February 25


Riding Helmets and Equestrian Gurus

By barbaraellinfox

February 25, 2013

concussion, dressage, helmet, helmets, new rule, riding helmets, safety, USEF

Normally I don’t repeat blog posts from the Riding Instructor to U.S. Horsemanship but this one has significance for everyone.

On a day to day basis we don’t usually notice the changes.  We’re sort of like the frog in the boiling water.  The water is cool when he’s first in the pot and as the temperature increases, the frog doesn’t notice until it’s too late and he’s become a gumbo base. Likewise, when you stand in 2013 and look back to the 1960s or the 1900s or before, the changes you notice are staggering.

One of the most noticeable to me is the large number of horse gurus available through media and in person who are ready to help teach us everything we need to know to become their apprentice.  (And they sure aren’t shy about what they will charge you for it.)

Everyone is looking for a leader, someone to take them down the path of great horsemanship knowledge into some kind of horse education euphoria at the end. We have become a society of people who lack the ability to reason and think for ourselves. And the slick marketers are having a hey day with it. The marketer guru horsemen lead scads of fledgling horse lovers down the rosy trail of  the “Follow My Way Only” School of Horsemanship. They sell them videos and ropes and sticks and halters and fancy bits and round pens and methods and good ole’ boy wisdom while the newby’s eyes glaze over and they begin to chant the guru’s name.

My cynical side says that you can’t do much about it.  People who want to be suckers will be suckers because they are usually too mentally lazy to question anything. But sometimes I just can’t stand by and watch.  This is one of those times.

All this and it’s about helmets? Yes.  Obviously you have to make your own choice about whether or not to wear a helmet when you ride.  It’s your life. You can decide whether to risk cracking your head and becoming a burden to your friends and family.  After all, it only effects …well, everyone that cares about you. But if that’s the decision you make, I hope you’re smart enough and have the shreds of decency required to teach the people who look up to you to wear a helmet when they ride.

The following is my blog post from The Riding Instructor.  Thanks for reading.

  •  She’d taken the polo pony out for a trail ride when the mare bolted toward home. As the mare made a sharp right down the lane at a gallop, Merri lost her seat and parted company from the horse; head first into a telephone pole. Meri wasn’t wearing a helmet. She never recovered from brain trauma.
  • A few years later the scenario repeated itself only I was a teenager on my own horse.  At the edge of a huge field my friend said “Let’s race!” and before I could say no my horse was at a gallop and out of control.  At the end of the field he veered left and ran toward the canal. Almost to the end of the pavement he turned to the right.  I didn’t lose my seat until we both hit the pavement, me on my head and him on his knees.  When  I was next aware, someone had brought me home and I was on the way to the hospital. My thin helmet, in England they call them Beaglers, was enough to keep my brains in my skull.
  • He was going to be the next big name in Arabian trainers. All the stars were lined up for him. He was riding a student’s quiet pleasure horse when a stable hand snapped the arena fence with the front of the tractor. The horse went over backwards and slammed Mike’s head into the soft arena dirt. He was pronounced dead 2 times. Mike spent the rest of his life learning to walk and talk and take care of himself.  His brother and parents and wife wished he’d been wearing a helmet
  • I had a “laid back” feeling this day as I led my National Champion Dressage horse into the arena.  My pre school aged daughter looked on while I put my foot into the stirrup to mount. The next thing I knew I was being loaded into the ambulance, strapped to a back board, an oxygen mask over my face.  I’d been out for at least 20 minutes, horse running loose, small child terrified, alone and in tears. I was lucky. I spent the next few years with vertigo that would throw my body so out of control that I’d careen across a paddock out of balance, just from bending over to do up the surcingle on a blanket. It was the one time I rode my champion without a helmet.  I wished I hadn’t been so foolish.

These 4 personal proofs in my lifetime taught me that it’s sheer vanity to think you’re ever so skilled that you don’t need a helmet when you ride.

According to www.riders4helmets.com and the NEISS data report from 2007 – Head injuries comprise about 15% of the riding accidents that were reported to emergency rooms and are the number 1 cause of death among equestrians.  The rate of concussion for equestrian sports injuries is more than double that of any other sport.

Mounted on even a small horse (15 hands), your head is 7-8 feet off of the ground.  Depending on the size of the horse your head could be as high as13 feet off of the ground. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons  tells us “. . . it is the height from which the rider falls that most significantly impacts the severity of the injury” and “a fall from just two feet can cause permanent brain damage. Riders ages 10-14 are most likely to be involved in an accident with a horse.” and “While serious head injury can occur while wearing a helmet, the data very clearly shows that the severity of the head injury can be decreased through helmet wear.”

