You’re standing in a tennis court just behind the baseline, being mildly uncomfortable in your tennis togs because the glare off your legs, like any good horsewoman’s, is near blinding. Right about then, a bullet whizzes by your ear. You know it was a tennis ball, point to the server. Taking a few strides on the baseline to the other service court, this time you lean forward and squint your eyes to avoid the glare and see the other player. Bullet again. In hindsight, why carry the racket if you aren’t going to use it? And let’s be honest, it isn’t like you’re trying to return Serena’s serve (129mph). Try again, you see your opponent’s service motion, you actually know when it’s coming, so just …another bullet.
Not a fair comparison, you say? Because you’re a rider, not a tennis player well-schooled in tennis ball attacks? You’re right, it isn’t fair, but not for that reason. Tennis is easy and slow. Horses have a reaction time seven times quicker than a human. It’s the quickest reaction time of any domestic animal. That includes border collies; think about that.
The horse’s reflex to perceived danger is so instinctual that it seems instantaneous. Unpredictable, beyond choice, certainly not a question of trust, but a flight response originating in the horse’s nervous system and not open to mental debate. Prey animals are dead if they think twice. I’d use the example of humans flinching from an oncoming punch, but the truth is we usually get hit before we flinch because we are seven times slower than horses.
It isn’t fair. A thousand pounds of muscle and bone, with a lightning-fast response time versus a puny human who’s generally distracted with their own thoughts and good intentions. Not even close. No wonder we get hurt.
Most TBIs (traumatic brain injuries) happen when we’re riding but injuries on the ground are common enough. “Dismounted injuries require hospitalization approximately 42% of the time, while mounted injuries require hospitalization in only 30% of incidents,” according to Brainline.org.
A quick scroll through Facebook and I’m oozing calming signals myself. Are we doing some weird version of a firewalk with horses to prove something? It’s like a reality show where contestants compete to take the most foolish dare. There’s an epidemic of whisker-grabbing, bareback contortions, and laying down next to horses on the ground. Has social media drained us of horse sense? Ignoring your safety is a choice, but can you tell me how this benefits a horse? People might call it a trust exercise, but the horse’s half-closed eye says more than you think.
But mostly, when did we start thinking complacency about horsemanship on the ground was so cool? When did we lose respect for horses?
Putting on my loud-mouth party pooper (equine professional) hat, it’s time to talk about safety. I feel silly knowing this is pointed at adults who aren’t in 4-H or pony club anymore. Instead, we are adults who have others depending on us. Yes, safety is a personal choice, but it has an undeniable ripple effect on those who love us.
Lots of us got inspired (or re-inspired) about safety back in March 2010, by U.S. Olympic dressage rider Courtney King Dye. She fractured her skull and suffered a traumatic brain injury while not wearing a helmet. She sparked a ripple effect helmet awareness movement that has changed the horse world from international FEI competitors to local amateurs.
Courtney King Dye was young, strong, and at the top of her game. What did she do so “wrong” with her horse? Nothing at all, her horse stumbled and fell. Unpredictable with no one to blame.
I can relate. My worst injury came from a horse somewhat-less-athletic-than-Courtney’s who tripped and went down. We were relaxed, trotting on open flat ground. No spook, no rein grab. We both slammed into the ground, one of us partly under the other. I was a bit broken but very lucky. Gravity and weight are forces we can’t deny, regardless of confidence, training, or experience.
Writing about helmets and safety every year, I’ve approached the topic in a range of ways. It feels silly to state common sense facts to adults who, if they answer thoughtfully, sheepishly shrug and say it boils down to ego or inconvenience. Theirs, of course, not their families or caretakers. Other riders who don’t use helmets can be pretty averse about it. Defensiveness never brings out the best in any of us.
I used to think that the old-timers who said they couldn’t change, (as they check for texts on their cell phones,) would eventually age-out and the younger generation would be smarter. Alas, these old-timers are also role models. What we do is always louder than what we say, so kids who started with helmets sometimes see adults without helmets as a sign of maturity.
Meanwhile, the general public is getting more information than they’d like about the danger of repeated concussions. Parents think twice about safety in the sports their kids play. Research bears it out, even as most of us know trainers and friends who are showing sad changes as the years catch up. We are more fragile than we know. Riders4helmets, the organization that formed after Courtney’s accident, is still going strong. This year there’s talk about including all sports helmets, I’m hopeful the movement is growing beyond the equestrian world. Good, because only 20% of equestrians wear protective headgear every time they ride.
Maybe the problem is social media. We see too much, compete to mimic or one-up the last pose, and swap good horsemanship for a photo opp. It’s the tiny kid on perched high up with no hands. My heart catches in my throat every time. Or it’s a famous professional sitting on a horse like it’s a couch. Statistics say riders with 5 or more years of experience are more likely to be injured. Being complacent in the face of inherent danger doesn’t make us look like a horse whisperer, it puts both you and your horse at risk. I believe connection with a horse is most undeniably shown at a distance.
Harping on about helmets is about the least cool thing of all, ranking me up there with hall monitors and crossing guards. And I’m beyond arguing the indefensible, so just a reminder. Please stay safe in the saddle, consider wearing a helmet for those you love, human and equine. Keep a solid awareness on the ground, too. Please don’t get complacent. Horses depend on us to be around as much as we depend on them, but we are smaller. We need armor, at least on our heads.
Horses are considered domesticated, but they remain flight animals forever. No matter how much we love them, just beneath the surface, they will never belong to us entirely. We can’t dominate their instinct, horses will remain horses, glorious and wild, whose natural instinct is a primal force for his survival. That instinct is bigger than his heart, just like physics is bigger than Facebook.
I’ll finish this post with the usual list of important information, in hopes that it might make a difference to the people who want to make a difference…
- Equestrians are 20x more likely to sustain an injury than a motorcycle rider, per hour.
- The number of rider deaths/year due to head injury is 60 (compared with 8 for Football)
- 60% of riding fatalities occur from head injuries.
- The distance at which head injury can occur is 24 inches.
45% of TBI (traumatic brain injuries) are horse related. Riding is considered more dangerous than motorcycling or downhill skiing. Approximately 20% of accidents which result in head injury happen while the person is on the ground. They are just as common in professionals as amateurs.
If you have a hard impact blow while wearing your helmet, immediately replace it. There may be damage to the hat that is not visible to the naked eye. We generally recommend replacing your hat every four to five years.
There is no statistical correlation between skill level and injury likelihood. Head injuries are cumulative. An original head injury can be made much worse by additional concussions. Your injury risk depends on the height of the fall, as well as the speed at which you’re traveling. Even a fall from a standing horse can be catastrophic.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Want more? Join us at The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and so much more. Or go to annablake.com to subscribe for email delivery of this blog, see the Clinic Schedule, or ask a question.
Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.