March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, which leads me to a related story…

It was three years ago this month that Courtney King-Dye, the American dressage rider and 2008 Olympian, suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury after the horse she was riding fell. Courtney was not wearing a helmet at the time, but often did, especially when riding a young horse. As the horse she rode that day was always so well behaved and she was a bit short of time, she passed up her helmet in the tackroom. The attempt to save a few seconds cost Courtney her life as she knew it. Three years after the fall, she still walks and speaks with difficulty; however, due to increased helmet awareness, especially among dressage riders, she doesn’t feel that her trials have been in vain. Since her accident, Courtney has become somewhat of a poster child for helmet advocacy, and in November, 2012, she was awarded the FEI’s Against All Odds Award.

A lot has changed in the landscape of headgear for dressage riders over the past 3 years, mainly led by grassroots efforts, such as the group Riders4Helmets. Now the USEF has stepped up as well.

As of April 1, 2013, the USEF helmet rule for dressage (DR120) reads as follows:

From the time horses are officially admitted to the competition grounds by competition management, anyone mounted on a horse at any time on the competition grounds including non-competing riders, riders on non-competing horses, and those competing in all classes and tests, including Para-Equestrian tests must wear protective headgear as defined by this rule and otherwise in compliance with GR801. Any rider violating this rule at any time must immediately be prohibited from further riding until such headgear is properly in place. Protective headgear is defined as a riding helmet which meets or exceeds ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials)/SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) standards for equestrian use and carries the SEI tag. The harness must be secured and properly fitted.

This is a huge leap from where the rule stood just a few short years ago, when baseball caps were the norm in the warmup and legions of riders competing at 3rd and 4th level sported top hats. Although the traditional look of the top hat may be missed by some, the news of Courtney lying in a coma for nearly a month brought the sobering reality home to dressage riders of all levels. While the FEI has not yet passed a ruling requiring helmets for riders, the beefed-up USEF rule is a good start. Considering dressage is viewed as such a cerebral sport – it’s high time we used our heads and saved our brains.

You can view Courtney King-Dye’s latest video for Riders4Helmets here.