Wear Riding Helmets—It’s How To “Mind Your Melon”

I would think—more than 20 years since the creation of the ASTM/SEI standard for riding helmets and thousands of pages of research into head injuries—that wearing an ASTM/SEI-certified riding helmet whenever you’re riding couldn’t even be a topic for debate. But, somehow, it still is.

Always wear an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet, like this Charles Owen skull cap.

I was reminded of that the other day when I saw a video piece done by event riders Dom and Jimmie Schramm, who’d just heard about a young girl who suffered a serious head injury in a riding fall. Like me, couldn’t believe some riders still dismiss wearing helmets for a variety of superficial and moronic reasons.

With the Twitter hash tag #mindyourmelon as a means to spread the word via social media, Dom extols riders in all disciplines to protect their heads by wearing a helmet. “It’s time to declare war on the b.s. of people still riding without a helmet,” he says. I agree, completely. No one, under any circumstances, has ever been allowed to get on a horse without wearing an ASTM-SEI-certified helmet at our Phoenix Farm.

Their video shows Dom’s friend and fellow Australian Boyd Martin throwing away the straw hat he used to wear while riding and putting on an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet. Martin’s fervor is understandable, considering that his wife, Silvia, is still recovering from a severe head injury she suffered in March when the horse on which she was sitting while teaching a lesson stumbled and fell. The extent of her recovery is still uncertain.

The video also shows several other four-star riders, including Hawley Bennett-Awad, Allison Springer and Lauren Kieffer, exhorting riders to follow their example and wear their helmets. Says Buck Davidson, America’s leading event rider, disarmingly, “The first thing I do every time I go to ride a horse is get my Charles Owen helmet. Even though there’s not much to protect, it’s the only one I’ve got. Mind your melon.” Amen.

Remember that 2008 Olympic dressage rider Courtney King-Dye ruined her extremely promising career, and nearly lost her life, because a young horse she was schooling tripped and fell in a dressage arena in 2010. It was her fall that provided the impetus for USEF rule requiring ASTM/SEI-certified helmets for dressage and that changed the FEI rule to allow them for dressage.

I know at least a dozen riders whose riding careers—and even their lives— were saved by wearing certified helmets. Yes, they’re all either event riders or steeplechase riders, and they’re required to wear an ASTM/SEI-certified helmet in competition, but I don’t know anyone in either sport who doesn’t wear a certified helmet almost every time they ride today.

ASTM/SEI-certified helmets have saved my life, twice—and I firmly believe that I’d be a blithering vegetable today from all the other times I’ve fallen off a horse in my life if my parents and my Pony Club upbringing hadn’t required me to wear the best helmet available from the time I started to ride at age 5.

And let me emphasize this: All but a handful of those falls were while riding at home or training somewhere else, not while competing.

The first of my two catastrophic falls did happen while competing, in a steeplechase race, in April 1992, only about two years after the ASTM/SEI standard was introduced. It was my horse’s first hurdle race, and I would discover that she was really too careful a jumper to be a hurdle horse. She didn’t want to brush through the plastic brush on top of the jump rolls, and from later looking at a photo of the jump where we fell, I could see that she was so focused on not touching the plastic brush that she didn’t put her landing gear down in time. We crashed into the ground like a wingless airplane.

I still remember only the start of the race, and the first thing I remember after the fall is lying in what must have been the hospital emergency room. After that, then I only recall snippets of the next two or three days. Fortunately, I didn’t break anything, and two weeks later I rode the same mare in another hurdle race, which we finished. Wasn’t I worried? Well, I was younger and braver then, but the good thing about a head injury like that is that it’s liberating—since you don’t remember what happened, you don’t have a reason to worry about it.

The second calamitous fall was a reminder of why you must wear a certified helmet whenever you’re riding or training at home. It was four years ago last weekend, actually, and I was getting on a 3-year-old for the first time, a horse whose two older brothers had been the easiest horses in the world to start under saddle and who seemed to share their temperaments. She didn’t.

My butt never touched the saddle—she launched me sky high, and the last thing I remember is flying through the air. I came down head first, breaking my right occipital bone, my left collarbone, the first two ribs on my right side and the third and fourth ribs on the left side. Plus, I dislocated my right shoulder.

I woke up to the sound of the helicopter circling to land in our front field—and feeling like beavers were gnawing my insides apart. That night, I imagined all kinds of outlandish events happening in the intensive-care unit, and the only thing I remember about the next day is a few moments of being transferred by stretcher from the trauma hospital where the helicopter took me to my regular Kaiser Permanente hospital. And then I don’t remember anything about the first of the two days I spent there, except a few moments of my wife, Heather, bringing our son to visit me. But I couldn’t tell you what day that was.

You know, a main argument usually used for wearing a helmet is the effect a head injury will have on your own life. Well, if you’re so brave and cocksure that that argument doesn’t persuade you, think about the effect on the people around you if you die, if you can’t work, or if you spend the rest of your life (perhaps decades) as a vegetable.

The effect my fall would have on Heather was the first thought I managed to form in my addled brain, as soon as the paramedics had given me some kind of fabulous pain medication and as they were wheeling my stretcher to the waiting chopper, M*A*S*H style. I managed to think, “Well, I’m clearly going to live, but, my god, is Heather going to be OK? I wish I hadn’t done this to her.”

She was incredibly, incredibly brave—that day and for the weeks to come—but, no, she wasn’t OK. She thought she’d seen me die, right in front of her, leaving her a widow with our 6-month-old son. She swears she couldn’t see me breathing for several minutes as I lay there in our ring. It’s a memory that still haunts her, and it’s why we changed our business focus from starting young horses, because I don’t get on babies for the first time anymore. I’m not going to do that do her again, if I can help it.

So, if you think your head is nobody’s problem but your own, look around you and think again. Think about your family and your close friends, and consider the effect that smashing your melon would have on them. Do you want to do that to them? I hope not.

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