As with many equestrians, my love affair with horses began at an extremely young age. Growing up, I took every opportunity I could to ride and simply be around horses. I was the stereotypical horse-obsessed little girl. And, like many adult amateur riders, I never grew out of that so-called “phase.”
I rode mostly Western in those days, and back then I probably never gave my own safety a second thought. Undoubtedly, I realized that horses were quite large and capable of being dangerous, and I had experienced my fair share of falls and close calls to prove it. Most notably, I recall being rushed to the ER after a young horse I was riding bucked me off at speed in an open field so that I fell face-first onto the ground. I wound up with a severe concussion, hysterical parents and a CT scan of my brain. There were no lasting effects that I am aware of. I was one of the lucky ones.
I was young and fearless, to an extent, so I never really questioned the overall lack of helmet use. In fact, the only time I was ever required to wear a helmet in my youth was when I attended a local horse camp.
Older and, arguably, wiser
Fast-forward to present day, when I would call myself a true helmet advocate. Maybe it’s because I ride English now, because the barn I ride at requires helmet usage or because I’m older and have a heightened sense of my own fragility. Perhaps it simply boils down to being better-educated. Either way, I can honestly say I feel far more confident about my personal safety each time I mount up, knowing I have the proper protection for the most precious part of my body.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), horseback riding is the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) among sports-related recreational activities (TBIs occur when an external force injures the brain). The CDC also reports that an estimated 1.7 million Americans sustain a TBI each year. A brain injury can happen to anyone at any given time; it does not discriminate. And one brain injury is all it takes to potentially cause permanent damage to your reflexes and attention, among other serious issues.
Experience won’t protect you
Only an estimated 20 percent of equestrians wear protective headgear every time they ride. Excuses run the gamut, from concerns about messing up riders’ hair to being very experienced and therefore having no need for a helmet. I don’t know about you, but I’m far more concerned with messing up my brain than my hair. Additionally, more experience in the saddle directly correlates to an increased likelihood of suffering from a riding-related injury. Top-level professional riders (Silva Martin and Courtney King-Dye are probably the most notable recent examples) have suffered TBIs from horse-related accidents. Ultimately, the level of rider has nothing to do with the risk when it comes to these types of injuries. Risk is directly tied to cumulative riding time rather than level of expertise.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are currently 1 billion people living on Earth who have some type of brain injury. Millions live with lasting physical and/or emotional effects. Lifetime costs for an acute head injury are in the multi-million-dollar range, and the injured party is not the only one impacted. Families are faced with an uphill climb to aid in rehabilitation and often feel they’ve lost the person they once knew. The effects are truly devastating.
Horses: predictably unpredictable
Should we all just throw in the towel on riding? After all, it’s been proven time and again that horseback riding is one of the most dangerous sports out there. However, I certainly wouldn’t suggest giving up something that so many of us are so deeply passionate about. I think we are all well-aware of the inherent risks associated with equestrian sport. Despite this, I think we can all benefit from taking at least some general precautions:
- Wear an American Society for Testing and Materials/Safety Equipment Institute (ASTM/SEI) Certified helmet. These can be purchased for as little as USD$25.
- Make sure your helmet fits properly! This is very important, as an ill-fitting helmet will not properly protect your head in a fall. The brim should sit about an inch above your eyebrows and be level across. You should feel even pressure around your head. The chin strap should be tight but comfortable.
- Do not wear helmets made for other sports. Riding helmets are made specifically to withstand a fall from a considerable height or a blow from a hoof.
- Always replace your helmet after a fall, even if you don’t see any visible damage. It will not be as effective at protecting you in future if it has sustained a fall.
- Replace your helmet at least every five years (sooner if you ride often). Much like your favorite pair of riding breeches, your helmet will get worn out with prolonged use.
Can TBIs happen even when you are wearing a helmet? Certainly. Grand Prix dressage rider Silva Martin is living proof. She suffered a brain bleed in March of 2014 after the horse she was riding tripped, causing her to hit her head on his neck before falling to the ground. Nonetheless, she credits her helmet with saving her life that day, and she has now become an outspoken advocate of helmet use.
Consider this: The average riding horse weighs 1,100 pounds and can travel at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. Horses are flight animals, which means they can — and almost certainly will — spook at trivial things. Even the calmest, most “bomb-proof” of horses have their moments of insecurity. It comes naturally. And when you consider that a rider is perched at a substantial distance from the ground when in the saddle, it is unsurprising that head injuries are so common.
But I believe we can do something about that. Let’s all “mind our melons,” wear our helmets every time we ride and do our part to make TBIs in equestrian sport a far smaller statistic.