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Head injuries and horse-riding

Courtney King-Dye

Courtney King-Dye

It often takes a terrible accident and plenty of publicity for changes to occur. In the past few days we’ve been following US Olympic dressage rider Courtney King-Dye, following a freak accident on March 3 in which she fractured her skull in a fall from a horse.

Courtney is among the most popular riders on the US dressage circuit. She’s an elegant rider and has worked hard for all the opportunities she’s had.

The accident happened when Courtney was showing prospective buyers a horse on her farm. The horse appeared to trip over itself, and Courtney hit the ground. She was not wearing a helmet at the time.

Head injuries can take time to heal: Courtney is still in a coma but is making progress.

Now, many top-level dressage riders don’t wear helmets when training. From level 5 and up it’s not compulsory to wear head protection when competing. Here in NZ, though, the rules state all riders must wear a helmet  in training and practice at a competition venue. At level 5 and up riders can then switch to a top hat or a bowler hat for the competition itself.

In dressage and reining helmets are not compulsory at all levels. Rules for both do allow the use of safety headgear, but it’s rare indeed to see a reiner trade a stetson for a helmet or a top dressage rider use a crash hat instead of a top hat.

Pro dressage rider starts helmet-wearing campaign

A dressage rider in the US has started a helmet-wearing campaign. Click on the picture to read more.

However, last week at the Palm Beach Derby in Florida several GP riders did wear helmets in their dressage tests, in support of Courtney. That’s great – but perhaps it is time for a rule change to make helmets mandatory for all equestrian sports.

OK – riders can do what they like at home, and many do. But for many others, riding without a helmet is like driving a car without a seatbelt … the habit is ingrained. I don’t think it would take long for helmet wearing to become the done thing in dressage circles (and in reining) if the sport’s top riders donned protective headgear.

We each have only one brain, and once it’s damaged recovery can take a very long time. In some cases the damage is irreparable.

Endurance riders grumbled about having to wear a helmet when the sport became an FEI discipline here – but they got used to it.

Maybe  manufacturers could get their design people on the job. Who knows,  a trendy helmet could be the Next Big Thing in equestrian wear.

Horse sport has had more than its share of bad publicity in recent years. Maybe changing the rules to protect riders would bring some positive press to equestrianism.

» Read more about Courtney’s progress

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Comments (39)

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  1. Lumière says:

    Troxel make a western hat and a bowler with a safety helmet on the inside. Yes it is more bulky. but it is also infinitely safer. http://www.troxelhelmets.com/products/features.php?ProductID=36

    • Reinchick says:

      Note that when you click on the link it says, ” This helmet has been discontinued due to customer feedback”. This is the problem for Western riders who show, there has not been a alternative that meets the traditional look and the saftey requirements. The western hat with built in helmet looked horrible. And I know it should not be about the looks, but when you are showing, it is still a big factor.

  2. Yes I wear a helmet now. My daughter is a dressage rider who made me promise to always wear one, as I am from the old hunter days when we wore useless derbys to hunt and nothing on our heads to school. The hard hats we wore to show didn’t even have chin straps. So yes, now I do wear a helmet, as does my daughter.

  3. Freya Mello says:

    Yes, I wear a helmet all the time when riding. I feel you must lead by example and if I expect my students to wear a helmet then I must too. Helmet wearing has been a habit of mine for 12+ years. Helmet technology has come a long way. Helmets are more wearer friendly now and visors that fit over the helmet for sun protection are now available. There is really no excuse for not wearing one.

  4. Jayne Kramic says:

    I was trail riding last autumn on my Trakehner gelding, and took a nasty fall while going up a steep hill. Thanks to my helmet, I only sustained a shoulder injury and a concussion when my horse’s hind foot clipped the side of my head. My helmet sustained a nasty gouge, and I had a three day headache. I retired my helmet and use it as a reminder when my fellow riders resist the idea of always riding with a helmet. I have been an ER/ICU nurse for 17 years and have cared for many critical and fatal head injuries that could have been avoided had the person been wearing a helmet. I am so thankful that my profession has served to encourage me to wear a helmet, and I feel strongly about encouraging other riders to do the same.

    • wendy says:

      Like Jayne I have seen head injuries which have left the person tragically impaired but able to live a long life. The effect that these injuries have impact on everyone who has contact with the brain-damaged one and the social cost is enormous.
      So I always wear my helmet. It’s a troxel with air vents, is light as a feather and very comfortable.

