A Helmet Rule That Will Always Make Sense

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In 1978 American eventers watched in horror during the show jumping finale of the World Three-Day Event Championships, at the Kentucky Horse Park, as American rider Caroline Treviranus flipped over her horse's head and her helmet flew off her own head. Caroline hit the ground head first, and then a rail from the jump she?d failed to negotiate smashed into the back of her head. Caroline was in a coma for months, and it would be years before she was able to ride again?never again at the international level?and even longer before she?d enjoy a family. But it only took the leaders of eventing a few months to convince their members that Caroline?s plight was reason to require every competitor to wear a helmet secured by a harness in show jumping, just as on the cross-country course. Just over a decade later, eventing?s rules evolved to require riders to wear the relatively new ASTM/SEI-approved helmets in both jumping phases. Similarly when, a year ago, Olympic dressage rider Courtney King Dye fell with a young horse while schooling at home and was left in a coma, dressage riders began to re-evaluate their disdain for approved safety helmets. Courtney?s head injury cast nearly irrefutable doubt on many dressage riders? claim, ?We're only riding on the flat; we don't need a helmet.? Unfortunately for Courtney, her accident all too clearly demonstrated to a doubtful audience that horses can fall down or misbehave at almost any time, in almost any place. And so last weekend, at the U.S. Equestrian Federation?s annual convention, the directors passed rule that required eventing and dressage competitors to wear ASTM/SEI-approved helmetsat all times when on the show grounds, effective immediately. And they did it with only very minor protest, from anyone. The one major caveat to this rule results from the fact that many events and dressage shows offer USEF-sanctioned and FEI-sanctioned divisions at the same time. FEI rules do not require ASTM/SEI-approved helmets, and FEI rules trump USEF rules, so riders competing in FEI-sanctioned divisions are, therefore, exempt, both warming up and competing. But riders under 18 must comply with this rule, no matter what level they're riding. This presents a challenge to warm-up stewards, but it's probably going to be solved by putting colored dots on horses? numbers to indicate they're FEI competitors or by giving FEI horses a special numbering sequence (such as 1 to 100 or 500 and above). Not surprisingly, the new rule caused almost no controversy among eventers, who for about 20 years have had to wear ASTM/SEI helmets to jump. What was pleasantly surprising was how little opposition there was among dressage riders, who have little history of riding with helmets and for whom ?the look? is so important. I suspect it's testimony to the fact that several prominent FEI-level riders started showing with safety helmets last year as a result of Courtney?s condition, a move that said, ?We can look good and be safer too.? Quite obviously, these new helmet requirements can't make people wear safety helmets when riding at home, where most serious falls and injuries actually occur. As you may recall, I'm living testimony to this, and I'm sure my Tipperary schooling helmet saved my life (or at least prevented me from being a vegetable) last May, when I broke my right orbital bone and four ribs. But I think we can now see the day when riders will simply reflexively put on their ASTM/SEI-certified helmets when they ride?because that's all they've ever known. The U.S. Pony Clubs led the way in requiring them almost 25 years ago, and now they're fully required in dressage, eventing, show hunters and national-level show jumping. I know that many endurance riders wear them too, as do some riders in Western events. For me, this new rule is simply conformation of what I've been doing all my life. I grew up the son of an orthopedic surgeon, who was determined to prevent his children from having the head injuries he treated, and I joined the Spring Valley Hounds Pony Club (N.J.) when I was 10. Thus, I was indoctrinated from the beginning with my father?s and Pony Club?s helmet philosophy. I've always worn a safety helmet (even before ASTM/SEI came along) while riding at home and foxhunting, as well as while competing. Until four years ago, I did don a standard hunt cap or a top hat for the dressage phase, but as I grew older and our business revolved around taking young horses to their first competition, I changed to wearing an ASTM/SEI helmet for dressage too. (I've even worn a crash vest in dressage with two of my own young horses the first time I showed them. In fact, I just did it two weeks ago.) I'm aiming my two preliminary horses, Sisko and Alba, for the preliminary three-day event at Galway Downs (Calif.) this November, where I'll be able to wear my elegant tailcoat in dressage for the first time since 2006, and I'd be lying if I were to claim I won?t be disappointed not to wear the top hat that goes with it, which cost me $250 and I've worn exactly twice. But the Charles Owen helmet I wear in dressage is quite attractive, and maybe I might want to wear it at Galway Downs anyway, as Sisko is one of the two horses I once wore a crash vest in dressage with! Caroline and Courtney made us aware of the fragility of our heads by giving up a huge part of their lives, and we owe a debt of thanks to them.