Strap It All On: Protecting Your Head Requires More Than a Helmet (But That's a Start)

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This lead-in is the first few minutes on a television documentary about Australian endurance champion Meg Wade, who was critically injured in a riding fall during an endurance race in 2009. The entire documentary can be viewed on the ABC-TV (Australia) web site. Meg Wade was wearing a $900 regulation helmet. I hope you'll watch the whole program.

News of a meeting held over the weekend to discuss the wisdom of wearing helmets while riding was a memory trigger for me. No, not of my many and often creative or spectacular falls from horses (with and without helmets), not even of that time I had amnesia.

It goes back to pre-WEG days last summer, when I meant to write about the Australian endurance team and the glaring absence of that country's leading rider, Meg Wade. Not only was Meg not in the saddle for her country in September at the Kentucky Horse Park--she wasn't in the saddle at all.

At the 2009 Quilty ride (Australia's premier endurance event), Meg Wade was found in a crumpled heap on the trail a short distance from a checkpoint she'd just cleared. That was the defining lifetime moment for one of the most competitive and consistent equestrians in the world.

Meg did fall, and did have serious brain injuries. But, she was wearing a $900 titanium approved safety helmet--the same helmet that was approved for use by the Australian teams. Because of amnesia, Meg has no recall of the circumstances of her fall, which took place unobserved on a flat trail near the end of the ride.

Why and when and how did the helmet let Meg down? I hope you will watch the entire Meg Wade documentary (it is about 29 minutes and worth every minute invested in watching it) on the ABC-TV/Australia web site.

As in so many falls, the question is not whether the helmet failed her by allowing her to suffer such an injury...but whether it actually may have saved her life. I read that a speaker at Saturday's helmet meeting had a similar experience to Meg's.

Helmet awareness is critical in the horse industry but, as Meg and her husband Chris point out, there is still much research to be done to improve helmets. Moreover, helmets are just part of the much bigger picture of rider safety practices that need to be researched and documented and taught--and followed. Will accidents still occur? You know the answer to that. But Meg Wade's Landline documentary is a look inside a riding accident that is more in depth and insightful than any I've seen.

Safety equipment like helmets and the new air-bag vests are wonderful, but bring to mind memories of life in Vermont, where tow trucks and sometimes even teams of oxen were at work 24/7 to pull the SUVs of ski tourists out of ditches. The people at the wheel didn't know how to drive in winter conditions. Moreover, they may have been the only cars on the roads on a black ice night because they thought that driving an SUV made them invincible. The Vermonters' cars were all parked in their yards.

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Eventers and showjumpers--people who should know how to fall safely--took the test at the British Racing School on a mechanical horse with an ejection saddle.

Horse and Houndhad a fantastic article recently about the British Racing School's mechanical horse. It is similar to a barroom bull, but moves forward on a track. It is designed to teach jockeys how to fall safely: the horse pitches the rider over its head onto a pile of gym mats as safety instructors help the rider learn reactive body cues to being pitched out of the saddle.

Horse and Hound wanted to see what happened when eventers and showjumpers were ejected from the mechanical racehorse. You can see some of the results in the YouTube video, but I highly recommend reading the article if you can find it.

There's so much we need to do, and so few people are willing to do it. There's not much glamor in safety, and riding safety experts are not likely to end up on the cover of the April issue of Practical Horseman--although maybe they should!

Much of the talk these days is about enforcing helmets for competition. On the other hand, some say it is counter-intuitive to make any restrictions right now that would discourage people from riding, since we need every butt in every saddle to keep the industry afloat. But how many people are not riding because they perceive--perhaps correctly--that equestrian sports are unsafe, whether for themselves or their children? How many horse-related business plans never launch because of concerns over liability and safety?

Where's his helmet© Photo by Al Sweigart.

Where's his helmet© Photo by Al Sweigart.

Is the perception of riding being safe exclusive of the perception of riding being fun or comfortable?

Building up the public's confidence in the safety of riding might be one of the most positive moves forward for our sports. Looking to sports like scuba diving and especially skiing, which has seen its reputation marred lately by so many tragic injuries and accidents, to see what they are doing to improve their safety and their reputations might be instructive...and vital. Consider the controversy and Congressional investigation in 2010 over the National Football League's helmet safety policies and attention to head injury prevention: how would equestrian sports stand up to such scrutiny? The Federal Trade Commission has been asked to investigate safety claims of football helmet manufacturers, according to a report this weekend in the New York Times.

The advice is there if we choose to read it: It's not enough to own a helmet...it needs to a safety-tested helmet that fits correctly and is attached to your head properly. And you need to break down and buy a new one on a regular basis, and know how to take care of your helmet.

Not all helmets are the same for all riders: If you live in Minnesota, is your helmet (not your friend's helmet) guaranteed for cold weather conditions? Is it ok to leave your helmet in your trunk during the cold months? What if you use your car trunk like a tack room in the summer (guilty as charged)--does anyone read the manufacturers' specifications about heat? Do you know how hot it gets in your car's trunk--or in horse trailer's dressing room when it's parked in the sun at a horse show?

If smoke detector manufacturers have trained us to change our batteries on a certain date, couldn't we learn to replace or refurbish riding safety gear on a regular basis, or take equipment to a clinic for a checkup? And, couldn't we all benefit from an annual riding clinic on personal safety and some practice falls, such as the British video demonstrates? Are your reflexes what they used to be?

A new process developed by research scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials in Germany could be very helpful for casual horse riders, or those who are hesitant to buy new helmets on a regular basis.? What if your helmet started to smell badly--or even stink--when the lining had a crack--even a crack that you couldn't see? Polymer materials produced by the experimental German process start to smell if the helmet develops small cracks when enclosed in the lining. Large cracks really cause a stink. The researchers are proposing the technology for bicycle helmets, but surely horse sports could use it as well.

Awareness and reflex conditioning and education should be on everyone's strap-it-on list, right along with a helmet. Information needs to be accessible and knowledge retention enforceable--for our own good and the good of our sports, even if you never have a bad fall. And I hope you never do.

To learn more about Saturday's helmet meeting, check out Samantha Clark's report on EventingNation.com and Erin Gilmore's On The Line blog.Two of the best journos in the horse business were on the beat that day!

by Fran Jurga | The Jurga Report at Equisearch.com Tweet

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