Horse Journal Commentary: Top Hat Turbulence

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Courtney Dye’s injury in March, which left her in a coma, has renewed the discussion about whether approved helmets should be mandated at USEF-approved dressage shows.

Dye was schooling at a Florida farm when the horse tripped and fell. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. The idea that an Olympic rider could be hurt so seriously in so innocuous a circumstance sent chills through the dressage community.

Approved helmets aren’t required at USEF dressage shows, but they’re used by many riders below the FEI levels. The usual headgear at the FEI levels is a top hat to go with the required tail coat, although both USEF and FEI rules specify that an approved helmet is allowed.

That beautiful top hat is also a symbol of achievement, the dressage equivalent of ”winning your spurs,” and most developing riders eagerly await the day when they feel they’ve earned the right to wear it.

Many dressage riders school at home in a helmet, especially when riding green horses, although upper-level riders are less likely to do so routinely, partially due to exposure to Europeans, who all wear safety helmets much less often than do U.S. riders, even when jumping.

There’s also a suspicion that dressage judges somehow think less of a rider wearing a safety helmet in an FEI-level test, as if this indicates the horse might be dangerous. As a dressage judge myself, I know we’re much too busy evaluating the performance to read between the lines of a fashion choice.

There’s now some discussion of a USEF rule change to require safety helmets during dressage warm-up at shows, but it’s problematic to accept this for just one non-jumping discipline. Does it make sense to require safety helmets in dressage but not in Western pleasure'

What about away from shows' Currently, only two states have laws regarding equestrian helmets: New York for ages under 14 and Florida for ages under 16 on ”public property.” Ontario, Canada, requires helmets for riders under 18, except at shows. We aren’t going to see wide-spread helmet laws for riding in non-public settings any time soon. On the other hand, advocating helmets by such groups as the U.S. Pony Clubs has a positive impact.

The last time I showed FEI-level dressage????wearing a top hat????was a decade ago. My mare is now ready for FEI classes, and last year I bought myself a shiny new top hat, even though I always school in a safety helmet. Over the winter, I’ve slowly convinced myself that this is an inherent contradiction. I may just treat myself to a plush new velvet safety helmet to wear instead.

Margaret Freeman
Associate Editor