    • Rich Bleiler says:

      Hi Jayne—googled your name,read about how your riding helmet saved you. Would love to hear from you.—–Rich

  5. MummyFi says:

    I have worked with many people with head injuries and it is amazing how even a ‘mild’ head injury can badly affect people’s lives. I had a bad fall last August and hit the ground so hard my helmet visor popped right off. I got away without a concussion and not even a bruise because I was wearing body armour. I would support helmets being compulsory in all equestrian events, wonder if ACC would sponser equestrian events to achieve that ?

  6. Glenys says:

    My daughter took a tumble from a 13.2hh pony she is breaking in. She lost her memory of a chunk of the day and has trouble remembering peoples names. Even weeks later.
    She had her helmet on, so please do not consider ever getting on your horse without it.
    I ride myself and have always worn a helmet. It certainly saved me from more severe injury when my horse shied at giraffe’s at the nearby zoo, dumped me in long grass on the side of the road and took off home. I woke up a few minutes later and struggled to walk home. BUT I did replace my helmet!
    My son took a sledge hammer to my daughters old helmet and we were amazed at the force required to damage it. Which is great as it was a basic relatively cheap brand, but it did it’s job.

  7. Diane Adamo says:

    I’m 52 and training a 3yr old Morgan. I wear a helmet everytime I get on a horse. It has saved me a couple of
    times from potentially dangerous situations. I’m a little
    nervous showing my youngster in Jr western pleasure where
    helmets typically aren’t worn. It would be nice to see
    all disciplines accepting helmets as a new fashion norm!

    • Pat Ross says:

      Diane, Here in the US northeast it’s no longer unusual to see western riders, at least at Morgan shows (I haven’t paid much attention to open shows)compete, and WIN wearing helmets!

  8. Alwynne Hellfach says:

    I have been riding for more than 45 years, have taught & coached in the dressage, eventing and hunter ring, I have lost many dear friends or have watched them struggle recovering from a head injuries. The rule in my barn and in my sport is every ride every time. Period…we must do all that we can to prevent any and all injuries, we would do no less for our horses, we do all we can to prevent their injuries, why not ourselves we are their care givers if we are not there who will be..all for the want of a helmet

  9. Lyn Marshall says:

    I always wear a helmet when riding but have been knocked out twice while working on the ground, the first time was when I was putting a cover on a horse and the other horse in the paddock must have got a fright and bowled me over, it took days for me to recollect what all I had done that day. My next time was being knocked flat on my back and head hitting the ground, so I’m wondering if we should wear helmets also when working with young horses!

  10. Sarah Robertson says:

    Please feel free to share this article which discusses the importance of helmet-wearing. It only takes one accident to change one’s life forever. Precautions are far better than regrets.

  11. DustiDoll says:

    I wear mine every ride. I was very pleased with the lighter weight of the replacement I bought, after I crashed head first into a post wearing the old one. I found the heavier older helmet gave me a stiff neck on longer rides.(I still wore it most rides though) Now I don’t get on without my helmet.

  12. Gloria Picchetti says:

    Even if I were a more experienced rider I would not ride sans helmet.
    I pray Courtney recuperates quickly & perfectly.

  13. Donna Raquet says:

    I wear a helmet whenever I ride, which can be on anything from 12.2 hands to 15.1 hands, except when I’m showing FEI level dressage in my shadbelly. I worked hard to get to that level and love the outfit. I know that we are allowed to wear a helmet at that level if we wear a regular jacket. Maybe the FEI level rules need changing, and we should be allowed to wear a helmet when wearing a shadbelly. I read that someone has invented a top hat with a hard hat inside, but the cost is really prohibitive and it wasn’t very attractive, in my opinion.

    • Gina Hipsak says:

      Hi Donna,
      I just did a clinic with Axel Steiner 2 weeks ago and he said a new top hat helmet is coming out soon. The price should be better.

  14. Elizabeth Pase says:

    In 1987, my sister died from a head injury sustained in a fall from her VERY GENTLE horse whom she had owned and ridden for many years. We were way too cool to wear those funky helmets. Don’t I wish we’d been a little less concerned about being able to feel the wind in our hair while we rode! As you can imagine, I am now a huge advocate of helmets and won’t climb on a horse without one.

