Saturday, September 15, 2012

On random accidents and the importance of wearing a helmet

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.



White Horse Pilgrim said...

Francesca, what you have written is provocative to those of us who don't follow the herd. Please don't read this comment as an attack, however...

I do NOT agree that it is 'dangerous' to ride without a helmet. You have made a purely subjective statement. More 'dangerous' than what?

I tend to consider it 'dangerous' to steeplechase, showjump, hunt, etc, because these decidedly unnatural equestrian activities cause plenty of mishaps.

Of course we're just talking about 'danger' to the rider. Our competitive riders kill and main a growing list of horses, but that's just fine so long as the rider walks away. I'd love to mandate that the rider is allowed precisely as much protection as his or her horse is given.

It can be 'dangerous' to canter on bad ground when walking would be better, and I can think of riders who lack the least judgement over such matters. Equip these people with helmet, inflatable vest, etc and they will still go out and hurt themselves.

I have led something like fifteen thousand miles of wilderness trail rides without helmet-nazi rules - with hardly a fall and no head injuries. Why? Through basic things like selection of good sensible horses, not over-feeding them, well planned trails, choosing the right terrain for fast work, not jumping just because we can, and so on. Discipline that too many riders never learned, not in Europe anyway, 'because you're safe wearing a helmet'.

Two riders with whom I have been associated (not in my equestrian business) were killed - wearing helmets - because of a lack of basic safety precautions. Just what is 'dangerous'?

Beginner lessons, competing, breaking young horses, anything where the risk level is unduly elevated - yes, helmets are a good idea. And the rider can choose to wear one.

Yes, your horse can be unpredictable. Isn't he entire? My mare can be, well, mare-ish. Sometimes I read that on her and scale back my request. I guess that wouldn't be so great on a competition horse. But horses aren't machines for winning things. They're far more than that: think of horses at a spiritual level rather than material.

Of course anything to do with riding, cycling, driving, etc is less safe than sitting on one's butt and watching other people ride on the television. The Olympics, John Wayne shooting up the Indians, whatever. However please be so kind as to spare responsible adults the moralising. We don't live in a socialist nanny state!

Oh, readers, enjoy attacking my views! At least one of you has posted a lengthy ad hominem attack on your blog. (It did make me laugh!)

Laura Crum said...

Well, I guess I'm in the middle on the helmet thing. I did buy and actually do often wear a helmet--though I have spent roughly fifty years riding safely without one. I agree that making good choices and riding solid horses is far MORE important when it comes to safety than wearing a helmet. Most of the bad horse wrecks I knew--including a fatal one, would not have been changed by a helmet. That said, the thing that truly scares me is that any horse can fall. Just as Qrac did. Unexpectedly, for no obvious reason. I have had a horse fall (and somersault) at the slow lope in a well-groomed arena. And no, I wasn't wearing a helmet and the horse and I were fine. But I do wear a helmet when I trail ride now, just as I wear a seat belt when I drive my car. The seat belt has never done me any good, and its mildly uncomfortable. But it MIGHT save my life...and the downside is just minor discomfort. That's how I see helmets. They make sense. There is no real reason not to wear one.

Anonymous said...

I always wear a helmet. Yes, it's certainly possible to be seriously injured when wearing a helmet, even killed, just as it's possible to be seriously injured or killed when wearing a seat belt in a car - but that doesn't mean I don't wear one. Both helmets and seat belts reduce the chances of a devastating injury, or can make injuries less severe. And neither one is uncomfortable if properly fitted.

I have had horses fall with me, and have had near falls - it's one of the most dangerous things that happen around horses. And a horse tripping and falling isn't something that can be prevented by the rider being sensible - these things just happen sometimes.

I had a serious accident with my young horse last summer, and if I hadn't been wearing a helmet I would likely have died or suffered permanent brain damage. I don't see any point in not wearing a helmet - I also wear one for groundwork and also wear a body protector in some circumstances on the trail, depending on the horse and what we'll be doing.

If helmet wearing becomes a habit, you don't even notice it's there. It's great to see the Olympic level dressage riders who are starting to wear helmets - they set a great example for young riders coming up.

spotz58 said...

I'm a very fortunate person who wears a helmet always and requires one at her barn. When I was a teen my large pony (who always chose to go right!) went left and I went right when coming up to a large rock in the trail. I have a metal plate in my head. I had to relearn many physical skills including walking - not cool if you are a teen, or any other time. AND I DID have a helmet on, so imagine if I had not! If slapping a helmet on before mounting can reduce the risk, it seems a reasonable step to take.

I'm doing a lot of rehab on foundered "hopeless" cases. You better believe I wear my helmet around them, especially since I'm trimming the hooves downed horses. I broke 2 helmets last year.

jenj said...

