I finally figured out why some horsemen plain refuse to use certain components of their personal safety equipment. A friend, who lives and rides alone, told me that she was not afraid of hurting her head. Since I understand that equestrian gear, feed, trailers, training techniques, in fact, everything to do about horses, including the type of horse to ride, is a personal choice, I said nothing.
Instead, later that evening at home, I opened this document and typed the title, “Making a Plan Does Not Mean You Are Afraid”.
I may lapse sometimes, but generally, I am pretty fearless when I ride my horses. In fact, I think I take quite a few risks, well calculated ones of course, but risks indeed. And when you take risks anything can happen, like coming off a horse, having a horse fall on you, hitting a large branch, getting kicked, being knocked down; you name it, it can happen with horses. When there are risks, most of us make a plan before taking the risk. And making a plan to avoid severe results that could happen if you take said risk, doesn’t mean you are afraid. I ride a lot of horses a lot of the time. I know I will fall off, I may even get kicked or knocked down; it is part of what I do. I do my best not to get injured however, because it hurts and it can also harm the horse. I have skill and I am continuously working to improve my skills, and create good, safe habits as well. I know that if I do hurt myself riding, well, I love riding and it was worth it. On the other hand, the more that I can do to prevent injury the better, mainly because I do not want to waste any time that I could spend riding, grounded and recuperating from an injury instead. Any sport professional knows the risk involved with their chosen sport and wears the equipment necessary to prevent and reduce serious injuries.
With horsemen, it is no different, or so you would think. We wear proper boots with heels, gloves, practical and very comfortable clothing, english saddles have stirrups that release from the saddle if you are ever caught up in them, western riders use tapaderos, which cover the outside of the stirrups to prevent a rider’s foot slipping through and getting caught and to safely navigate thick brush, (they look really cool too). We clean our tack regularly to inspect the important parts like the girth, and strive for properly fitting tack. Heck, we spend thousands of dollars on comfortable, safe tack to sit on and manage our horses from. Some folks wear chaps to avoid puncture wounds on their legs as they travel through thick bush with their horses. Horsemen even put safety features on their horses such as wrap supports for their legs, and boots. Horsemen who drive and event wear safety vests, and I am starting to see very nicely fitting air bag vests on riders in the show ring.
Another important component of a rider’s equipment is the helmet. Head injuries are not that common with riders, however in Canada tramatic head Injuries are not decreasing. For equestrians, severe head injuries occur relatively less often than the more common broken collarbone, wrist, and ribs, but when a head injury does happen, they often have serious consequences.
In 2009–2010, an estimated 98,440 Canadians, 2.4% of the population aged 12 and over, sustained a head injury. Of those, 57% (55,910) were working-age adults, 23% (22,720) were adolescents, and 20% (19,810) were seniors (Appendix 4).
Luckily, the more common injuries can heal, mostly to a complete recovery. However, if a rider is hit in the head by a branch or sharp object, or if they come off and hit their head on the way down, or are kicked in the head while working around their horse, the injury can be severe and the recovery long and difficult. Horse related head injuries are usually so severe that the person may not ever be able to recover fully. That is not an acceptable risk to me, unless I have done absolutely everything possible to to keep that risk to a very small level. Then, there are the few instances when the injury is deadly. On very rare occasions it is unavoidable. Other times, well, there were injury preventative pieces of equipment available that were not used and that is not acceptable to me either.
Avoiding a brain injury is a good idea; it does not mean you are afraid of anything, it does mean that you are sensible and efficient with your time and money. Avoiding a brain injury means you will continue to be able to care for, promote, enjoy, and be with your horse(s). The outlook of a long recovery or even death being even slightly possible is not an acceptable risk, unless the modernized, tested and approved equipment that could greatly reduce this risk is used. Wearing an approved riding helmet has been proven to reduce the risk of brain injuries related to riding horses. Now here is a piece of statistics that shocked me at first. There are fewer head injuries related to off road vehicle use and quadding in the backcountry than head injuries related to riding horses. What? Run that by me again! A quad goes faster, farther and does not have a brain to avoid flipping, and there are fewer head injuries in that sport? The simple answer is, more quad riders wear helmets – it is part of the culture of off road vehicle riding.
