This week was ordinary in the horse world. We love horses, who have the quickest response time of any domestic animal. We love horses, who are prey animals with senses much more acute than ours and an instinct to spook, or bolt and run when frightened or alarmed.
There were no freak accidents this week, but naturally, someone got kicked in the head doing groundwork. It’s no surprise that someone had a wreck at the mounting block and someone else landed on a rock on the trail. Of course, someone’s horse tripped and fell; that’s what happened to Courtney. And a fair number of good horses predictably came apart, something they’d never done in their whole life. Someone got hurt on their first ride and someone got a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) who’d been riding all their life. Someone is lucky to be alive and someone didn’t make it. And some little girl is wearing her purple helmet like a crown because it’s part of her horse outfit. It means she’s special and gets to ride.
Just like usual, no matter what story we tell ourselves, horses remain horses. Never under our control.
Awareness about helmet safety has grown over the years but also left a rift among riders. Some proudly say, “Every horse, every ride” and some defiantly refuse under any circumstances. Both sides take jibes at the other, while our national attention has focused on concerns about repetitive concussions in contact sports such as football and soccer. A study released by the journal Neurological Focus found most traumatic brain injuries involve horseback riding (45.2%) compared to contact sports (20.2%). Yikes, who are we kidding?
Riding is undeniably dangerous. But it’s in our blood, so passionate riders do the best they can for their horses, good training and the best care we can manage, but part of that is protecting ourselves, too.
Helmets save lives. It’s undeniable. That’s the message of the tenth annual riders4helmets International Helmet Awareness Day, the weekend of Sept. 14th and 15th. I’ve written along every year. I hope to appeal to a rider’s common sense. I try to stay positive as I warn about worst-case scenarios that are more common than we think. Even against undeniable research, some of us just won’t wear a helmet, not for our family or our horses or even for ourselves, so we can stay in the saddle as long as possible. I’ve heard every excuse from how uncomfortable helmets are (not anymore, technology has evolved dramatically) to my favorite, that the rider is too old to change (while holding a cell phone.) I wonder if you’d traveled and met the wide circle of riders I have, if you’d understand why my heart catches in my throat when I see a rider with a bare head.
I used to feel like I was failing, only preaching to the choir. Each year the reader’s comments told stories of courage and resilience, of helmets giving riders a greater chance to ride another day. I thought I was only reaching people who already agreed, but the problem I had in thinking that is the same problem people who don’t use helmets have: limited vision. I was missing the big picture. People don’t change from being called out or lectured to, or even asked by loved ones.
True change of any kind comes from those living the example. Science has proven that kind methods of horse training are more effective than old-school domination methods, but it takes seeing willing, confident horses working well to demonstrate its value. In the same way, when committed helmet-wearers put one on every ride with a smile, the world changes a little bit. When we strap a helmet on to load a horse as well as jump a jump, it’s an affirmation. When trainers wear them and ask their riders to join, it’s a culture. When parents wear helmets with their kids, the future improves because a physical example will always be greater than words.
Helmets are something that the U.S. is behind on. I often hear that the minority helmet-wearing riders get teased. I notice football players don’t get ridicule for their helmets, and horses make linebackers look puny, but here they are, grilling you. It’s a good day, smile at those bullies. It’s a backward compliment; if you weren’t on the right side, it wouldn’t happen. Besides, smiling makes them nervous.
Here’s to those horse people changing the world every day! Adult women in “horse-crazy” purple helmets and men who pull off a ball cap and strap on a helmet; bike, motorcycle, or horse. Here’s to the riders with a dorky sun visor strapped onto their helmet, fighting two issues at once. Here’s to driving home in your helmet because you forgot. Or helmet hair in the grocery store, because there are things more important, and besides, you still have your boots on. Here’s to taking your “hobby” seriously and doing the best in every way. Horses read that self-confidence and commitment, and give it back double.
Here’s to you, proudly wearing a helmet and celebrating your best life. If you have someone to thank for that, today is the day to do it. And if it was your idea, congrats on being a self-starter. Most of all, know the positive impact you are having in the world, the same ordinary horse world, by putting that helmet on, every horse, every ride. Stand tall in the credit you deserve. You are a hero.
Statistics: 60% of riding fatalities occur from head injuries. The number of rider deaths per year due to head injury is 60 (compared with 8 for football.) 45% of all TBIs (traumatic brain injuries) are horse related. Approximately 20% of accidents which result in head injury happen while the person is on the ground. As common for professionals as amateurs, 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 (24″ is enough), as well as the speed at which you’re traveling. Even a fall from a standing horse can be catastrophic.
If you have a hard impact blow while wearing your helmet, immediately replace it. There may be damage not visible to the eye. Replacing your helmet every four to five years is recommended.
Maybe it’s time to treat yourself to a new helmet, on sale at a 2019 participating retailer at https://bit.ly/2xM4EYJ
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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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.