This is the oddest thing... we were foxhunting this morning, standing around chatting, and suddenly one rider's horse sat down, then flipped over backwards. He landed on her left leg (fortunately he twisted not to land on her fully), got up, and was fine. This is a CCI** event horse, and he was literally just standing there.

Perhaps it was a day for odd things to happen - but I sure am glad that everyone was OK!

Laura Crum said...

jenj and Cesca--You know that is my big fear around horses, and Courtney King-Dye's accident really hit home to me. I am not afraid that my solid gelding will dump me--it isn't very likely. But horses do fall--sometimes very unexpectedly, like Qrac and jen's friend's horse, and there is nothing that can be done. As Kate pointed out, good riding won't prevent this. So I wear my helmet now. It took me a long time to find one that fits (my large, odd-shaped head), and I still do NOT find it totally comfortable to wear--but then, I don't like hats of any kind. I will say that after awhile I don't notice it. And I do notice if I've forgotten it--I feel sort of naked. So thanks fellow bloggers for moving me into the helmet camp. It just makes sense.

Francesca Prescott said...

WHP: Thank you for reading and commenting. I suppose I could have worded this differently, said that it's safer to ride with a helmet, instead of saying that it's dangerous to ride without one. In the end it's all up to personal choices. My son skateboards without a helmet (well, he did before he tore his ACL for the second time; he won't be skateboarding for many months) and some of the footage I saw of him on his board made my hair stand on end, but he refused to wear a helmet, or knee pads, or anything. I'm actually grateful that he "only" tore his ACL, and didn't smash his skull to smithereens. When seat-belts in cars were made mandatory, even though I was very young, I remember people moaning about it, yet I doubt many people think twice about buckling up these days. I can't drive without it, it feels too weird.

Please believe me when I say that I didn't mean to be moralising, I know it seems that everything in our lives is being scrutinized, controlled, that we are being told to be careful of this, and to beware of that;the media stirs up so much paranoia. Remember all the hoo-ha about bird-flu, then swine-flu? Was the danger really that real?

I know what you mean about people doing stupid things on horseback, making unsafe decisions for themselves and their horses. There are few people I enjoy going out on trail rides with because, as far as I'm concerned, they make bad choices for their horses, such as galoping on bad terrain. They wear helmets, but don't seem to worry about their horses getting sore feet...and chances are their horses will be fine, but I don't want to take chances like that with my horse because I care about him too much. The "fast" riders think I'm boring and a chicken because I'm so careful, both with my horse and with myself. Maybe I am a chicken. But I'd rather be as safe a chicken as possible, and keep my horse safe and sound as best I can. We can't protect our horses, our families, the people we love, ourselves, etc etc from everything, I know that. I just feel safer nowadays when I'm wearing a helmet. Maybe if I'd carried on not wearing one I wouldn't feel this way. But it's become a habit and the older I get, the more sense it makes.

Again, thanks for commenting.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura: I know you wear a helmet these days, and that, like me, you didn't wear one for many many years. I enjoyed not wearing one, and the riding entourage I was involved in tended not to wear them.

Maybe age makes us more cautious; with age comes responsibility. I quit jumping after I had my kids, I just didn't enjoy it anymore, I didn't feel safe. I didn't want to hurt myself and not be able to take care of them. Maybe I worry too much... I probably do. Actually, I know I do.

By the way, Qrac is fine today. He has a little lump/bruise on his left flank, but the skin wasn't broken (I'd have seen that yesterday if it had). He was perfectly straight, albet a little stiff to the left, kind of like me today! And if I thought my neck was sore two days ago, well I didn't know what life had in store for me! But it's not as bad as I thought it would be:).

Thank you for commenting :)

Francesca Prescott said...

Kate: as I lay in bed last night, trying to make sense of what had happened, why Qrac fell over, i couldn't help thinking that if he'd fallen to the right instead of to the left, I'd most probably have been seriously injured, whether I'd have been wearing a helmet, a back protector, or even a padded suit. Gives me the ooby-joobies just thinking about it. At the end of the day it's just a dangerous sport, really, and we need to accept it and do what feels right for us, what makes us most comfortable.

I don't wear a back protector (yet...) because I don't go out on fast, athletic trail rides. I don't jump anything anymore, but if I did I'd wear one with an air-bag. I don't wear a helmet when I lunge, although I can see why some people do. My helmet is very light and very comfortable; it's nothing like those heavy,black velvet hard-hats we had when we were kids.

Thank you for reading and responding.

Francesca Prescott said...

Spotz58: what a story. You were very lucky...I bet your parents were terrified, and you must have had to be incredibly brave to get through all that you went through, and to continue riding, too. Thank goodness you were wearing a helmet.

Lots of love, and thank for commenting.

Francesca Prescott said...

Jenj, that is really weird! I was joking with another rider today that maybe my horse has narcolepsy, and just fell asleep for a fraction of a second. But I was just kidding of course...

