Helmets becoming part of the uniform for many equestrians

Don’t expect the Grand Valley Dressage Society officers to be hard-headed when they meet this week and discuss new United States Equestrian Federation rules, adopted last month.

“I think we will probably adopt their rules and require helmets for all adults at our shows, except for the top-level classes,” said Deb Crooks, secretary for the local dressage group.

Dressage is an activity that promotes suppleness and fluid, powerful movements in a horse. It is also used as a training technique for other equine sports, such as jumping. Competition in dressage runs the gamut from local shows to international competition, including the Olympics.

And it was an injury to a U.S. Olympic rider, Courtney King-Dye, last year that helped push the federation to consider stricter helmet rules for competitors, both in dressage and eventing.

Eventing is a sort of equestrian triathalon, where horse and rider compete in dressage, arena jumping and cross-country jumping. The new rules for eventing require helmets on all riders when they are in the saddle at any sanctioned event.

King-Dye wasn’t competing when she was injured in Florida last March. She was training a dressage horse, which stepped on its own foot, stumbled and fell on her.

King-Dye wasn’t wearing a helmet. She was knocked unconscious and was in a coma for several weeks. She is still undergoing physical therapy, according to her website, but is riding again. She also has become an advocate for helmet use.

“We, and the horse, can’t account for all the possibilities,” she wrote in Dressage Daily.  “The unexpected has to be expected.”

Although Courtney King-Dye’s injury was a catalyst for rule changes at the federation, helmet use has been gaining ground gradually among equestrians.

Mesa County Fairgrounds requires all riders under the age of 18 to wear a helmet or have a signed waiver from their parents allowing them to go helmet-less.

The Grand Junction Horse Show Association, which holds several horse shows a year at the fairgrounds, follows those guidelines, said Dick Adams, president of the Horse Show Association and co-owner of The Horse in Sport tack and apparel store at 215 Colorado Ave. in Grand Junction.

“Most of our English riders wear helmets anyway,” Adams said. “But the Western riders, that’s another matter.”

Even so, more and more people in all horse disciplines are wearing helmets. Anyone who has been to a rodeo lately knows that many bull riders, and even a few bronc riders, have started wearing helmets. One barrel-racing competitor at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas created a stir several years ago when she wore a helmet in the championship. Websites promote helmets for barrel racers and others.

Get out away from the competitive arenas, on a trail ride, and you’re likely to encounter a number of riders wearing helmets. It’s not the majority, by any means, but there’s no question more helmet wearers are on the trail compared to a decade ago.

As with bicycle riders and skiers, safety concerns and improved helmet design have combined to make horseback helmets more acceptable and desirable.

“The new technology in helmets has made them much more streamlined and comfortable,” said Teresa Wynne, owner of The Equestrian Market, a tack and apparel shop at 1460 North Ave. “We have quite a selection now of helmets that are very affordable and lower profile. They don’t look like a big salad bowl on your head.”

Wynne said equestrian helmets start at under $30 and can cost as much as $400 or $500. As long as they meet industry requirements and are comfortable to wear, those in the lower price range can serve as well as the more expensive ones, she said.

Many riders don’t wear helmets simply because that’s long been the practice. But tradition, said King-Dye, “is a pathetic excuse because now we breed our horses to be more athletic and sensitive than before, and we’ve manufactured safer helmets.”

At The Horse in Sport, “We push helmets as the first thing people should consider if they or their children are just getting started with horses,” Adams said.

That advice comes from family experience. Adams’ wife, Tiger, has been riding and training horses for years, and she has suffered several concussions, although not all are related to horses. “She won’t go near a horse without her helmet,” he said.

Additionally, he said, while people riding jumping horses have long been required to wear helmets, “the majority of horse-related head injuries I know of didn’t come from jumping.”

Deb Crooks is another person who has been riding and training horses most of her life. She has rarely worn helmets, but fortunately, has never suffered a serious injury. However, as with other dressage riders, that will be changing, except when she is riding in upper-level dressage classes, where helmets will still be optional.

“I think it’s a good rule,” she said of the new federation requirement.


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