Thursday, January 7, 2010

Upper-level Dressage and Event Riders Without Helmets

This is something that's been bothering me for a long time. It's my personal decision to wear a helmet every time, every ride. I've been on a horse without one once, for 10 minutes, because my trainer insisted I get on and feel the changes she'd made to my horse. It was almost a year ago, and I honestly think that today I would run and get my helmet before getting on. I doubt 2 minutes would really make that much of a difference. I remember the shame I felt when one of the boarders at my barn walked by and saw me; I was completely mortified and it spoiled any enjoyment I might have gotten from my horse, who did feel amazing: light, up, and forward. So, wearing a helmet is very important to me.

It doesn't bother me (much) when others around me choose not to. I feel it's irresponsible and a foolish risk, but I keep those feelings to myself, because everyone has a right to make that choice. My barn has only a few weird eventers like my trainer and I, and even she doesn't always wear a helmet.

One thing I love about eventing is that most of us are truly horse people who love having a partnership with the horse and enjoy spending the time to make sure our horses are properly cared for. For the most part, that respect and concern for our horses causes us in turn to respect and care for our bodies the best we can. Helmets are required in all three phases, except in upper-level dressage. Safety vests are required for cross country, and we have to wear our medical armband for both stadium and cross country. Helmets are actually required to be worn by anyone mounted on the event grounds.

I realize I'm making some generalizations about eventers, and I also realize that there are people who care about their horses and their own welfare just as deeply as some eventers do. My point is that, while I know it can't be said that all upper-level eventers are of the "every time, every ride" school of thought regarding helmets, I'm willing to bet there are quite a few who are. And if this is true...

Why don't they wear helmets during the dressage phase? If they care enough to ride with one every single time they're on a horse, why don't they do it during one of the competition phases? It seems incredible to me that anyone could set aside such a conviction for wearing helmets for one ride. It just seems that it sends the wrong kind of message to people who look up to them: "Once you get our level, you don't have to wear a helmet on the flat anymore." I also don't think that's the attitude that every single eventer has!

There has to be at least one upper-level rider who cares enough to wear a helmet 100% of the time. Why don't they wear a helmet during dressage? If someone like Karen O'Connor or Philip Dutton showed up wearing a helmet to a dressage test during a 4*, I'm sure people wouldn't stop talking about it for a long time, but they wouldn't be eliminated. EV114 in the 2009 rule book states that a top hat should be worn if tails are worn, but it also says that "protective headgear" may be worn without penalty. I don't know if that means they couldn't wear a shad belly, but either way, it's possible to do!

If there is one 4* eventer out their who believes helmets are to be worn every ride, why don't they wear them during the dressage phase? How could they worry so much about image or be so caught up in the status-symbol of wearing a shad belly and top hat that they put aside their beliefs a couple times a year? I just don't understand that frame of mind.

Also, no one wears helmets for Grand Prix dressage! Why? Sure, by the time you make it to the upper levels of these sports, you're probably not going to fall off if your horse spooks. Still, it's possible. What if your horse trips and falls? What if the judge's stand is blown down by a freak gust of wind and scares the bejeesus out of your horse?

I understand it will never be mandatory at that level, and I do think people at that level should have a choice about weather or not they were a helmet. They do have that choice, though, and no one does.

I would love to know why. And I would be really pleased to find out that I'm wrong and someone already does! Can anyone offer insight as to why no upper-level event or dressage riders wear helmets?


  1. Gina Miles wears a helmet when schooling dressage! I can't began to tell how much I love Gina Miles!

    And that's not the first time I've seen her with a helmet! Though I've yet to see her wear a helmet in the dressage phase of a show.

    I've always been told it's a formality. It's disrespectful to wear a top hat until you're up to at least 4th level, in respect for the higher level riders. So, it's almost a way of upper level riders to say that they're too good to wear a helmet. And I do agree with you: at that level they should feel comfortable enough with their riding abilities to hope they would stay in the saddle. But like you said, and I agree, unless you duct tape yourself to the saddle, or rubberband your feet in (either one you're SOL if the horse flips) horses can spook very quickly and you can go one direction while they go the other. That's how I fell off Greta for the first time. Not much of a warning, one minute Greta was listening, next the tractor fired up in the shed and neither of us saw it, and she did a full 180 and flew out from beneath me.