And riders rarely fall off their horse while it is standing still.  When you consider the velocity factor added when a rider falls from a bucking or galloping horse…it just makes you wonder why anyone would question the need for a helmet.

You Can Be Smarter Than Parelli:
There has been discussion around for several years about the stand  Parelli’s Natural Horsemanship has taken about helmets. It came up on Facebook again and personally, I think the topic should stay in play. I’ve included the statement that circulated written by from Parelli below, and then one from the staff at Parelli Centers.

“LINDA: Personally speaking we feel very uncomfortable wearing helmets because it affects our balance and perceptiveness. Pat wears his cowboy hat and I would wear a helmet if I engaged in extreme sports such as high jumps or eventing. As far as our students are concerned, we are ‘pro choice’, meaning we respect their choice to wear one or not, and we put a lot of emphasis on safety through savvy. Many people are accidents waiting to happen. I think about what I used to do before meeting Pat and starting the Parelli program, I was one of those. I didn’t have a clue and I should have been wearing a helmet because it was just a matter of time before I was going to hit the ground! I was getting on a dangerous horse every day, one who was mentally, emotionally and physically out of control. He didn’t trust me and reacted badly to all kinds of situations. I wasn’t even safe on the ground! I made bad decisions because I did not understand the horse’s nature and especially because I didn’t know how to get him to be calm and left brain. Many people climb on horses who are right brain and acting like prey animals, or who have the propensity to do so in even mildly alarming situations. They put on helmets and mount up, thinking they are safe, and they try to stay on no matter what. Helmets do not keep people safe. We don’t get on unsafe horses. We put a lot of time into preparation. We get off immediately the situation becomes unsafe. Most riders don’t do any of that, but it’s what we practice religiously and teach our students to do too. This is the example we set and the one we want them to follow.”

From Parelli Centers-

“Thank you for taking the time to write us. We understand your views and concerns. As quoted by the faculty at our ranch:

“You are quite right – helmets are fabulous things and they save many lives. Tragically though, people who ARE wearing helmets also die or suffer serious head injuries in accidents with horses.

Our program is intended to address the safety problem at its root – which is behavioral – rather than address the symptoms of it. Our message is about developing the relationship with the horse, and the savvy level of the rider, so that unsafe behavior is addressed long before the rider gets on the horse – rather than allowing the unsafe situations to continue to occur and hope that the helmet, body protector, etc, will protect us from the consequences.

The reason you do not see our people wearing helmets is because we try to teach people that rather than be brave because they are wearing a a helmet to protect them, they would be better off not riding until their horse is behaving safely.

People have called us brave for not wearing helmets, but we say they are a lot braver than we are. We would not get on their horse until we had addressed the issues that cause it to behave in unsafe ways.

We hope this helps,

From the Faculty, Parelli Centers”

What Do The Polls Say?

I have to admit that when I saw these two letters my mind took an involuntary leap back to the dark ages. Who could possibly agree with this view on saving ourselves, friends and loved ones from possible brain damage? And how could a statement like this come from someone who is admired and followed by hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting horse lovers who want to improve their riding and keep safe while doing it?

I’m happy to tell you that in my research I read hundreds of responses to theses posts and found only one person who came to the defense of Pat and Linda Parelli. All I can say is that that person was blinded a lack of critical thinking skills and had been “drinking the Kool-Ade”.

In view of the statistics I’ve shown you, in my opinion the Parellis do a disservice to everyone who listens to them. It’s worse than a disservice- in my opinion, it’s clowns like this that get people killed and crippled.

 Let me high light the statistics:

  • Head injuries are the number 1 cause of death among equestrians.
  • The rate of concussion for equestrian sports injuries is more than double that of any other sport.
  • “it is the height from which the rider falls that most significantly impacts the severity of the injury”
  • “a fall from just two feet can cause permanent brain damage.
  • “…the data very clearly shows that the severity of the head injury can be decreased through helmet wear.”

Let Us Demonstrate By Example:

And as an illustration of how illogical the Parelli statements are, not too long after Linda Parelli made her statement her own horse tripped and fell with her.

Here is the official notice From the Savvy Club Forum:

Linda was cantering Remmer in a field when he tripped and stumbled for about 20 feet trying to regain his balance. At the end he fell and pitched on his nose. Linda was knocked out for a few minutes and under his feet when he tried to get up. So she was bruised on her body and legs and got 4 broken ribs. Remmer is fine. Thanks to speedy attendance and good care at the hospital (plus the red light – photonic therapy), she was discharged home after the second day as she was recovering quicker than expected and could now walk by herself as well as get up and down from bed. She is at home continuing her recovery and as you know with broken ribs, it will be some weeks before she can ride again. But she is in great spirits and not much pain.”

