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June 3, 2010

Are You Fully Dressed Without A Top Hat?

Jackie Brooks has committed to wearing an approved helmet every time she rides, including when she’s showing in the Grand Prix tests while wearing her shadbelly. Photo by Sara Lieser.

As riders begin choosing to wear approved helmets into the ring, the scenery of dressage is changing.

There are certain benchmarks in the world of dressage, subtle signs that a rider has advanced to a certain level. Showing in a double bridle and riding flying changes in the ring are both goals to which riders aspire.

But nothing else carries quite the weight of the first time a rider puts on a top hat and tailcoat, or shadbelly, to show at the Fédération Equestre Internationale levels.

That’s why Canadian rider Jackie Brooks created quite a buzz when she rode down the centerline for her Grand Prix and Grand Prix freestyle tests at the Palm Beach Dressage Derby CDI-W (Fla.) on March 6 wearing an ASTM/SEI-approved helmet with her tailcoat. It was the first time a high-profile international rider had made such a statement with her headgear.

And a month later, U.S. Olympic rider Sue Blinks joined Brooks in the ranks of the approved-helmet wearers when she sported a helmet at Grand Prix at the Del Mar CDI (Calif.).

Brooks’ decision stemmed from a tragic accident—she chose to wear her helmet into the ring just a few days after fellow Grand Prix rider Courtney Dye suffered a fall while schooling. She was not wearing a helmet and was in a coma for more than a month.

Many dressage riders wear approved helmets while riding at home, and—especially after Dye’s injury—many also wear helmets in the schooling area at shows, then switch to a top hat before they enter the show ring.

Historically, approved helmets haven’t been the fashion in the dressage ring, but that precedent might be changing.

Making A Good Decision For Myself

Brooks categorically stated that she won’t show again without her helmet.

“I think everyone knows in their heart that it’s a good idea to wear a helmet. I think the struggle people have with it is the tradition of the uniform and altering that tradition,” she said.

“It’s interesting how many e-mails and messages I get from juniors and young riders who have already been grappling with the idea that when they finally got to be able to put on that shadbelly, that they would also have to put on a top hat,” she continued. “They’ve always ridden in a helmet. Those are the people I’m finding are most excited about the possibility now that it will be acceptable for them to wear the helmet in the ring.”

Brooks emphasized that she in no way wants to impose her decision upon others.

“I think I’ve made a good decision for myself in wearing the helmet. I think my colleagues and fellow riders are smart, intelligent people making good decisions in their lives, and I applaud any decision they want to make—this is just the decision I want to make,” she said. “But if I can inspire someone who maybe wasn’t sure they could make that decision to put a helmet on, then I’m happy.”

Before this spring, Brooks had been one of the many dressage riders who faithfully wore a helmet at home and in the warm-ups but reverted to a top hat for FEI competition.

But at the Palm Beach Derby she changed her mind.

“I was warming up in the helmet, and I thought, ‘Why would I take it off?’ It’s not like it’s a safer environment in the show ring—it’s not,’ ” said Brooks, of Cedar Valley, Ont. “It just didn’t make sense to me, so I didn’t take it off.

“I’ll stick by my decision. It’s not the kind of decision that you can say, ‘In this show, I’ll wear a helmet, and next weekend I won’t.’ The bottom line is that if you’re wearing a helmet because there’s a potential that you could get hurt, that potential exists every time you get on a horse,” she stated.

Meagan Davis, 20, Stone Ridge, N.Y., also plans to wear an approved helmet while showing in the FEI Young Rider tests at CDIs.

Her decision came not just because of a heightened awareness after Dye’s injury, but also from personal experience. During last year’s Adequan FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (Va.), Davis became the first dressage rider to fall off while in competition at the NAJYRC. During her freestyle, her horse reared and hit her in the face with his poll, knocking her off.

“When it comes to schooling at home, I’ve always ridden in a helmet and always will. That’s never going to be a question. But I’ve actually decided to show in a helmet. I think it was a little bit of everything that made me decide, including the fact that my horse can be a little bit naughty. I want to set a good example for the young riders coming up, and I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Davis.

“But I think it’s a personal decision, and I don’t want to sound like I’m preaching to anyone,” she added. “Everyone should be able to make the decision for themselves.”

It’s My Choice, And I Choose No

Brooks confirmed her commitment to wearing a helmet in the Grand Prix ring during the Kentucky Cup Dressage in April at the Kentucky Horse Park. But at the same venue, Tina Konyot showed her Calecto V to two Grand Prix wins wearing a top hat.

Like Brooks and Davis, Konyot is a firm believer in allowing each rider to make her own decision about headgear in the ring. She, however, chooses to keep her top hat on and doesn’t wear a helmet on every horse she rides at home.

“I make my choices intelligently. If I have a horse who has problems, or that I don’t think is safe, it’s my choice whether or not I’m going to wear a helmet or not. Do I wear a helmet on Calecto? No! Do I ride him bareback with no bridle? Yes!” Konyot said.

“The only reason this has become an issue is because one recognized individual in our sport made a bad decision on one day. She decided not to put a helmet on and was injured,” she continued. “Why is everyone making such a huge issue after one terrible tragedy from one well-known person? Is it less of a tragedy if it’s someone in Iowa who fell off their horse without a helmet and is in the same situation? Why is there all this drama because one person—a lovely, lovely person—made a bad decision?”

Konyot, Palm City, Fla., mandates that students riding at her farm must wear a helmet, mostly due to liability concerns.

“If I get on someone else’s horse that I don’t know, I’ll put a helmet on. And I have one young horse who is very frisky and fresh and is a handful. I ride her with a helmet—I’ve never ridden her without a helmet. Before Courtney got hurt, I rode her with a helmet. What happened to Courtney had no influence whatsoever on my decision to do so,” Konyot said.