    It's great that someone trusts their horse and their riding ability enough to believe they'll stay seated, but horses are unpredictable!!! My western riding friends are notorious for it. They think a helmet is too ugly, or too English. I told them about the new "western" helmets Troxel came out with (and they are quite stylish, if I had enough money for two helmets I'd totally get the chocolate and pink one!) One did break in and get one, wore it to a barrel race, and got completely insulted. She hasn't wore it since. So I guess another thing is the looks and what people are used to. People are used to wearing a helmet in jumping because it's known you can get seriously hurt. People wear the top hat or hunt cap in dressage because that's the way it's been for a loooong time, and same with cowboy hats.

    It's a human thing, being weary of new things and wanting to follow the crowd. I like to wear a helmet all the time, and so I wouldn't stop wearing one because my old one was just too big (don't know why I got that big in the first place, and I'd had it since early 2008 and fallen in it a few times, so it was time) so I got a new one! This one I love and am definitely not ashamed to ride in it, which ensures I will wear a helmet when I run around on my horse.

    Don't forget the horse helmets for when you're trailering! What happens when you're on a boggled horse is, well, mind boggling! I wonder why they don't have something like that for cross country? I see horses flip over on their heads in that phase, and showjumping too. Perhaps it's because their head's a bit tougher than ours?

    Whew, that was a lot!!!

  2. That's really cool about Gina Miles! I've always liked her as well :)

    I guess it'll be a cold day in hell when people like her wear helmets in the dressage phase of eventing... or when people like Stefan Peters wear one for dressage! I just wish that wasn't the truth of the matter.

    Val doesn't have a horse helmet, but he probably should. He is remarkably well-behaved in the trailer, though... I don't know if we'll get one soon or not!

    As for horses flipping... I'm not sure why the don't have horse helmets! I'd have to imagine the horses might not be a fan of such a contraption, and it might be difficult to protect the brain and the front of the forehead without impeding vision and movement of the head. Also, I think the horse's brain is a lot smaller than ours... I don't think they experience brain trauma as easily as we do, because their brain is farther "inside" their heads... I could be totally wrong, though; I've never studied the placement of the horse's brain inside their head, or the size of it!

  3. Well, it is smaller, but the placement seems just as vulnerable... so the answer to your question is, I have no idea!

  4. You make a good point. It always bothers me when riders go helmet-less. A brain injury is nothing to take lightly and it only takes one accident. I used to work with a girl who insisted upon wearing the "decorative" hunter helmets that provide no real impact protection. She had countless concussions and shrugged them off. That is just madness.

    I am glad that you are setting a good example and staying safe!

    This is my first read on your blog, so I just have to say that your horse is gorgeous and he has a great name. ;)

  5. Ha ha, thank you! :) Well, I know two people with the same name as my dog, and now I know someone who shares my horse's name! Is Val short for anything?

  6. I hear you -- I have always wondered this as well and really wished someone would step up and be bold enough to make the statement. I mean, God knows we have plenty of eventers with more than enough courage (KOC, anyone?) to take whatever is dished at them and wouldn't it be a great example?

  7. That's exactly how I feel! Heck, sometimes it seems that eventers get off on stirring people up ;) We'll wear weird colors, shout around our cross country courses... but no one wants to wear a helmet to dressage and make a statement that way?

  8. In my opinion it's just too easy for accidents to happen. And if an accident does happen, I'd rather have some protection between me and a vegetative state, you know?

    So I wear a helmet. Every time, every ride :)

  9. My name is short for Valerie. Since your guy is male, I assume he is more the Val Kilmer type, which is very cool.

  10. Valerie, he is actually named after a character in a book; Valerius Magnus. It's kind of a silly paranormal romance novel, and the character in question was a Roman general during his life time. At first, I chose the name because I liked it. I picked it after seeing my horse twice, on the trailer ride home to our barn. It turns out that he fits the name perfectly- he's definitely a strong horse, he's not very affectionate, and he's a bit pretentious, just like the character. I know we kind of expand on whatever personality traits our horses offer, but Val genuinely seems to disapprove of other horses doing silly things! He just seems to take himself too seriously, and I can't believe how well he aligns with his namesake's personality.

    Back on the point, I agree with you all. I would love to know why no one will make that statement and wear a helmet in the dressage.