Following my earlier post on safety in eventing, I’d always planned on a follow up regarding other developments within equestrianism. As I previously mentioned, equestrian sports get attention for the wrong reasons – how unsafe they are – and, within the equestrian community, there can be a laissez faire attitude towards safety. My perception is that this is changing – albeit far too slowly, and I’m not alone.
Riders4Helmets is a campaign aiming to educate equestrians on the benefits of helmets, and picked up my previous blog post, adding it to their website. The site is well worth a look, with brilliant facts regarding the correct fitting and treatment of helmets, as well as statistics regarding usage and accidents.
I grew up learning to ride in the UK alongside my younger sister. As children of non-horsey parents, we were largely left to the care of our riding instructors, but there was one issue our mother was unmoved on: the insistence that we always wear a helmet when riding (this went for bicycles too, and although that’s a separate issue, I still cringe when I see anyone – adult or child – riding a bicycle without a helmet). Mum’s logic is that you only get one head – many other body parts can be easily fixed, but we were taught to treat our helmets with the greatest of care when not wearing them, and that we must put them on and do them up prior to mounting up. It’s the best advice anyone can give.
My equestrian experience has not always been filled with such stellar examples: for a variety of reasons, I’ve been through a lot of riding instructors during over 20 years in the saddle, and some of them have a shocking attitude towards safety. Admittedly, I haven’t seen all of them ride, and I certainly won’t be naming names, but there is one in particular who sticks in my mind. This instructor competed semi-professionally, and in terms of my improvement when taught by this person, I cannot complain. But the example they set was terrible: the only times I saw this person wear a helmet when riding were when they were out on a hack or at competitions. They schooled their horses for hours a day at home – on the flat and over fences – without a helmet. I was always horrified to watch this person mount up and, ultimately, the decision rests with the individual, but I cannot help but think it is a reckless one.
Helmets have come a long way in terms of style and efficacy within my riding career – I was delighted when helmets with attractive air vents became popular and affordable, and hope to never wear a jockey skull again as a result – but the message still isn’t getting through in certain circles. The main culprits where the dangers are obvious but style seems to still override logic are within dressage and Western riding – many riders still prefer a traditional top hat or stetson in these circumstances. I don’t know what it is that makes these riders feel that they are immune to head injuries, but I’d love to visit each one and inform them that, sadly, they aren’t. As mentioned in my previous post, riding will never be risk free, but the risks can be minimised to an extent.
Below are my rules of thumb, and something I will offer to every person I help into the saddle when pursuing my teaching career:
1. Ensure your helmet is fitted and approved – it’s more than just plonking a hat on your head which doesn’t pinch. Every helmet I’ve owned has been checked for fit by appropriate vendors, and always meets current safety standards. Substance beats style hands down here
2. Look after your helmet – even when it’s not on your head, that’s your skull and everything which is in it. We are gifted with one skull, one neck and one brain, and it is our responsibility to look after them. Ensure your helmet is cared for and maintained. Replace it if you sustain a blow to the head when falling, even if the helmet doesn’t appear to be visibly damaged. And upgrade your helmet regularly – safety standards change and helmets have a use by date (yes, really!)
3. Always use your own – borrowing helmets defeats the point of purchasing one and having it fitted. You also don’t know what has happened to borrowed helmets, whether they have been involved in falls and how safe they really are. That said, a borrowed helmet is better than no helmet – do so if you really have to. I’m proud to say that my helmet has been all over the world – South Africa, Greece, the US – in the cause of protecting my head. They’re a pain to carry around, but a head injury would be a far greater pain
My final thought is this: if I were told I had to get on a horse, but I could only wear one item of clothing from any available in the world, it’d be my helmet. Hands down. If you wear nothing else aboard a horse (and I mean nothing), make it that.
More on safety later in the week! In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts: is your helmet up to date? Do you always wear it? How do you interact with equestrians you know who appear unconcerned about wearing helmets?