Friday, January 29, 2010

Why I Changed My Mind About Helmets

I started riding very young, and was very much a daredevil about it. The first equine I rode was a Shetland pony named Molly, who happened to be blind in one eye. Molly was owned by my dad's pit crew chief, Vick, as my dad raced stock cars locally on the weekends, and kept the car at Vick's garage. During the week, my dad and Vick would work on the car, so I would beg to go along so that I could see Molly. She was a tolerant babysitter, but like most ponies, she basically did what she wanted & occasionally humored me by going along with what I wanted to do. Vick gave me a few pointers, but I was pretty much on my own, which meant that I almost always rode bareback, and sometimes with only a halter. Once, I decided to put a bridle on her, even though it had only one rein. I got on Molly, and off we went, ending up way out in a cornfield, where we couldn't see very well. I decided I wanted her to turn back, but having only one rein, the pony would not listen, and continued on her given trajectory of straight out to the middle of nowhere. I pulled and kicked and got nothing, except a faster pace. Being a child of about five, this was very scary! I finally jumped off, and led the pony back, and learned an important lesson about having the proper equipment. But that equipment did not include a helmet.

My parents finally relented to my endless begging, and enrolled me in lessons at a local stable. Soon after, they gave in once again, and bought me my first horse, a Half-Arabian, half Paint mare named Cherokee Dawn. That mare was nearly a saint, putting up with all the mistakes a kid can make while learning to ride, along with having flowers and tinsel festooning her bridle, parades, costumes, and showing in every class at a horse show. I loved and trusted her immensely, and to prove this, I would go out into the pasture to get her, get her up against a tree stump to climb on, and then I would ride her around without any equipment of any kind. This might not seem very remarkable, but this was in a huge pasture, with maybe 20 or more horses out there with me. And I wouldn't just walk - I would be galloping!

At the time, no one wore helmets. I had a 'hunt cap' that I wore to show English in, but it had no substance to it whatsoever. Just a flocked plastic hat. The only instances that I knew of where riders wore real helmets was while racing or at high-level jumping or eventing competitions. Even when I took jumping lessons from a very well-known instructor in our area, there was no request that I wear a helmet. And I definitely had my share of spills, though, remarkably, my worst injury was a cracked shoulder. Others were not so lucky, but still, that didn't send me a message that I should protect my skull while mounted. As a teenager, I became a very confident, experienced rider, which added even more bravado to my attitude. Helmets, when they were eventually introduced to the horse-riding public as daily-use equipment, were for beginners, not for someone who would climb on a gigantic, barely-broke, fire-breathing Saddlebred stallion, "just for fun." I would NEVER have put a helmet on at a show - as it would have felt like the kiss of death, competition-wise. It would have been like carrying a big sign that said, "I can't handle my horse." Or so it seemed to me at the time.

As an adult, I have made my living giving riding lessons, training and showing clients horses, and breeding a few mares. I took some time off from 2005 to 2008 to have my two children, and then began to take on customers again in the latter half of 2008. During the spring of 2009, I took on a 3 yr old Quarter Horse gelding, Harley, who needed some tuning up and retraining. I was riding again, and it felt great, though I can admit that I was rusty from the time off. It was during this time that the actress Natasha Richardson died in a skiing accident, which led to a very important, personal 'aha' moment for me. At this point, I did own a helmet, but it had seen little use; I only wore it if I was riding a horse that was very green or if I was going to trail ride on or near pavement. I was not wearing it while I rode Harley, as I perceived him to be gentle and predictable. After hearing about Natasha's death, I felt like someone had taken me by the collar and shook me. She was on skis - her head was only the length of her body off the ground, and witnesses said she was moving slowly. She basically just lost her balance, and whoopsy-daisy! And while I didn't know her, it isn't hard to imagine that being smart, independent and slightly embarrassed, why she refused any medical help. This is undoubtedly how I would have handled it too - don't fuss over me, I'm fine! But she wasn't.

When I ride, I am further off the ground than my own height, I am at the mercy of physics, and I am moving at speed. A slight misstep, a physical failure on the horse's part, equipment failure, a slip or stumble on bad footing, a sudden spook or a well-timed buck, and the rider becomes a lawn dart. Falling off a galloping horse is much like being hit by a vehicle going anywhere from 15 to 30 mph. Sometimes you are able to fall "well," where your limbs are tucked in and you can roll out of the way. Other times, events happen so quickly, that the rider cannot possibly prepare for it. Usually, you don't get to make a choice of where you are going to land; you might land on hard concrete, or protruding rocks, or you could hit something upright, like a fence, a building, or a tree. Once you are on the ground, you are at risk to be hit by your own horses' hooves, or even by another horse you are riding with. And the brain is a delicate structure - it only takes a small bruise for swelling to occur, and blood to leak, creating pressure against the unyielding skull. Even mild brain injuries can take a long time to come back from; more severe injuries can cause permanent damage, and of course, death.

For years I have required my students to wear helmets, as was required by my liability insurance. And I am constantly trying to improve their balance and technique, so as to avoid falling off, something that riding instructors truly do not like to see their students do. But for some reason, I still believed myself to be invincible. But that changed on March 18, 2009. I had two small children now, and I knew in my heart that NO ONE is indestructible. The sad thought of Natasha Richardson's family mourning her, knowing that if she had only had a helmet on, she would still be with them, changed my mind forever about putting that helmet on. Now I wear it every time I ride, whether it's a young horse, or my one of my old campaigners. My children will grow up wearing them, and will never know the difference. And I have become evangelical about wearing them to 'non-believers'. Personally, I would like to ride my whole life; maybe I'll be able to still be a "daredevil' when I'm 90! A helmet is a little insurance policy that I will be able to do so.