else having to see to your personal needs, because you can't do it yourself.

I know there is no 100% safe way to ride, but I will do my absolute best to protect my family from that experience. I don't care how dorky I look - they are worth it.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

This is a great post and makes me rethink my helmet situation. When I began riding horses as a teenager, NO ONE wore helmets unless they rode English. In my thirties, with small children to raise and green horses to break, I usually wore one. Now, not so much, although, the possibility of falling off is always present, isn't it? I really don't have a good reason why I don't regularly wear them nowadays. I do always wear my seatbelt because it's the law. And I would NEVER agree with motorcycle riders who go helmetless. I call them fools. So, more fool I, for not wearing a helmet when I ride horses, right?.
I will make a greater effort to grab the "bucket" even when I go to 'play' with my horses. Thanks for the needed reminder.
I didn't know about older helmets breaking down however, with plastics and continuous weather changes, it makes sense. Once, I had older ski boots and one of them just exploded apart while I was walking back to the car after skiing all day. Thank goodness it didn't happen on the mountain. So, thank you for bringing that up. I intend to replace my older helmets.

Fantastyk Voyager said...

Oh, and skiing is another sport that should be done with headgear! My son took a huge fall snowboarding and was knocked unconscious. Luckily, it was a relatively minor accident with no lasting ill effects. However, it scared the bejesus into him and he always wears a helmet now. If only I could convince him how dangerous rock climbing is...

Shanster said...

Good post Jami - I wear a helmet as well. I didn't used to and started when I brought my mare home, an OTTB, who was 4 and learning her new job. I got into the habit and now I always wear one.

I remember a woman I admired said something to the effect of "you have 2 arms, 2 legs so if you break one, you can use the only have 1 head"

I use my black velvet show helmet and to combat the heat I buy a fun, light colored helmet cover online.

(my current one is red with white skulls all over it tho I was tempted by a silver sparkly disco ball like cover...I decided not to mess with my trainer's vision!)

Keeps me cooler and keeps my helmet clean as well! It helps that I've always had dork hair so I don't mind the stange helmet hair... figure it provides entertainment. heh.

little K said...

I understand where the western riders come from in not wearing helmets. I've always worn one not so much because I feel safer but because the it was the culture where I learned to ride to wear one all the time. I think culture, tradition and style are important aspects of any riding discipline and just like huntmasters wear red coats, cowboys wear cowboy hats, not helmets.

My concern with helmet wearing didn't really come into the picture until I started going to school for nursing and seeing people first hand with head injuries. Altered personalities, decreased mental functioning, paralysis or death is not a good look on anybody. And the problem with horses is they are the perfect height to put riders at risk for rotational falls that land you squarely on your pumpkin.

I think seasoned riders sometimes view helmets as unecessary because the majority of falls they have are at speed or as a result of an overjump/buck/trip/aerial above the ground that throws them away from the horse where they safely land on their back or bum or whatever. It may hurt but they didn't hit their head too hard so all is well and that helmet was unneeded. I've fallen lots (and I mean LOTS) of times and never hit my head, however I think its those freak falls that happen when you are stopped or walking out and loose that are the most dangerous because you can just slip off the side and rotate upside down. I have pretty good balance, a broke horse, and lots of hours of riding practice under my belt. But I don't feel immune to these types of falls. So now, even though I am at a barn where the culture of helmet wearing is not so strict and people routinely hack and jump and train without helmets I will continue to wear mine faithfully every ride. I think it is everybody's choice whether or not to wear a helmet. Its a calculated risk some people are willing to take. I just know that working with horses can be dangerous no matter what and helmets are one way I can make myself a little bit safer.

Anonymous said...

I'm a trail rider in NW Iowa and am in "Western country". I started wearing a helmet when I first started riding (5 yrs. ago) and always ride with a helmet. Usually on the trails I ride on, I am the ONLY person I see with a helmet....even small kids are helmetless. I wear a Toxel Sierra which has nice leather and is lightweight and a longer brim. Very comfy and easy to wear. I don't care what others think...I want to save my head :-)

Sunstruck said...

I'm mostly a lurker, but I wanted to put my 2 cents in. I'm 56 now and grew up riding Western, showing, etc. Never had a helmet, never thought about wearing one, and I know my parents never thought about the need for a helmet. In the English classes, the riders wore helmets but they weren't safety helmets.

I quit riding in '76, but started again in '99 - this time English so I could foxhunt. This time around it never occured to me to NOT wear a helmet. Older, wiser? Who knows, but I do know that I'm very much in favor of keeping what few wits I still have.

In a clinic in 2004, I came off my horse. Stupid accident, not her fault. I was riding in a saddle too big for me. She shied (at the trot) one way and I slid off the in the opposite direction. A shattered left wrist, a fractured pelvis and a cracked helmet. Everything healed, but the helmet stayed cracked. If I hadn't had the helmet on, I guess the broken bones would have been a moot point.

I never wore a seat belt until my son was 8 yrs old, even though he had to wear one. I didn't feel the need. I was protecting my son, wasn't that enough. Then one day, it dawned on me. If something happened to me, my ex-husband would be my son's only parent. I wore a seat belt from that day on.