Debbie McDonald is Saved by a Helmet

U.S. Dressage star Debbie McDonald is the latest high-profile rider to suffer an unexpected and potentially life threatening fall from her horse, but in Debbie's case, she was saved by her helmet, which protected her from more extensive injuries.
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U.S. Dressage star Debbie McDonald is the latest high-profile rider to suffer an unexpected and potentially life threatening fall from her horse, but in Debbie's case, she was saved by her helmet, which protected her from more extensive injuries.

The scenario is becoming frighteningly familiar: A U.S. dressage star has a horrific fall and is taken away by ambulance. The 2010 accidents of Courtney King-Dye and Guenter Seidel led to long hospital stays, but Debbie McDonald, Courtney's 2008 Olympic teammate, was far luckier last week.

In the days when she was competing Brentina, Debbie McDonald never would have dreamed of wearing a helmet. Now, she wouldn't dream of wearing anything else. | Photo ? Nancy Jaffer

In the days when she was competing Brentina, Debbie McDonald never would have dreamed of wearing a helmet. Now, she wouldn't dream of wearing anything else. | Photo ? Nancy Jaffer

Although she was flung into the ground when a client's 6-year-old had a bucking fit, she was saved by her Charles Owen helmet.

"I don't know what provoked it,'' she said of her mount's behavior at her winter training base in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

"I'd been riding him for 15 minutes at least and all of a sudden, he threw his head up in the air and threw his head down like a bronc and started bucking really, really hard.

"I knew I was coming off and I kept thinking about Courtney and Guenter and wondered if I was going to be okay. That was the last I remembered. When I came to, I heard the ambulance coming up."

Eyewitnesses later told Debbie "he shot you 30 feet like an arrow into the ground." Debbie went off head-first and didn't have time to raise her arms for protection.

A look at her helmet showed the severity of the fall; the brim was covered not with footing, but with the base of the ring. The interior shell of the helmet had shifted as it protected Debbie's head.

She was treated and released at the hospital after doctors determined her brain wasn't bleeding. But she still gets headaches and her lip is split, with a flap of skin that separated. She has a black eye, lacerations and a bruise on her forehead, as well as having suffered a concussion and whiplash.

She fared far better than Courtney and Guenter, despite the severity of her fall. Courtney, her 2008 Olympic teammate, was riding without a helmet last March when her mount tangled his legs and she hit the ground. She is still in rehab and working on regaining her speech and motor skills, though she is back in the saddle in a therapeutic riding program.

Guenter, Debbie's 2004 Olympic teammate, was saved from even more serious injury by his helmet when U2, his regular ride, began bucking while they were training in Germany. He hit the ground hard and broke his pelvis, but his head, protected by the helmet, was okay. The accident meant Guenter missed the trials for the World Equestrian Games. He got back to riding late last year.

"Until Courtney, I never rode with a helmet," Debbie recalled.

Debbie always wore a baseball cap for training and casual rides on Brentina during the heyday of her career. | Photo ? Nancy Jaffer

Debbie always wore a baseball cap for training and casual rides on Brentina during the heyday of her career. | Photo ? Nancy Jaffer

Now she has made it a rule that all of her students must wear one too, not only for lessons, but also in the show ring.

"People worried about how their hair is going to look with a helmet, they have to get over that. The sport isn't about what's on your head," said the Olympic and WEG medalist, now retired from competition.

"If everyone wore a helmet, you wouldn't think twice about it and it would just be the way it is. People are making it such a big deal when in reality it's just a matter of being smart," she commented.

"I can't believe for all those years I was so lucky and never wore a helmet and didn't have a severe accident. Especially as you start to get a little older and you hit your head like I did, it changes your perspective. When you see that helmet , you'd take a look at it and go, `Oh my God' that it took that much concussion away from my head."

Her husband, Bob, was in northern California and flew down to spend the night with her after the accident. Her protege, Adrienne Lyle, is helping her and working the horses as Debbie continues to improve.

Despite her aches and pains, Debbie is focusing outward in her belief that everyone in her discipline should wear protective headgear.

"I'm definitely on a little journey to try and get the word out, because I never was a believer. But because of Courtney's injury, I said `Why not start wearing it?'" She said while she began wearing the helmet "in honor of Courtney and Guenter," after she started she said, "This isn't so bad, and it's a smart way to go. You put on your boots and you put on your helmet." For people who are worried about "the look," she has one word: "stupidity." The look, she noted, "isn't going to save you."

Debbie is the latest high-profile equestrian to get on the helmet bandwagon. The pro-helmet movement continues to gain strength in the wake of a Florida symposium last month put together by the Riders4Helmets group formed after Courtney's accident. It was a prelude to the U.S. Equestrian Federation's passage of mandatory helmet rules for eventing, requiring at national competitions that everyone wear a helmet at all times on the grounds, and dressage. That rule requires everyone under 18 to wear a helmet, in both national and international competition in this country, and everyone over 18 to wear a helmet in national classes and even in Prix St. Georges, if they're riding a horse also entered at Fourth Level.

"Because there was a groundswell coming from within the membership, we said, `Now is the time to do it,''' USEF President David O'Connor, an Olympic eventing individual gold medalist, explained about the new rules.

He feels very strongly that "from the federation's point of view, we will support everything we can do to make helmets...mandatory when you're sitting on a horse at a horse show."

In 2005, Debbie donned a helmet for a photo session for her book,

In 2005, Debbie donned a helmet for a photo session for her book,

He points out, "We're at a time in the road where the hard decision has to be made...We as a sport are still defending something that is undefendable. If you have the technology, you have to use it. We need to change the rules. It's going to happen."

Following passage of the dressage and eventing rules, the USEF announced it will discuss helmets for dressage riders competing in breed competitions with Arabians, Friesians, Andalusians and Morgans.

Will we ever see helmets in western riding? Don't forget that bull riders often wear helmets far less-glamorous looking than the hunter/jumper/eventing helmets.

David thinks use of helmets for skiing, snowboarding and hockey can influence equestrians who aren't covered by protective headgear regulations at this point.

"I don't see how we as a sport can stand outside and say, `We're not like that.' I think that is what will happen in the long term,'' he commented, though he's not putting a date on the moment when everyone participating in USEF shows has to wear protective headgear.

"As people get more educated about concussions, they'll make the decision to go forward," he believes.

"We've asked the breed organizations to talk about it.''

While helmets would be "a huge cultural shift" for western riders, he sees the movement in that direction starting with young people, and including everyone from that point eventually.

"It might take a little bit longer, but I can predict people will get there,'' he commented.