Last year, when I bought Qrac, my Lusitano, I wasn’t used to wearing a helmet. I’d never worn a helmet when riding Kwintus, my now-retired schoolmaster. Of course, not wearing one when riding Kwintus was stupid as he had a recurrent stumbling problem, and it was eventually because of his stumbling that we had to retire him.
I think we all agree that it’s dangerous to ride without a helmet, yet I’m sure most of us have done so at some point in our lives. I see many young riders at my stables riding bare-headed or in trendy looking baseball caps. Most of the professional riders I know still ride without helmets, but when questioned on the subject they tend to go all sheepish, then wrinkle their nose and say that they know they should, really. Then why don’t they? One professional replied that it would mean wearing a helmet eight to ten hours a day, and they give her a headache. I told her I understood where she was coming from, but that there are many very light, comfortable helmets on the market. I also asked her if she’d ever read about what had happened to Courtney King-Dye.She hadn't, so I told her the terrible story in a nutshell. Maybe she'll Google it, and show up with a helmet next week. But I doubt it, and that's okay.
Granted, there’s something nice, even something romantic, about riding helmet-less. There’s that sensation of freedom, of the wind in your hair. There’s also the added bonus of not having to wash your hair on a daily basis; I don’t know about you, but I sweat enormously through my head so there’s no way I can take off my helmet, tip my head upside down and glamorously toss my tresses back into a swingy, silky do. No siree; when I remove my helmet, my hair is super-glued to my head, bald-eagle style. It’s ever so attractive.
Anyway, during my initial weeks with Qrac, there were days when I didn’t wear a helmet. However, I didn’t feel exceedingly comfortable helmet-less as he was pretty rushy-pully back then, so most days I put it on. In fact, most of the times when I didn’t wear my helmet was because after so many years with Kwintus, taking it out of my cupboard and putting it on hadn’t become a reflex yet, and I genuinely didn’t always realize that I wasn’t wearing it until I’d gone down the road to the arena, and then couldn’t be bothered to go all the way back up again (the arena was quite a ways from the stable block). But I soon got into the habit of wearing it, and last November, when I moved Qrac to my current stables, most of the other dressage ladies wore helmets, and the set-up was different (I clip my helmet to the wheelie-trolley I use for my tack and other equipment), so I have a visual reminder as well.
There was one time in February, during the big freeze in the winter, when Qrac had a slightly fat hind leg and could only be walked. This meant that I would spend 45 minutes or so just sitting on him, plodding around the indoor arena. It was about minus a bazillion degrees, I was wrapped up like a Michelin Man and wanted to keep my ears warm, so instead of my helmet I wore a woolly cap. I figured it was no big deal; after all, I was only walking him.
The second time I didn’t wear my helmet was about two weeks ago, during the tail end of our mad heat wave. Of course, that was the day when Qrac suddenly went bananas whenever I asked for the right lead canter, throwing his head around, going against my outside leg, even pulling up sharply and spinning to the left. Trust me, I wished I’d worn my helmet, even though nothing bad happened. A visit from the osteopath seems to have fixed my horse’s problem (he had a blockage in his hips), although he’s still a little iffy at times, so I’ve asked my “magic man” (a healer) to come and see him this coming week.
Anyway, those were the only two times when I haven’t worn my helmet since last November. And I was wearing it this morning, when I rode Qrac in the outdoor arena, and although he wasn’t on his best behaviour and played me up a little in the right lead canter (trying to lean into his inside shoulder and switch leads, pretty much like he did when I first bought him), I had a pretty decent ride. Once we’d finished the more collected work, I did a couple of laps in a nice, deep and round, forward trot, then transitioned to walk.
I can’t remember whether I dropped my reins immediately, as what happened next took me completely by surprise. We came round the corner in walk, tracking left, when suddenly Qrac fell over sideways. Maybe he put his foot in an irregularity in the ground and his legs slipped to the right and his body to the left, or maybe he just got his feet in a muddle. I don’t really know, although the first option strikes me as the most plausible. If he stepped in a hole, maybe he then lost his balance by stepping onto one of the railway sleepers that line the edge of the outdoor arena (I hate them. They’re the same colour as the floor, and neither high enough nor low enough). Since we were only in walk, I wasn't thrown clear, so I stayed on him as he fell down, landing with my left leg underneath him. It didn’t hurt at all; all I felt was his soft belly on top of my leg, but I saw his four legs fly upwards on the other side, and for a split second I thought he might roll right over. Which would have been bad. Really bad. But he didn’t. He rolled back to the left, got up, and so did I, and I my first thought was, “oh dear, he’s a stallion and he’s going to run away,” but again he didn’t, and instead stood perfectly still, looking at me as if to say “what the heck just happened?”. I hobbled towards him and took hold of the reins. My left foot felt a little sore, as did the spot between my shoulder blade and the base of my neck, which clearly got a little strained when my left shoulder hit the ground.
In a bit of a daze, I checked him over to make sure he hadn’t cut himself, walked him on a circle to check whether he was regular, and then got back on. I walked, trotted, and then put him into the right lead canter, and to my surprise found him far more relaxed, far more “with me” than before he fell. In fact, I haven’t had such a good right lead canter in ages. Did he freak himself out by falling and decide to be more focused? I don’t know. I only rode him for a few more minutes, but those were by far the best minutes of my ride. Strange, don’t you think?
Once we’d finished, I dosed us both with arnica and showered his legs for a long time, but chances are we’ll be a little sore tomorrow. I’m pretty sure I will be, despite a nice long soak in the hot tub when I got home.
Most importantly, what I learnt today is that, even though I didn’t hit my head when my horse and I went down, I’ll never sit on my horse again without wearing my helmet. Because this morning my horse went down for no particular reason, presumably like Courtney King-Dye’s horse. Qrac wasn’t misbehaving, he wasn’t being asked to do something complicated, he hadn’t spooked at something and lost his balance in a crazy spin. He just fell over, like we can fall over if we slip on a banana peel, or on a slippery pedestrian crossing, or simply trip over our own feet. Of course, some people will argue that if we wear a helmet, then we should also wear a back protector with an airbag, and that accidents happen, which is fair enough. Maybe one day I'll be wearing a back protector with an airbag; in fact I know one dressage rider who does. She fell off and broke her back, so I can see why she would.
Has your horse ever fallen over for no apparent reason? I know we've discussed the issue on this blog before, but do you wear a helmet? Have you always worn one, or did something happen that convinced you to wear one? Do professionals around you wear helmets? Personally, I thought it was great to finally see some top dressage riders wearing helmets instead of hats at the London Olympics, and really hope that the FEI will soon make helmets mandatory for all competitors, if only to set the good, safe example, especially for young riders. Tell me what you think.