In horse heaven, one can only be in so many places at once. On Saturday I passed on the final day of the George Morris Training Session in order to attend the 2011 Riders4Helmets Helmet Safety Symposium. I suspect that George will forgive me.
This week a friend told me that she found it a little hard to believe that there even needs to be such a symposium. After all, wearing a helmet is common sense, right?
We-ell, yes, to some. But the need for a serious meeting of the minds about this issue was abundantly clear as I walked through the WEF showgrounds on the way to the symposium. For every helmeted head on a horse, another trotted by decorated with some other accessory. Shiny sunglasses, for instance. Long ponytails bouncing in the breeze, or baseball caps.
Which is all well and good, until that head hits the ground and suffers an injury that no pair of sunglasses will prevent.
As Courtney King-Dye proved last year, accidents can and do happen. (A quick aside, I interviewed Courtney recently for a Sidelines article that will be out in just a few weeks. I wanted to catch up with her almost one year into the recovery from her near fatal-fall. Don’t miss the article – Courtney told me about her plans to return to competition and how her feeling toward helmets has changed.) Courtney’s accident turned out to be the catalyst for a major shift in perception that begun in the dressage world and has spread to other disciplines. Did anyone see the cover of Practical Horseman this month? Two or even one year ago, a rider as high profile as Steffen Peters wouldn’t have been seen in a helmet, much less featured on a national magazine cover wearing one. Also from Courtney’s fall came the organization Riders4Helmets, which was co-founded by two riders in order to raise funds for Courtney’s medical care and spread awareness about helmet use.
The Riders4Helmets Helmets Safety Symposium was presented By SUCCEED and sponsored by USEF, Troxel, Charles Owen, GPA, Samshield and Tipperary. The leadership power in the room was impressive – David O’Connor, USEF CEO John Long, Sally and Sarah Ike. Carol Lavell of the United States Dressage Federation. Dr. Craig Ferrell, M.D of the United States Equestrian Team and Chair of the FEI Medical Council. US Eventing Association and Professional Riders Organization representatives. Dr. Debbie Stanitski, President of the Equine Medical Safety Association (and a brain-trauma survivor.) Trainer Jane Savoie.
Anne Kursinski and Beezie Madden made appearances. Four-star eventer Allison Springer and Pan American dressage rider Lauren Sammis both attended the symposium from start to finish.
Even more impressive than the representatives from the Olympic disciplines, was that they were joined by leaders from the United States Polo Association and The Jockey Club. Racing and polo are not usually involved in USEF events, but their presence showed that this is truly a universal issue.
A lot of ground was covered. Dr. Allen Sills gave two presentations on concussions and their causes, treatments and preventions. We learned about the biomechanics of a fall, presented in detail by Dave Helstead of the Biomechanics Impact Research Lab at the University of Tennessee. Dave does most of his research on football players, and is a technical advisor to the NFL.
SEI and ASTM certifications, innovative helmet materials and designs, the USEF’s history of helmet rules, current helmet rule change proposals and recommendations in the USEA, USEF and FEI. . . I could go on.
But the bottom line to all of this was that every rider on every horse, everywhere, is safer when wearing a helmet. And to get everyone wearing helmets, each discipline must change their ways and create enforceable helmet rules.
Which takes time, of course. But the brainpower gathered in the room is determined to create and pass helmet use rules.
“I think that if we made a rule where everyone had to wear a helmet all the time, everyone would start to want to wear it all the time,” said Beezie Madden.
Beezie, of course, is right, and told the symposium about how it felt to be one of the first three show jumpers in North America to wear a GPA. At the time, the brushed suede helmet with the “skunk stripe” was an oddity. But even though she said felt like a “martian” at first, and attracted a lot of stares, she pointed out that it wasn’t long before everyone was wearing a GPA.
And why? Because Beezie is an idol, a multiple gold-medal winner and a rider that thousands around the country look up to and emulate. Seeing Beezie and other top riders like her who always wear their helmet while mounted carries almost as much power as a rule change.
If every single top rider began wearing their helmet at all times, I believe that the ripple-down effect would be monumental. If an internationally recognized showgrounds like WEF was subject to a rule from the sport’s governing body requiring all mounted riders to wear a helmet, change would be immediate.
There’s more to say on this subject, but for now I’ll leave you with a few more gems, taken surreptitiously on the WEF showgrounds today. The identities of these riders are unknown. . . but if you know one of them, give them a piece of advice. Your baseball cap and ponytail do not make you look cool. You actually look like a fool up there.