Thursday, May 2, 2013

How Far Would You Go to Look Cool?

I admit it.  I don't always 'get' people. Sometimes I really don't understand some people's need to fight, argue and disparage others, even in the face of clear evidence that they are wrong.  Bring up any topic on social media and people will line up on either side and sling mud at each other, even at those who lay a subject out clearly and without anger.  It doesn't matter if a solution is right there in front of them, with statistics and truth easily accessible, they fight on, usually resorting to name-calling, vicious insults, and cry "freedom" when all else fails, because, well, we are surely free to remain stuck in our ways, heels dug in the dirt out of defiance and spite.  I stay away from debates on social media as a general rule; it is ridiculous to argue with someone who has nothing better to do, and wants to scream obscenities ALL IN CAPS with poor logic and punctuation.  No thanks.

But I witnessed an ongoing thread on FB that bothered me deeply, so I decided to bring the subject here, and examine it.

The subject was a photo of a tiny girl, age 6, riding a huge horse in a barrel pattern.  This is an itty bitty girl, much smaller than my own 6 yr old son, and the horse, who is really getting at it as it rounds a barrel, is a large stock type horse.  The worrisome part is that this child is riding without a helmet.  Many people brought up this fact in the comments, and each person who did was immediately attacked with such viciousness that it was as if they had suggested something vile upon this little girl.  Some of the replies to those who suggested that she should be wearing a helmet: "Real cowgirls don't wear helmets," "we stay away from people who wear helmets because their horses are always spoiled rotten and they can't ride" and "this little girl is a better rider than any of you who wear helmets" and my favorite, "All you granola crunching, mini van type idiots stay out of this!!!"  Over 28,000 comments, which were split down the middle, going back and forth between rationality and ugliness.

I have written about my opinion of helmets before, but I'd like to re-visit it in response to the sheer voracity of some who are not only resistant to putting them on their own or their children's heads, but also who treat those who choose to protect themselves by wearing one so incredibly bad.

For those who say "we didn't grow up wearing helmets, and we survived,"  you need to wake up - it's 2013.  There are a LOT of things that we didn't do 'back in the old days,' such as use car seats, wear floatation devices, or disinfect medical instruments, that help our species survive better.  Hopefully, we are evolving to take better care of the bodies we are born into and have a better understanding of how and when injury is likely to occur.  If you grew up riding horses and never knew anyone who received a concussion from falling off their horse, either you didn't know that many people who rode, or you were just plain ol' lucky.  I have known many, many people who were excellent riders who had accidents resulting in concussions, some horrific and life-changing, and I know a similar number of people whose attending ER physician told them that the only reason they were still alive is because they were wearing a helmet.  The 'good ol' days' argument is worn out and tired.  Medical science's understanding of the brain and its fragility tells us that even one good thunk in the head can cause irreversible damage, resulting in memory loss, personality changes, depression, uncontrollable anger, higher rates of suicide over the long term, and death in the short term if the hit has caused even a small brain bleed.

For those who say, "a kid can get hurt just walking down the street, and are less likely to get hurt while riding a big ol' babysitter of a horse,"  I say, where in the heck do you live?  Benghazi? Islamabad?  According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, there were 14,446 reported head injuries from horseback riding accidents in 2009, accounting for 60% of all horse-back riding deaths.   A fall of just 2 feet can cause death from brain injury, and most rider's heads are eight feet above the ground.  In addition, children between the ages of 10 -14 are most likely to be involved in a horse-related accident.  Please read more about what the AANS says regarding head injury here, and scroll down to the section regarding horseback riding.  As my favorite instructor told me as a kid, "it isn't IF you are going to fall off, it is WHEN."  Hopefully it is when you are wearing a helmet.