  15. Elizabeth Charleston says:

    Information about Head Injuries available at:

    THINK! The Head Injury Network for Kiwis – on facebook

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/THINK-The-Head-Injury-Network-for-Kiwis/378242020990?ref=ts

  16. Pat Ross says:

    Here at Foxwin Farm the rule is “Helmets when riding – all ages, all the time, NO exceptions”. That applies to staff, boarders and students.

  17. Barbara Mulder says:

    I never wore a helmet when riding, only in competitions. Then, three years ago, I fell off my horse which caused a severe cerebral haemorrhage. I could have died that day, but luckily I survived, leaving me with epilepsy to live with for the rest of my life as well as some other unpleasant side effects.
    I am happy however to say that I survived and that I live to tell others that it is so very important to wear a helmet – always!!! Even if you are a skilled rider (Like I was back then).
    I now wear a helmet every time and I would feel naked without it. It makes me sad that there are still so many people there who just cannot see the importance of protecting their brain. I wish I did bakc then…..

  18. An FEI dressage rider and listed for the team for many years, wearing a helmet has already saved me once from more serious injury, and possibly death.
    I even wore one while training and showing at the bigger shows in Germany. I am sure others viewed me as “afraid.” But, I sucked it up, anyhow, and let it go. My own safety prevails over pride. It only takes one time, and that one time is too much to risk!
    We are riding live animals. One of the the first things we learn about horses is that one of their main instincts is FLIGHT. If something startles or frightens a horse, they flee. Then, there are many other factors that come into play that can cause a horse to react, such as excitability, physical pain, lack of balance, etc., especially when a horse is under saddle with the weight of a rider on its back. When at a show, and/or in unfamiliar surroundings, there are even more factors that can evoke a horse to react.
    Do I like wearing a helmet any more than anyone else? The answer is, “Of course not!” But, if it means the difference between life and death or more serious injury to my head, I’ll take the helmet any day.

  19. Susanne Van Balen says:

    For many years I have been promoting the use of helmets in the USA since it is not as common here as where I grew up in Holland. However when I became a certified trainer and instructor it was reveiled to me that brain injuries are not that common but are by far the most dangerous and lasting for riders. Furthermore our your young students and members in the audience watching us. Can sometimes get the wrong idea, thinking one is a very good and accomplished rider when not wearing a hard hat. Especially on the farm every day. The young students get in the habit of wanting to look like “good riders” by not wearing their hard hats either, since that in their eyes is reserved for beginners….
    After learning about the statistics of brain injuries during instructor certification many years ago, and having had the experience of a motorcyle helmet saving my life and my brain during a traffic accident at age 14….I realized wearing a helmet consistently would help me feel better training and retraining all the horses as well as be a positive role model for my students. Now when I show in a Derby, I feel a little “naked” without one.

  20. shelley, md says:

    this “discussion” about the wearing of helmets is so intuitively obvious. A moment of bliss of riding your horse with the wind blowing through your hair or protecting your hairdo by not wearing a helmet,or the sheer arrogance that IIIIII will never fall of vs. a life time of being a vegetable with a lifetime burden on your family. THINK ABOUT IT. You are not the only one involved. What happens to the people around you and to the animals that you love? If you chose to forego the helmet, get your legal ramifications in place first. Remember, this is America- you can be STUPID if you choose!!!!!!!!

  21. Sarah says:

    If anything, wear your helmet because you love your family and your friends.

  22. Audrey says:

    I completely agree with the idea that The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) should require an S.E.I. approved helmet in all levels of Dressage rather than the classic top hat. Riders need to understand that like any other Olympic and Non-Olympic equestrian sport there are many risks involved. So, when I heard of Courtney King-Dye’s skull fracture that occurred on March 3 while she was exercising a young horse for a potential buyer he accidentally stumbled and Courtney fell off, without a helmet. I was completely taken back, not just because she is an Olympic athlete but because it was a Dressage schooling accident, and like most teen equestrians passionate about Dressage I started wear my helmet less and less frequently. While the risk of injury was always in the back of my mind, I was I the common mindset of “That will never happen to me.” Of course I would wear my helmet in jump lessons however; those were few and far between.

