Yes. I’ve been writing in support of helmet use since the start. I expect I’ll go on haranguing about helmets as long as I continue to see photos of tiny kids standing on the backs of horses with no adults in the frame. And toddlers perched on fenceposts surrounded by horses who are a bit close. The one that stays with me the most was the mom who put a very small child on a horse while holding the phone, videoing. The horse immediately spooked and bounced, sending the child straight up, turning end over end in the air, until the mom caught the child upside down in the last second before crashing, while managing to stay on screen. I file these images alongside the heartfelt pleas for prayers for kids plugged into hospital machines with bandaged heads. The photos of little girls on a horse next to a list of her injuries and a link to the GoFundMe page. When did we start using fragile little lives as crash test dummies?
I’m embarrassed to say trainers are no better. I was with a client looking at a rehabbed off-the-track thoroughbred, and the trainer’s toddler waddled between the horse’s legs with her spitty fingers in her mouth, cooing. As her trainer-mom pointed out how calm the horse was, I was horrified. The child was in the horse’s blind spot, and he looked uncomfortable. If the mom was that unconcerned with her own child, what care would she put into training a horse?
I’m not a mom, I’m told I should have no opinion. Growing up on a farm in the 50s, families had lots of kids knowing that they’d lose one or two. It was a strange way to admit that kids were expendable, there were always accidents and death in farming. Still, I was popped on a very tall horse when they needed me out of the way. I was lucky but I knew kids who weren’t. We absolutely know the long-term damage done by concussion. I would hope we value children more now, but I don’t see much proof.
I guess I’ll keep going on about helmets as long as my feelings get hurt, like when I see clients not using a helmet on their Facebook page when they did at a clinic. Yes, their choice, but still my disappointment. How did common sense become taken as a sign of weakness instead of strength? Like so many things, we shame those who care.
It’s not just clients, but also friends who are trainers, equine pros, and longtime horse people who I respect, and who absolutely know better. Should I bite my tongue as a professional courtesy, knowing that their leadership would save lives? Some wear helmets with an English saddle but a hat if the saddle has a horn, so I guess they think the danger is tack related. Have they not considered their power to be a positive role model? I know, I’m a dinosaur to hope for it.
Every year there is more research on concussions, the science is undeniable. And if you know horses at all, you know there is no such thing as bombproof. It’s common sense that we’d… Well, there I go, thinking it’s possible to reason with people, even the intelligent ones. We’re stubborn creatures who do what we like with horses and don’t think an injury will happen to us. Maybe so. In some ways, it doesn’t happen to us; it happens to our loved ones, and a circle of lives is changed. But still, each side holds its ground, stubborn as a post. Horses will be the first to say that humans are not the most advanced species when it comes to survival.
Most long-timers shake their heads and make an excuse. They say they’re too old and change is hard. They manage to upgrade to a cell phone but there is no arguing. I miss the time when doing the right thing was its own reward. When we looked out for ourselves and those coming up after us. Dinosaur again.
Cowboy hats are a tradition, they say. Finally, something I understand. Top hats are a tradition in dressage. Before cowboys existed, top hats were an essential part of the costume of a classical rider. Our dress code is worn with respect for our history and to honor our horses. Sound familiar? Top hats may have a stuffy elite look, but we believe they highlight the nobility of the horse. One can’t just go to the local discount store and buy one. In the last decades, top hats were accorded to a dressage rider of a certain level of skill; you must earn the right to wear one.
Just when I was getting depressed on the whole helmet conversation, the FEI did a crazy thing.
FEI stands for Fédération Equestre Internationale, the international governing body for equestrian sports, headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, and founded in 1921. One hundred years old and they don’t have a reputation for being on the cutting edge. Sure, there were years when the most brutalized horses won, and it seemed that complaining about the FEI became an Olympic sport as well. Some of us stood up and made our voices heard beyond social media. Women own the vast majority of horses and we support the industry; we may not be the richest, but we are definitely the loudest. Some of us think the FEI moves like an old campaigner, but this has been a great year.
For 2021, the FEI ruled unanimously to ban the shaving or clipping of sensory hairs. It was a habit done by rote, but no more. Whiskers on muzzles win! Horses win!
FEI judges set the tone for judging worldwide and at the recent Olympics, they rewarded Dressage horses and riders who danced with lightness and harmony in balanced gaits. Moving away from some of the past tension and force has taken time, but I believe the corner is firmly turned. Is it perfect? No, but just like training horses, we should cheer the FEI’s effort in hopes of setting a lasting affirmative trend. May we keep the good traditions and continue to do better.
Best of all, the FEI adopted a Protective Headgear Requirement for All Riders as of 2021 unanimously. Top hats, our unique expression, are no longer allowed. None were seen in Tokyo. For some, it’s a bitter pill, but the message is that we care more for the living. We care about our future and I’m proud of this momentous decision. Does it ruin the shadbelly and tall boot fashion? Who cares about fashion? We are better than our costumes. I see more change on the horizon, but today is a day to take stock and celebrate this step.
It took us a hundred years, but proud as can be, we’re right there with all well-loved children, doing our best for the horses by taking care of ourselves. Hooray for the future!
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Join us in The Barn. Subscribe to our online training group with training videos, interactive sharing, audio blogs, live-chats with Anna, and the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.
Ongoing courses in Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, Fundamentals of Authentic Dressage, and Back in the Saddle: a Comeback Conversation, as well as virtual clinics, are taught at The Barn School, where I also host our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.
Visit annablake.com to find over a thousand archived blogs, purchase signed books, schedule a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses.
Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.