In 1970 legislation was enacted in Victoria, Australia requiring occupants of vehicles to wear seatbelts. I grew up in Tasmania in the 1970s and can certainly remember being unrestrained in the back seats of vehicles as a young child on occasion as I’m sure many of you can also.
I was too young to remember arguments for and against the new legislation but I’m sure there were people unhappy about wearing a seatbelt. Arguments about them being uncomfortable, maybe causing more harm than good in the case of an accident as an example, have you heard this anywhere before? Can you imagine getting into your car now and not putting a seatbelt on? I know I certainly can’t.
Growing up and riding in the early 80s my riding lessons were always in helmets, many people I knew didn’t ride in one. I’m sure we all have fond memories of the white egg-head helmets or the fairly useless velvet ones with the screw in the middle at the top and an elastic strap under your chin? Neither had really been designed with rider comfort in mind and the latter not really with safety in mind. Haven’t they come a long way? Helmets now have air vents, are weighed in grams, are manufactured from safer materials than previously and are overall way more comfortable to ride in. If you’re on an Olympic team you can even have them decorated! Much like seat-belts, there’s absolutely no reason not to wear one.
Ironically it would seem, I wrote a blog on Saturday 22 June about why I wear a helmet. Sunday 23 June was International Helmet Awareness Day, an organisation I’m in great support of.
I wrote about how as a teenager I’d been issued the ultimatum from my mother when heading off to collect my horse with a bridle thrown over my shoulder that if I didn’t wear my helmet I wasn’t allowed to ride the horse back. Cue teenage tantrum and threats of a) telling my father and b) selling the horse. Helmet on I sulked my way to get my mare. Normally incredibly sure-footed she tripped on our way back and I went over the handlebars onto rocks leaving nice divits in my very attractive egg-head helmet of the time. I don’t think I actually thanked my mother but I sure didn’t bitch about wearing a helmet again!
On Sunday 23 June whilst teaching a regular client I hopped on a quiet horse I’d been on before to see what was going on for her young rider. Most of the rest of that afternoon is fairly fuzzy. I was taken by ambulance to The Austin Hospital. I’d been unconscious for four minutes and I had a hairline fracture of my C6 vertebra. On the face of it, it doesn’t actually sound like it’s a catastrophic injury and to be honest I thought I was going home from the Emergency Department that night armed with a wheat pack and Rapigel. It turns out I may have been a little more ‘altered’ than I’d thought. I spent two nights on the Neurology ward, the first with very regular checks in case of a brain bleed or other complications. Up until the Monday morning I’d not let my parents know what was going on. They’re in Tasmania, I couldn’t see the point in worrying them when I was going home that night anyway. Monday morning, things became very real. I wasn’t allowed on more than a 45 degree angle and I was fed breakfast by a nurse. Time to call Mum and Dad!
It’s now five weeks down. I’ve not been able to drive for that time and am therefore house-bound and also unable to work. I’m feeling much better now but the first three weeks are a bit of a blur to be honest. The fracture turns out to be the least of my problems. After three weeks I’m able to remove the hard collar for short, and then longer periods. I’m able to start to have the soft tissue injuries treated.
At one point I remember thinking ‘oh well, if I’m stuck home for all this time I’ll at least get a heap of work done on Remote Coach’, silver lining and all… The bottom line is the concussion and what I’ve since learned is a significant brain injury has been debilitating. I’ve had zero concentration. I’m only recently able to read, watch a full episode of a TV show and write without zoning out, sleeping or losing time. The vertigo has to be experienced to be believed, I’ve spent days having to hold onto furniture to get around the house.
These injuries were received whilst wearing a helmet.
The thought of the condition I may have been in if I’d not worn one makes me feel slightly ill.
The number of horsemen and women, admittedly, not large but still significant given the number of people they influence through social media who advertise clinics and their skills I’ve seen without helmets on, I find, appalling. I should clarify, I’ve always found it appalling, I find it even harder to view after my own recent experience.
I need to make it very clear, I’m not doubting these people are great at what they do. I know some first hand and admire them, and their skills, greatly. I’ve learned from them and will no doubt continue to do so. I’m also not really pushing the barrow that we shouldn’t have a ‘choice’. Our ‘choices’ can and do have an affect on others. My life’s been very changed the last five weeks with having to rely on family and wonderful friends but I know there’s an end in sight and have been able to be in my home with only a few adjustments required. The alternate option would’ve destroyed my parents well-earned retirement just for a start. Because I don’t agree with someone’s choice doesn’t mean I’m looking for an argument, it doesn’t mean I don’t like and/or respect them, it simply means I don’t agree with their choice.
It is not the choice of your partner, family and friends to bathe, feed, dress and care for you for the rest of your life should you have an acquired brain injury. We can all be hit by the metaphorical bus at any point in time, we all have the choice to minimise that risk by wearing a helmet.
It’s certainly heartening to see Olympians and other equestrians of influence wearing helmets. We’ve all heard about the simplest of accidents causing the most tragic of injuries. It’s not about how good or bad a rider you are. It’s generally not about how safe or nuts the horse is. Of course you do need to weigh up your own skills with the animal in front of you and use common sense if you feel you may be out of your depth.
If you’re in a position where you influence young people, lead by example, wear a helmet and insist they do also.
My mother was relaying my story to a doctor friend of hers. He claimed to have seen more head injuries from people working on the ground with horses than having fallen off them. I have sometimes put a helmet on for ground work or float training. It’s going on every time now. We wouldn’t handle horses in thongs or other inadequate footwear, it simply becomes a habit.
The other piece of safety equipment which is well worth considering is the body protector. It’s now compulsory for jockeys and eventers above a certain level to wear one of these. I teach many children whose parents insist their children wearing these protectors, and again, it will become second nature for them as they grow up to wear one. Like helmets, they are not the uncomfortable pieces of equipment they once were. It’s not something everyone would consider but certainly something I’d be wearing if I was jumping or covering ground at speed.
Like airbags in cars, helmets need to be replaced. Replace your helmet after a significant fall. One person on my Facebook page said she’d turned her daughters helmet into a hanging plant basket – cool idea! You safety check your horses tack regularly and replace anything that looks unsafe. If you have a good stack, cut the straps on the helmet and throw it out, or turn it into a flowerpot!
Finally, I’m well aware a helmet may not always save a life and there are arguments they can increase your soft tissue injuries in a fall but I’m betting they save more lives than we know and right now I’m very glad I was wearing one.