What would cause a horse just standing there to suddenly sit down and flip over?! So random!

I'm also glad that your friend and her horse are ok. Qrac and I are ok, too. I just feel a little achy today...

Laura Crum said...

Cesca--I think that is the main point. "At the end of the day its a dangerous sport, really." This is just true. But then, driving a car is dangerous, too. However, I'm sure we'd all be safer if we hiked rather than rode horseback. But I'm not giving horses up. I try to mitigate the risk, and I wonder if I'm right to have my kid riding with me, but at the end of the day, well, we'll all die of something, and horses are worth the added risk.

TBDancer said...

There are evenings when I think back that I should have put my riding helmet on before getting out of bed that morning. I have two helmets and while I have never had a "hat face," I certainly would rather have "helmet hair" than go through life after a head injury.

That said, I don't always think, "Helmet." I have to have my helmet set out, the box staring me in the face, because if I'm wearing a visor or baseball cap, I'm apt to think I've got my helmet on already ("Something is on my head") and mount up and ride off.

The biggest problem with helmets is FIT. I had a white helmet about six years ago that I HATED--it was the right SIZE, but I could never get the harness adjusted so the darned thing sat on my head properly and then STAYED there. I'd adjust the strap under my chin--LOTS of extra flapping around, which was not right. The helmet would tip back and the chin strap choked me.

I adjusted, re-adjusted, re-placed the harness, all to no avail. Was glad when I had a "horse goes left, rider goes right" episode, I did a near 360 revolution in the air and landed flat on my back. Even though I'm not sure my head hit the ground--though I did crack two ribs--it gave me GREAT pleasure to throw that stupid helmet in the trash and venture forth to find one that was properly harnessed and that could be adjusted to fit me correctly.

Helmets will not protect you from everything--we get the same argument about seat belts--but I think I'd rather take my chances with a helmet on than without.

Val said...

I always wear a helmet and was taught to do so from my very first lesson. Wearing a helmet is not an excuse for reckless riding. The training of the horse, the match of horse and rider, the riding environment and discipline always play a role. Vaulters do not wear helmets, which I find very strange, but apparently the helmet interferes with their balance and can get caught on the gear or other vaulters. Even so, I cannot imagine riding a horse without a helmet, let along doing handstands and flips off his back!

I have read that horses who are sleep deprived can fall asleep suddenly. These are horses who are not able to get REM sleep which is only possible while lying down. If the horse is in too small a stall to lay down or does not feel safe enough to lay down for whatever reason, the horse will become sleep deprived. The horse may fall asleep suddenly and risks a fall.

Or course, horses can just trip or slip and fall like anyone else. They try to stay on their feet, but this is not always possible, especially if you have a person falling with you!

Alison said...

Wow, Cesca, it's neat to see your post create so many comments!

Love it!

Since I ride on the trail, I wear a helmet mostly to keep knocking my brains out on low branches. It has kept my head intact on many a ride, which no one else mentioned.

RiderWriter said...

Helmet-wearer here, always have been. When I was a kid I wore one because a) it was required by the lesson barns and b) it was "the look" for English H/J riders. Lord knows that's about all those childhood ones were good for, too, as they were nothing more than velvet-covered plastic with a stretched out elastic chin strap. Guess they were better than nothing but thank goodness I never had to find out! I never really thought about my hard hats, I just automatically wore one. I won an over-fences 4-H class one time when the people with better rounds had forgotten to put their chin straps on, but I didn't.

When I got back to riding in my 20s, and then again in my late 30s, I found I was suddenly really interested in protecting my head. And, that helmets were now a fashion statement! No more "basic black." Nope, now you can spend anywhere from $30 to $600+ on a brain bucket, but if you're an A-showing H/J rider, you'd better have the latest "in thing" or you're gonna look out of place.

Riding is dangerous enough. I'm more than willing to put up with hat head in order to give myself an extra dose of safety, if only because I'm sure my family would rather have me unbrain-damaged. Next on my list is a body protector!

Funder said...

I wasn't a helmet wearer til my friends bullied me into it, but now that I'm involved in endurance riding it's much easier to keep the habit up. American endurance riders are very pro-helmet; probably 90% of riders at an event are wearing them.

The last time I didn't wear a helmet was a very cold, snowy, windy start at a spring endurance ride. My tack was all frozen together, my horse's water bucket was frozen, and I was frozen. I decided I'd rather wear two wooly hats and die warmer in a fall than wear my helmet and die of hypothermia. ;) When I warmed up, I did put it back on!

And yes, I've had the terrifying fall for no reason. Last summer I was cantering Dixie down a lovely flat hard sand road and she just took a stumble. I went off her shoulder (and whacked my helmet pretty good!) and she flipped. Very scary.