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July 16, 2010 -- The devastating head injury suffered by dressage Olympian Courtney King-Dye in a terrible fall last March has generated a dramatic reaction that could well end in a mandatory protective riding helmet requirement for her discipline at least in the United States--and perhaps elsewhere as well.
Courtney was far from the first person riding without a helmet to suffer a horrific head injury, but what happened to her captured people's attention, immediately and convincingly. Was it the fact that her rise to the top had been well-documented and followed eagerly over recent years by the public? Or that someone so young, attractive and athletic could be laid low in an instant. And, as a corollary, if it happened to her, it could happen to anyone?
An object lesson from Courtney's fall is how it affected her family and friends, whose support has been vital to her recovery (read this exclusive interview with Courtney). Waiting through the weeks she was in a coma, when they didn't know her fate, took a toll that was greater on them than it was on her worried fans. The increased recognition that a head injury affects far more than one person has convinced some to put on a helmet simply because they're concerned about those around them, even if they're cavalier about themselves.
The first National Helmet Awareness Day July 10 was a huge success. Presented by the new riders4helmets organization backed by one of Courtney's sponsors, SUCCEED, it drew attention to the need to wear a helmet with a gathering at the Kentucky Horse Park that included a variety of testimonials and demonstrations.
They included how a cantaloupe fared when dropped from a height of 13 feet (equivalent to a rider mounted on a horse) while wearing a helmet (not a dent) and not wearing a helmet (ouch!). One non-helmet-wearing cantaloupe smashed completely and a second broke open. More than 200 retailers offered discounts on protective headgear around the country that day, and Lyndsey White, co-founder of riders4helmets, said queries came from several foreign countries about starting a similar initiative.
Rule Change Discussions
Meanwhile, there's been a lot of buzz about the possibility of a mandatory helmet rule for dressage. The FEI (international equestrian federation) came out with a statement from its dressage committee that "strongly" recommends riders wear protective headgear while training and warming up for competition. They continue to have the option of wearing protective headgear in the arena, but some top-level riders fear that doing so will single them out in the eyes of the judges, perhaps indicating that their horses are difficult.
There is a way to solve that, however.
"If everybody wore a helmet, everybody would look the same," said Michael Barisone, a Grand Prix rider and member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation's (USEF) High Performance Dressage Committee.
John Long, the USEF's CEO, noted the concept of requiring dressage riders in this country to wear protective headgear is "really only in the discussion stage at this point. I think it will be a longer process." Unlike the FEI recommendation, however, John believes, "If we're going to do it, it should be in the warm-up areas and during competitions."
But the USEF is far from that point now, and not every Grand Prix rider agrees with Michael's perspective. Many feel the choice should be left up to the individual. "There's lot of tradition that is balanced against safety. I suspect this is not going to happen any time soon," John concluded, "but it's good that we're talking about it, because once the collective equestrian family gets it out on the table, something good will come out of it."
Michael, however, would like to go much further, and in the current climate favorable to helmets that was created by Courtney's accident and insurance considerations, it may be possible to advance such ideas.
"My personal opinion is it should be mandated for all equestrian sport, anytime when mounted, all over the world. You can't bicycle race without a helmet, you can't play hockey without a helmet, you can't play football without a helmet," he pointed out.