    Now that this tragedy has happened, I have realized that safety, may it be while showing or at home, is a top priority. Soon after the accident I started to see small improvements in the dressage world with more frequent helmet usage while schooling, but I am still unsatisfied with the lack of head protection in the upper levels. On one hand I see that the top hat is a classic tradition that symbolizes the elegance of the discipline, but there is still too much emphasis on the outward appearance of the rider rather than safety. A suggestion would be to take one small piece of advice from the western world since the choice between a helmet and cowboy hat, is based on similar concerns. Their solution was to combine a S.E.I. approved helmet and the classic style of the cowboy hat. Why not do the same with top hats?

    I understand that no one can control helmet usage at home but I don’t see a problem with spreading awareness about the issue hopefully preventing similar tragedies.

    • Juho Isoviita says:

      “the risk of injury was always in the back of my mind”
      If you are that afraid of riding, stop riding and start to collect stamps instead.
      If you always have risk of injury in the back of your mind, you are most likely to get hurt, not concentrating 100% on riding!

  23. Nicola says:

    I fully support this, because i have Epilepsey, even though i have outgrown it now, it really annoys me when i see people riding with no helmets

  24. Brenda Nutter says:

    I fully support wearing a helmet. I am 60 years old and I wouldn’t ride without one. I made a promise to my husband to always wear one when riding because I love him. It’s our loved ones that will really be hurt the most if we are injured or killed because we didn’t take the time to put it on.

  25. Miki Vermeulen says:

    I have always been a bit slack when it came to wearing a hard hat and in my home country, South Africa, it is often frowned apon, with other riders saying that it i not professional to wear a hard hat while schooling or even jumping. This insident has opened my eyes. I now always wear a hard hat and all riders on a horse in my yard, whether a regular or just visiting is required to wear a hard hat, gloves and corect riding foot wear.

    I think the to international riders should take a stand and et an example for young riders.

  26. A good helmet is absolutely essential for horse riding. Horseback riding is not safe all time. It is a risky adventure. If you love your family and friends, you always need a good helmet.

  27. kris matlack dvm says:

    This is all great information. I know 2 nurses , one an ER nurse, one an ICU nurse, neither will wear a helmet despite having .children and animals and 1 a husband who need them. Go Figure. You might want to mention that one’s IQ loses points with every head injury, even a “mild” concussion where one is only out for a moment. Part of the problem is people describing horses as having “puppy dog” personalities, …when startled they6 are horses, with their automatic flight response, not like a trained dog at all. No matter their fondness for their owner, they can and will move fast enough to kill a rider or a handler in a second. I’ve been a vet for 32 years, only injuries with my own horses when being stupid and not careful enough.

  28. James says:

    I completely agree that everyone should wear helmets, it’s just a danger people tend to overlook as it’s not always present. However when an accident occurs, it’s too late to go back.

  29. Francesca says:

    I am involved in the Hunter-Jumper world, and it still amazes me that there s a hard-hat rule for those who show/compete. The riders who show prep their horses/ponies before they show, at the show grounds, and ride without a helmet. Then there are the grooms/helpers who often flat the horses or ride them to the ring for them to be shown- they ride hat-less, too. And the frequently used excuse fot not wearing a helmet is that they’re not jumping, so why where a hat? I will tell you why: I was a horse professional who was a victim of TBI, traumatic brain injury. I was wearing a helmet while riding at the walk, in a properly maintained sand ring, in good weather. My horse’s hind end gave, he lost stability, and fell. I fell off and hit the ground so hard that I was in a coma for over 2 weeks. To this day, over 10 years since, I have neurological mobility issues. This is the result of my fall, wearing a helmet, but the impact to my head/brain was most severe on the lower left side of my head where only the harness protected my head. Had I been riding without a helmet my injury would have been far worse and may have damaged other parts of my brain which monitor thought and personality. So now I limp, but live to tell thanks to my helmet.
    Whenever mounted, even for the walk to the ring, or out walking on the trails, or when you’re riding on the flat, it is commmon safety-sense to wear an approved helmet.

  30. Horse Rugs says:

    Riding a horse without a helmet is a lot like riding a motorcycle without a helmet. If you DO fall try to roll away from your horse!!

  31. Horse Rugs says:

    A protective helmet is just as important for an equestrian as a motorcycle rider!!

  32. I always wear a helmet. Even if just walking a horse for two minutes. My lesson came when falling off a horse – I fell onto my head and my helmet actually broke. I always think if it hadn’t been for my very good helmet it would have been my head. Luckily for me I was fine.

  33. Margaretha from Alegria Horse Riding Holidays says:

    Even on the hottest summer day, we always wear hats, whether riding or working the horses from the ground.

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