I have had this answer from another riding friend – I would wear a helmet but, helmets give me a headache. Sorry, this is no excuse. There are so many different helmets available these days, and you can purchase them from professional fitters. You can find one that fits properly and you can also have one custom made. Do not even try to tell me you cannot afford it. How much did you invest in your education? Are you really willing to put all that brain investment at risk? If you purely thought it through from a business perspective, it does not make sense to invest the time and energy to get through high school, the thousands of dollars for college, trade school, any job training or university and then not put even one thousand dollars into the purchase of a piece of equipment that has proven to reduce the risk of damaging your investment. There are safe riding helmets out there for 90 dollars as well, but the more durable ones, or fancier ones for show outfits, with a closer more customized fit, can be upwards of 700 dollars.
I know some horsemen think a helmet makes them look unprofessional. We are beyond this now. I don’t even want to go there. Even Prix St. George dressage riders wear helmets. Have you seen bull riders, professional jumpers at Spruce Meadows, event riders lately? I commend all coaches who wear a helmet when riding, it is a sign of respect for the sport.
Supporting our youth by role modeling appropriate use of safety equipment – we all want to keep our brains safe.
So, I wear an approved, comfortable and pretty nice looking riding helmet. I do this for more reasons than simply safety. I respect my sport and I am putting a plan in place to protect myself from the most severe injury I could sustain from my horse. I also wear my helmet as an example for young up and coming riders. Children don’t like to be treated any differently from adults. I overheard a young participant at a clinic tell her mum that she was not going to wear a helmet because no one else was. Wow, even if all I could accomplish with wearing a helmet was to encourage others to do the same, it would be worth it, especially if it was someone’s young daughter or son. Creating good habits is, well, something we should all strive for, for ourselves and our loved ones.
If you study the statistics on Traumatic Brain Injuries in Canada, you will find most of them are in contact sports such as hockey, ringette and primarily they are experienced by young males. Even in the non contact sports young males prevail, with the exception of one catagory, equestrian sports. The young ladies take the lead here. Male or female, it is not good for a sport to be the lead in traumatic brain injuries.
The Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting Prevention Program stated that out of all the statistics, it is also worth noting that among females in all age groups shown, equestrian sport/horseback riding was also among the most common non-contact sport with reported concussions or other TBI’s (Traumatic Brain Injuries).
Provvidenza, C, Tator, CH. Sports injuries prevention: general principles. In: Tator, CH, editor. Catastrophic injuries in sports and recreation, causes and prevention: a Canadian study. Toronto: University of Toronto Press; 2008. p. 58–78.
That fact alone is a good reason for any recommendation that children should wear helmets. But why not adults? Is it because adults skulls are thicker? It turns out that it has nothing to do with the thickness of a skull. A child’s head is more at kicking height for a horse if they are standing on the ground. So, a shorter adult would be in the same boat. Here is a question for those supporting children in their riding pursuits – how many children just dawn their helmets as they are about to mount, after they have completed many of the risky tasks, like lead their horse through a crowd of other horses at a horse show?
“Catastrophic brain injuries account for half the trauma deaths and about half the trauma cases with permanent, major disability.” says Dr. Tator.
In fact, Tator goes on to reference a Think First symposiam where brain injuries are narrowed down further to say that in Canada, approximately 20 percent of brain injuries are sports related. In another paper, Tator et al report that traumatic injuries in sports cost Ontario, 3 billion dollars a year.
Not to mention the personal suffering and grief these types of injuries cause. I often think of my dear friends who have suffered serious concussions and brain damage as a result of equestrian sports related injury, their stories of recovery and loss are incredible.
The one with the permanent damage was not wearing a helmet, the two who were wearing a helmet (which broke upon impact) are still living their life as they were prior.
My habit is to dress for riding (the riding clothes now take up more space in my closet than my work clothes, a good sign!), and I put the helmet on when the boots go on, at the door, inside the house. The gloves are on the belt with my knife and my GPS SPOT. I now feel like something is missing if any of these items are not on my body for any session with my horse. Now I am ready to catch my horse, groom, saddle up and have a fantastic, challenging time with 100 percent of my focus on myself and my horse. I do not even think of the risks, because I have done everything I can to prevent a wreck. If one happens, then, well, I have the tools to help myself and my horse. I know coming off a horse is part of the sport and a risk I am willing to take with the correct equipment!
There is more to planning for risk, and it stems from when you should or should not get on a horse and much of that has to do with the breed, age, experience, training, fitness of your horse as well as other equipment used (and misused), as well as, your fitness or
skill level, and so on. In the meantime, first and foremost, take a look at how you use your own safety equipment and consider the impact of your choices on your family, our horse community and our country’s health care system when you get ready for some quality horse time.
Copyright Heidi Eijgel, Windy Coulee Canadians