Helmet Saves Another Top Rider

A safety helmet once again proves its value in a riding accident.
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A safety helmet once again proves its value in a riding accident.

Silva Martin’s serious head injury last week brings to mind again all the horrors that friends and admirers of U.S. Olympic dressage rider Courtney King Dye experienced four years ago. It appears now that Silva will recover completely. And Courtney broadcast the wonderful news last month that she had given birth to her first child, despite the many physical challenges she still faces.

Silva’s a German-born dressage rider, married to Australian eventer Boyd Martin, and they’re now both naturalized American citizens and USEF riders. The culture in Europe has not been to wear safety helmets in day-to-day riding, although Silva has stated that after Courtney’s injury she started wearing a safety helmet full-time. Indeed, her helmet likely saved her life and certainly prevented even more serious injuries.

Likewise, two other U.S. Olympic dressage riders have credited helmets from saving them from devastating injury. Debbie McDonald augured into the ground headfirst in 2011 and recovered, while Gunter Seidel broke his pelvis when he was suddenly bucked off but didn’t suffer serious head trauma in 2010.

I remember going horse shopping in Germany in the late ‘90s. Since I wanted to travel light, I wore paddock boots on the plane and took half chaps instead of full boots in my carry-on bag. My one concession to bulk was my safety helmet, even though at that time I didn’t always wear a helmet. But, I was planning to test-ride green-broke 3-year-olds, so I figured the helmet was a good plan.

I thought my half chaps might be considered a little weird, since they weren’t yet all that common in the U.S. But, to my surprise, I saw half chaps all over the place. It was my helmet that got the occasional odd glance. Even riding babies and jumping high jumps, the Germans were mostly bare-headed, and that practice still continues to a certain extent. In the meantime, due mostly to publicity from Courtney’s accident, the U.S. last year became the second country in the world (after Canada) to mandate helmets in dressage shows run by national federation rules.

What you do at a show and what you do at home, of course, are two different things. My own helmet epiphany came later in 2010 as I was packing for my first FEI-level show in several years. I had purchased a new top hat for the occasion, but at the last moment I left it behind and took my regular safety helmet. I just admitted to myself that a show was going to be a more likely environment for sudden unauthorized acrobatics than my own back yard.

I grew up riding horses without a helmet. I rode a bike to school every day without a helmet, and I roller skated up and down my street without a helmet. Folks in my age bracket express wonder all the time that we somehow survived childhood without helmets, knee pads and even car seatbelts. But, maybe there is a story to be told there that we really have no way to tell. We don’t have any figures on head-trauma injuries from that period. Certainly, Pony Club statistics have shown that traumatic head injuries and deaths have declined steeply in riding disciplines where safety helmets have been mandated.

I am a huge fan of Silva Martin and her lovely mare Rosa Cha W, who is her current team candidate (and yes, I have a soft spot for dark bay mares). I am looking forward to seeing both of them competing again together as soon as possible.

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