Dr. Debbie Stanitski doesn’t remember the details of her accident in 1999. But she lives with its results. The former orthopedic surgery professor and pediatric orthopedic surgeon had relocated from Michigan to South Carolina to join the faculty of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. Her horse was still in Michigan. She and her husband, Carl, had taken up hunting as a way of staying in shape for eventing. “I was riding everyone else’s problem horse in the hunt,” she says. “I flipped over a fence and hit my head below my helmet on a rock. Having sustained a severe head injury while wearing an approved helmet,” she says, the issue of helmet safety is “near and dear to my heart.”
As president of the Equestrian Medical Safety Association (EMSA), Stanitski sees a new surge of interest in the issue of protective headgear every time a high profile equestrian suffers a severe injury. Several months ago Courtney King-Dye, one of the nation’s best Dressage riders, was critically injured while schooling a young horse. The horse stumbled and fell with her.
Stanitski is mystified by the patchwork of rules regarding equestrian competition, and has been advocating—both as president of EMSA and as a member of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF)—protective headgear requirements for every discipline. “They (USEF) may be the governing body, but each organization has their own rule book and set of rules,” she explains. “Even the medication rules are different. It seems to me there should be one standard for endurance, eventing, reining, etc.”
She is not alone in that belief. Dru Malavase, a Dressage judge from Bloomfield, NY, points out that discipline-specific rules for protective headgear are inherently flawed. “The laws of gravity apply to all of us, regardless of discipline,” she says. Malavase also serves on the USEF Safety Committee, but emphasizes that she is speaking for herself, as a Dressage judge, and not on behalf of the USEF. Throughout her 30-plus years as a Dressage competitor and a judge, Malavase has also developed considerable expertise on the issue of safety, which is a hot topic among Dressage riders these days. “There’s been plenty of discussing going on, and there have been lots of letters,” she says. “Many of the riders have actually been voting by choosing to wear helmets.”
Marketing the Concept of Safety
“When Courtney had her accident, I said to my boss, I’d like to do something more than write about her,” Lyndsey White says. She is the Domestic and International Product Manager for SUCCEED, the equine digestive aid that has been one of King-Dye’s sponsors. White partnered with Jeri Bryant, an equestrian and advocate of protective headgear, to create a website and an event. The first National Helmet Awareness Day was on July 10, and incorporated events at the Kentucky Horse Park, along with participation from more than 200 retailers across the country that offered discounts on helmets. “When we started this campaign, we made it very clear that we weren’t trying to force people to wear helmets,” White says. Instead, the goal was to educate people about the importance of protective headgear, and how to ensure the correct fit.
She hopes the website, www.riders4helmets.com and the ongoing campaign will blossom into a worldwide effort to elevate awareness of the importance of protective headgear. White says she has already heard from people in Spain, Australia and New Zealand, urging her to make next year’s event an international one. “I think this is just the beginning. It isn’t going to be one of those cyclical things.”
Why Not Require Helmets?
Competitors in three-day eventing are required to wear protective headgear that meets precise standards. Competitors in hunter-jumper shows are required to wear protective headgear that meets precise standards. In June, the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) Dressage Committee issued a “strong recommendation” that Dressage competitors wear properly-fastened protective headgear when training and in pre-competition warm-ups. The United States Dressage Federation (USDF) in May released a statement, again, “strongly recommending” that riders wear protective headgear when mounted. Ironically, the USDF requires protective headgear on all riders pictured in their magazine.
What sets Dressage apart? For one thing, there is a presumption that the traditional Dressage attire topped off with a helmet instead of a derby or top hat would make a jarring appearance. Some riders believe that judges might downgrade them if they wore a helmet instead of more traditional headwear. But Malavase says that rules for judges are quite specific. “It’s forbidden in the rule book that the judge should take it into consideration. Basically, judges are not going to discriminate that way. That’s a perception that’s given, but frankly most judges are more interested in how the horse is going than in what’s on the rider’s head.”
So why are Dressage riders not required to wear protective headgear? Linda Schultz, Director of Marketing for USDF, says that her organization has issued a statement recommending the use of protective headgear, but they have not asked for a rule change. “The Dressage Federation can make recommendations to the USEF—the governing body—but to my knowledge they have never done so.” She says it’s up to the USEF to issue a rule requiring protective headgear.
But Malavase says that the decision on hunters and jumpers came from their committee, not top-down from USEF. “I happen to be on the USEF Safety Committee,” she says, “and our practice is that it should come from the discipline.” She says the issue of safety should be paramount, and that every rider assumes an inherent risk as soon as he or she gets on a horse. The discipline of Dressage does not confer any exemption from that risk. “There is no exemption for western riders and no exemption for any discipline’s riders. All of us who love riding love it, but even the most reliable horse can have a bad moment. It’s interesting there’s talk that if there were going to be a rule, it would be for younger riders—less experienced riders.” That, she says, won’t solve the safety dilemma. She points to the obvious: Courtney King-Dye is one of the world’s top riders.
“There’s been study after study,” she explains. “The number of years or how much you ride has nothing to do with it. I’ve been a Dressage judge for many years, and I’ve had some difficult ones and some very calm ones. Horses are hard-wired to run away from problems. That’s why we still have horses after thousands of years.”
“You Only Have One Brain!”
The EMSA’s Stanitski says she is always astonished that riders don’t take safety more seriously. “The thing that amazes me, even in the eventing world, if you’re in competition, you have to have a certified helmet. But I’ve seen these people at home, jumping bare-headed. When I see people at Dressage shows, with baseball hats and top hats, I just want to say ‘trust me, you only have one brain!’” Ultimately the rider is responsible for his or her own safety. Humans, though, have infinite capacities to persuade themselves that bad things won’t happen to them—despite evidence to the contrary. And even with an approved safety helmet, a very bad thing did happen to Stanitski.
She’s a fighter, and she fought her way back, although she does have some motor and speech impairment. She has defied predictions that she would never walk again, let alone ride. “I still ride,” she says, “I’m just not as fast as I used to be.”
Malavase says that she was recently a judge at a facility that had issued a mandate that every competitor—regardless of discipline—was required to wear protective headgear. Even with that mandate, she says, individual competitors resisted. “I had one competitor who appeared in a hunt cap with no chin strap—not protective gear. She was putting the facility in jeopardy.” Malavase says she won’t judge someone in a non-standard helmet. “As it happened that horse in his very first canter work stumbled, and almost went down with the rider. Lucky for her she has a very good seat, and stayed with the horse.” But the incident illustrates the multi-faceted battle facing people like Stanitski and Malavase and others who believe that safety should be a higher priority.
Appearance, for some riders, trumps safety. And even when they’re wearing a helmet, some riders don’t use the harness and chin straps that keep their helmets where they belong. Perhaps safety helmets should come with a written statement reminding riders that they actually only have one brain.