Here’s a few facts for you: did you know, for example, that wearing a properly-fitted and certified helmet can reduce your risk of a fatal injury from a fall by up to 80%? Did you also know that even without having taken a hit — because I hope, by now, that we all know we need to replace our helmets after a fall or even just a drop on the floor! — your helmet has an ‘expiry date’, and after 3–5 years, you should be replacing it as a matter of routine?
Riding horses certainly isn’t without its risks. Statistically, it’s more dangerous than downhill ski racing, motorcycle racing, hang-gliding, and American football, and a study carried out in US hospitals proved that in terms of injuries for children, only being actually hit by a car has a higher severity. But there are so many sensible ways to mitigate that risk; don’t, for example, go against your gut instinct when it comes to throwing a leg over a particularly naughty young horse, even if you think you need to ‘prove yourself’ in order to advance as a rider (ask me how I found that one out the hard way…); don’t move up a level until you’re really, truly, utterly bored with the one you’re already at; and, of course, make sure you invest your funds wisely into protecting yourself as best you can. That means shelling out for a really good helmet and, whenever possible, donning a comfortable, flexible, and truly well-made body protector, too. (Yes, they do exist; no, you don’t have to pay for a breast reduction to find one. Your local retailer will be able to help you find the best one for you and when you do, I promise you, it’ll be life-changing.)
This week is Safety Awareness Week, and as good a time as any to dig out your helmets and really consider whether it’s time for them to go to the great tack room in the sky. As an enticing incentive, our friends at SmartPak are offering up to 20% off a number of their most popular — and safest — helmets and vests all week, including Charles Owen, Tipperary, One K, and more, with great options at every price point and plenty of useful info on each listing about how the hats are tested and the rigorous safety standards they need to meet. There’s even plenty with MIPS technology, which is a pioneering bit of design that got its start in the motorcycle racing world. You can check out everything they’ve got up for grabs here. I’m particularly keen on this Charles Owen MIPS helmet, which is a seriously budget-friendly $136.
Charles Owen, incidentally, is the helmet brand of choice for dressage supremo Silva Martin, who credits her helmet with saving her life during a 2014 schooling accident. She shared the story with SmartPak, and you can read it in full here, but here’s a helpful debrief:
It was in 2014, just two weeks after Silva’s gold medal win with Rose Cha W as a part of the U.S. Team at the Wellington Nation’s Cup, that Silva had an accident of her own.
“If I didn’t have the helmet on that day, I would for sure not have made it.”
The ride was routine, schooling a mare on the piaffe. There was no big spook, or flapping tarp, not even a loose dog. The mare simply got a leg stuck in the fencing of the arena by accident. In her surprise and effort to keep her balance, the horse flung her head back, making direct contact with Silva’s face. Stunned, Silva fell from the saddle and was hit by the mare’s back leg as she got untangled from the arena fencing. Says Silva, “It was definitely not the horse’s fault, she did nothing wrong. She just tripped over; it was the most boring accident.”
From that fall, Silva suffered a seizure, a mid-brain bleed, and was lifted by helicopter to nearby Delray Hospital. She remembers none of it, not the falling, nor the helicopter. She does know, however, that at the hospital she was told surgery was not an option and if the bleeding did not stop, she would die.
Eventually, Silva made it home to their farm in Pennsylvania where she was treated at Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital. Her continued recovery for a year consisted of outpatient therapy for six days a week as well as continued daily support from friends and family. It wasn’t easy, as Silva recalls, “I had to learn how to walk and how to talk for over a year. I was 100% dependent on other people.”
After a long, hard-fought rehabilitation and being cleared by her doctors, Silva made her return to the show ring. Her first competition back required a new routine including naps between each ride, as she wasn’t able to stay awake for long. Even “getting back on the horse” so to speak was no longer the same. Silva’s team was there to support her—both emotionally and physically as she was nearly lifted onto her horse—but Silva remembers how good it felt to get back in the ring and do it again.
Since then, Silva continues to recover both in and out of the saddle. As a result of the accident, she only has vision in one eye and a skewed sense of depth perception. Riding down centerline is still the same high, but is more challenging.
Now at Windurra USA, the main training facility owned by Silva and her husband Boyd Martin, they stress the importance and necessity of helmets for every ride. According to Silva, “Nobody at our place gets on without a helmet ever.” This includes the Martin’s two small boys, Nox and Leo. Silva says her children don’t know life without a helmet. They don’t question if you should or should not put a helmet on before getting on a horse—it’s just what you do.
“Even now, if the doctor’s look at my injury they say they cannot believe I’m walking and talking and that if I hadn’t had that helmet on, there’s no question that I would have died.”
Want more info on helmet safety, and how the technology is progressing? Check out this insightful episode of the US Eventing Podcast, in which Dr. Barry Miller of Virginia Tech’s Helmet Lab and Catherine Winter of Ride EquiSafe discuss the data on biomechanics, injury risks, and how hats are levelling up to keep you as safe as possible.