For those who say "real cowgirls don't wear helmets," I suppose you'd jump off a cliff if all the other 'cowgirls' were doing it too?  This is peer pressure at its absolute worst; bullying for the sake of trying to look cool.  Some trends are not worth following, and I can assure you, you won't look cool after your traumatic brain injury leaves you in a wheel chair, drooling, not able to put together a thought.  What are you so afraid of?  That someone will see your helmet and assume that you are a beginner who can't ride?  Why not prove them wrong with your performance?  And perpetuating a tradition that puts people, especially children, at risk is far from 'cool.'

For those who say, "my horse is so good, he will take care of me," I say you are a fool if you think that a certain horse can make the experience 100% safe for you.  If you really are horse-knowledgeable, then you'd know that anything, literally ANYTHING, can happen while you are riding.  Some things may be the result of a horse misbehaving, but a vast number of accidents are due to miscues and mistakes by the rider or from simple, physical problems, like a horse tripping, slipping, equipment breaking, or something unexpected occurring in the environment.  I have been riding and training horses my entire life, and have done well at have no idea how many times I have had horses fall while I was riding them.  [I'm sure there are some that will somehow blame this on my ineptitude, without having seen me ride or know any of the circumstances.  The truth is, many of them were young, inexperienced horses, and in other instances, I was asking the horse for a certain level of performance or speed, which is necessary when you are training horses.]

For those of you who say, "my kid is a great rider and therefore won't get hurt;"  I say, really??  The little girl I mentioned above was 6.  How long could she possibly have been doing any meaningful riding? A year?  If you knew an adult who came to you and said 'I have been riding a year,' would you consider them an expert?  I wouldn't.  There is no way that any child, no matter how good of a seat they have, can have enough expertise to avoid an accident.  Even adults who have ridden their whole lives can't!  Consider the case of Courtney King-Dye, an accomplished Dressage rider who suffered a TBI when her horse tripped and fell and she wasn't wearing a helmet - yeah, I know, all you 'real cowgirls' probably say she isn't a 'real' rider because she rides English.  She went to the Olympics for goodness sakes.  Let's see you do some one-tempi changes or a perfect cantering pirouette.

People, riding horses is an extreme sport, similar to skiing/snowboarding, riding dirt bikes, or skateboarding.  Helmets (and other protective gear) is commonplace in all these sports, except horseback riding, for the sole reason that it doesn't 'look cool.'  Parents pass down the tradition of being afraid of not looking cool to their kids, and stuff their ears with their fingers when confronted with the truth of the real risks they are taking with their children's fragile brains, and scream "YOU GO BABY! COWGIRL UP!!" as they launch them full blast on a 1,000 lb animal.  This doesn't look cool - it looks reckless.  It is one thing if you are an adult and choose to not wear a helmet, assuming that you understand the risks and don't care.  But a child must rely on the good judgement of his/her parents to protect them, as they have no way of understanding all the consequences of an action, nor are able to see way down the road and anticipate their future with diminished mental capacity due to a TBI.

As an instructor, I want that little girl to ride with all of her heart, learning lessons of perseverance, patience, fortitude and strength along the way, but NOT while risking a brain injury.  She needs her brain, for school, for work, for her relationships, for happiness.  If we can prevent an injury, why wouldn't we?  It is an easy thing to put a helmet on.  They are comfortable, come in pretty colors, and it would be extremely easy to make wearing one into a trend - IF we make taking care of oneself more cool than wearing a straw hat.

I do believe the tides are turning.....I know of a particular little girl, age 11, who shows reiners, and is an excellent hand.  She has been riding all her life, having come from a family with a long history in horses.  Both her father and her grandfather are well-known and esteemed in the industry, and have furnished her with a wonderful facility along with top-caliber horses, and many opportunities to compete.  There is no doubt that one day, this little girl will be either a top non-pro or a top professional, if she choose to go that route.  It would be easy for her to go along with the crowd and not wear a helmet - but she does!  Even when she shows!  I am very proud of her, and have relayed my support to her parents and grandpa, who love her to death and want the best for her - - which is the full use of her brain.