I’m writing this calmly but inside I am screaming: If Linda Parelli had been wearing a helmet she may not have been knocked out (read- concussion) and under her horse’s feet when he got up.  A helmet may have saved her from a concussion and it may also have saved her from bruises and 4 broken ribs. I wonder if that was extreme enough for Linda Parelli. I wonder what she considers a safe horse.

In my opinion the Parelli’s attitude about horses and helmets is so unrealistic, so off in na na land, so wrong  and so obviously dangerous that it makes me wonder what other completely wrong concepts they teach to their followers. In my opinion this stand puts Parelli at the bottom of the pecking order demonstrating a lack of regard for human life as well as a lack of “saavy”.

Time For My Soap Box:

One of my “bones to pick”  has always been the responsibility of people who promote themselves to star status and become the “word” for the industry.    When people become the “name”, the public puts them on a pedestal. They receive accolades for all of the wonderful things they achieve.  But if they are not ready to be responsible to the people who “believe” in them and hang on their every word trying to emulate them, then I believe they should be called out  and taken to task for their errors. Or better yet knocked off their pedestal. In other words, those people who seek to be the leaders and teachers of others better be willing to watch out for their followers and try to diminish the collateral damage that will come from their fame. It’s part of the price you pay for the accolades.

In the case of Parelli’s, it appears to me  they demonstrate that their image is more important than the people they serve. They need to take a positive stand on helmets and set an example for Parelli wannabees who copy every thing Parellis say and do, because “…the data very clearly shows that the severity of the head injury can be decreased through helmet wear.”

My heart breaks for the families of the people who let the Parelli’s play their mind “GAMES”  and are led down the treacherous no helmet path. I have to ask this question. If wearing a helmet is a personal choice and the statistics prove how dangerous it is to go without, why would a high profile professional encourage people to make stupid choices?

Are You Tough Enough?

Here’s  the lead line for a New York Times article about bull riders: “There were so many helmets strewn about behind the chutes at the season-opening Professional Bull Riders event that the bull riders could not always tell them apart.” Read the article. And you’ve got to admit there just aren’t too many riders tougher than these guys.  They’re saving their cowboy hats for between rides. They’re thinking about families and loved ones. They are wise enough to see down the road. And they’re not going to be telling you that helmets effect their “balance and perceptiveness” either. Personally I think they are a very cool group of people.

Bull Riders Wear Them
Bull Riders Wear Them
Mounted Police Wear Them
Mounted Police Wear Them

Are You Good Enough?

Another topic of conversation that has been on the internet for several years is the story about Courtney King Dye. C
The following is from Courtney King Dye’s web page

“Courtney King Dye is a USDF Certified Dressage Instructor and USDF Gold Medalist.  As a competitor she represented the United States in the 2007 World Cup in Las Vegas, the 2008 World Cup in The Netherlands, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Courtney is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in literature.

On March 3, 2010, a horse Courtney was riding tripped and fell. Courtney was not wearing a helmet and suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. She spent 4 weeks in a coma and 3 months in in-patient rehabilitation re-learning how to walk and talk. She was the catalyst and is an avid supporter of riders4helmets.”

Be Daring In A Way That Counts

At the 2012 Olympics Dressage rider Charlotte Dujardin won the Gold Medal in dressage and set an Olympic Dressage record with her score. And she was the only rider wearing a helmet.

Good News About Helmet Use:

The United States Equestrian Federation has put in place a new helmet rule that effects eventing and dressage riders at competitions.  Basically it says that anyone who is competing in National (USEF) level events or dressage classes is required to wear a helmet. Only riders who ride in FEI only classes are exempt. Aside from FEI, everyone has to wear a helmet while mounted every time they ride at a competition whether it is for schooling or showing. It does not matter how old you are.  If you ride you wear a helmet at National shows for eventing and dressage beginning April 1, 2013.

Canada was the first country to make this kind of requirement, the U.S. is the second. I hope it is just the beginning and that we see many more countries  follow suit.  We still have a long way to go to convince people to wear helmets but progress is being made in spite of the cavalier and the stupid.  Just my humble opinion.

Help make our sport as safe as possible.

Thanks for joining me on The Riding Instructor,

Barbara Fox

PS Thanks for reading US Horsemanship too!

  1. Great post. If I wasn’t already a big advocate for helmets, I think you would have convinced me to become one. I did have a bad fall, once, and cracked my helmet–not my head. It can happen to anyone.

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