I’ve ridden a horse without wearing a helmet only once. It was a little over a year ago, and I’ll be completely honest and say that, given that I was riding bareback in next to no clothing – because I was taking my mount swimming in the Aegean – it was the one and only time that I’ve been far more concerned about sustaining an injury to any part of my body other than my head. The thought of breaking my back or spinal cord doesn’t ever scare me. That sunny day in Greece, I was far more frightened of sliding sideways from my horse’s slippery back and being struck by a paddling hoof than I was of being underwater and hitting my head. But I was definitely still putting my skull and brain at a huge risk.
As anyone who knows even the smallest amount about horses will tell you, they are dangerous creatures, because they have brains. They can do what they want whenever they want, and on top of that, they’re prey animals whose only method of defence is flight. They are poor fighters, so they run. Speed and sudden movements can cause accidents, the consequence of which can be devastating injuries.
I grew up pony-mad but in a household with parents who aren’t at all horsey. They are, however, sensible people: they’ve taken good advice and always ensured that my sister and I had everything we needed. There were only a few instances where the dreaded body protectors were insisted upon, but helmets were non-negotiable, even when we rode with instructors who couldn’t care less whether we wore them or not. If we wanted to mount up, we first strapped on our – often horrendously unfashionable and uncomfortable – helmets.
I find it bizarre that, to many people, riding helmetless is the norm. That it wouldn’t occur to them to strap one on prior to swinging into the saddle. That anyone would argue against it. The debate in the UK, particularly in London, continues to rage regarding the efficacy of cycling helmets among road riders, but I have never seen a piece published regarding any negative impacts or getting on a horse whilst wearing a helmet. I find it ridiculous that riders within the dressage, showing, hunting and Western communities, to name but a few, continue to rail against protecting their heads and brains on the basis of trivialities such as tradition and image. Experience does not buy you protection. Owning a horse doesn’t mean you have total control of it. Much as we’d love the opposite to be true, the bond between you and your steed does not cancel out the possibility of an accident happening. And, in 2014, fashion is the worst excuse for not wearing a helmet: not only has helmet design, fit and comfort come an enormous way, but it’s less cool than ever to be making such a ridiculous stand against what isn’t just the establishment making rules, but a very sensible idea.
As well as campaigns such as Riders4Helmets and high-profile riders such as Charlotte Dujardin and Mary King, plus many more making the switch from topper to helmet, litigation is proving to be a sad but effective driver. One of the most intriguing cases I’ve read recently relates to an employer’s responsibility to provide adequate equipment. The initial story was published quietly in The Telegraph just before I left the UK for the summer. The case is of a former-huntsman suing his former-employer for failing to provide him with and train him in the use of effective Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
My inner event manager perked up at the use of the term PPE: it’s one I’m highly familiar with, but generally associate with event sites, particularly with reference to roles such as rigging – there is key legislation here regarding Working At Height – or traffic management. Even as a lifelong rider, it hadn’t occurred to me that a helmet is a requirement for a rider’s job, whether that job is as a competitive top-level rider, or an exercise rider at a racing yard, or even as a ride leader taking a group of average non-riders out on a potter around the nearest bridleway for an hour-long hack. As someone who hopes to make a career within the equestrian industry, I hadn’t thought that it might be my employer’s responsibility to ensure that I’m wearing a helmet which fits correctly and is up to standard, that’s always been something I’m happy to do. But if it’s a requirement of my job, under UK law, my employer should not only be checking the adequacy of my equipment, but providing it too.
Helmets aren’t cheap, particularly the kind which look nicer than a pebble-dashed rotten boiled egg shell. Salaries within the equestrian industry are famously low, and costs for businesses are high. If employers are bound to provide such items, this would have a huge impact on them, but a different one on employees. As with other things within UK law, I wonder how much it is adhered to and what level of awareness exists within the equestrian industry?
Whoever should be taking responsibility and reaping the tax breaks or other benefits, I know I have ridden without a helmet for the first and last time. As Olympian and traumatic brain injury-sufferer James Cracknell once tweeted, “What’s the drawback?”
Tomorrow is International Helmet Awareness Day, organised by Riders4Helmets. Many manufacturers and retailers are running discounts to honour the occasion – more information can be found here. Please spread the word, get involved and make sure you look after your head before you saddle up and enjoy your ride. You’ll enjoy it more without the worry.