Konyot, who is a fifth-generation horsewoman, said she believes that safety is a personal decision. “I have a photo of myself as a child jumping a 3'9" fence with no helmet, no bridle, bareback, with my arms out to the side. That’s how I learned how to ride,” she noted.

“Today, people in general are getting obsessed with safety. Their children want to ride their bicycle to the corner, and they have to put all this gear on. I don’t understand it,” Konyot continued. “I was a wild kid—I broke my arm falling out of a tree—but I had a blast as a kid. I didn’t step out of the door thinking something was going to happen to me.”

I Thought I Understood Acceptable Risk

Eleanor Klawer once shared Konyot’s philosophy. A professional trainer in Langley, B.C., who shows through the Intermediaire I level, Klawer used to wear helmets occasionally, depending on what horse she was riding.

“I had always felt I had an adequate ‘risk analysis’ for whether to wear a helmet or not—on a young horse, yes. For the first time riding outside, yes. After several days off, yes. On the road, always. But I hardly ever wore one on my FEI horse, and rarely on older, broke clients’ horses. And I showed in a top hat, including at the lower levels. Always.”

But a fall on Nov. 8, 2009, changed everything.

She got on an older, well-broke horse, a horse on which she wouldn’t normally wear a helmet. But she’d just gotten off a younger horse, and just happened to be wearing an approved helmet. The older horse tripped in the canter.

“He rolled over and laid on me and kicked me several times, including in the head, when he got up. I broke ribs, my scapula and got a concussion,” Klawer, 48, said.

“I would be dead or seriously brain-damaged had I not been in my GPA that day. It took me four months to recover enough from vertigo and headaches before I could ride. It took another month before I could ride more than one horse. I used to ride eight or more a day. Six months later, I still have headaches, am tired constantly and have difficulty reading. I’m back up to [riding] three or four horses a day, plus my lessons and barn chores as usual, so I’m almost back to where I was, and very thankful for it. The bones healed really fast. The brain is taking its sweet time.”

Klawer was quite frank when considering if she would have changed her helmet policy if she hadn’t experienced her fall.

“I’ve asked myself if Courtney’s terrible experience would have made me change my ways, and I have to shake my head at myself when I say, ‘No, I don’t think it would have.’ I had heard lots of terrible stories about head injuries in my lifetime of riding and still thought I had it all figured out,” she said.

“But has my own fall changed my attitude to helmets? Absolutely. Has it changed my barn rules? Yes, everyone wears a helmet, every ride. Will I wear a top hat again? No.”

Klawer bought a navy GPA to go with her navy shadbelly.

“I’ve wondered if I would wear a top hat if I were at a CDI, and I don’t think I would,” she said. “There’s so much pressure to ‘look the part,’ and I hope as more and more people like myself wear helmets in the FEI tests at the national shows that we and the judges will become accustomed to the appearance and not feel a top hat is necessary to finish the picture.”

It Doesn’t Matter To The Judges

Part of many riders’ reluctance to put down their top hats stems from a suspicion that judges might observe that an approved helmet detracts from the overall elegance and score a rider more harshly.

U.S. Equestrian Federation R-rated judge Janet Foy categorically stated that nothing is further from the truth.

“Anyone who thinks that judges consider what you’re wearing, even if it’s the color of your breeches or your coat, is wrong,” she said. “Those things really don’t come into play at all. What we look for is the harmony of the horse and how well the horse is ridden.

“I think people should wear their helmets if they want to do so. I’d be more than happy to see helmets, as a judge, because the last thing I want to see is something awful happen in the ring in front of me,” she continued.

Brooks is confident that her choice to wear a helmet hasn’t affected her scores.

“I hope the judges aren’t even noticing—I hope they’re not looking at my head. I believe in the sport enough that I honestly believe that what I wear on my head doesn’t matter to my marks. I hope they’re watching my horse’s legs instead of the top of my head,” she said.

Janine Malone, an R-rated dressage judge and FEI chief steward, is the secretary of the U.S. Dressage Federation and is on the USEF Dressage Committee. She clarified that judges are prohibited from considering a riders’ headgear while scoring a test.

“We’re trying to educate everyone and make it really clear to the judges that if there is any comment made to anyone about using protective headgear, or if they allow it to hurt a competitor in the judging of a test, the judge will get a letter from the USEF. That should not happen,” Malone said. “The riders need to report those judges to the USEF.”

Since the topic of wearing helmets in the ring has become such a hot one, the USEF Dressage Committee released a statement clarifying the rules. Malone also planned to put reminders into the licensed officials’ newsletter and encourage the topic to be discussed at judges’ clinics.

Will It Become A Rule?

With all the talk buzzing about helmets, Malone admitted that there’s been discussion within the USEF Dressage Committee about helmet use in dressage becoming required.

“There are lots of people advocating for certain types of rule changes. I think there’s a lot of support for headgear in dressage right now. I have made a major effort not to take a position and to read all the proposals and list everything that’s come up,” Malone said.

“We’ll just see where this goes and where the support is. I do know that if the committee puts something forward, it’s something we believe is going to be fair and will be followed and will be legally defensible.”

Malone pointed out that a possible USEF rule change would also have to consider other non-jumping disciplines, such as Morgan and Arabian shows and western disciplines.

“If dressage, which is a pretty large discipline, decides we want protective headgear required, what about the other disciplines that maybe have a greater accident record at their shows? Would they support the rule change? It’s going to be an interesting year, I think,” she said.

Malone emphasized that should any legislation requiring approved helmet use pass, it would need the support of technical delegates and show managers in enforcement.

“You can’t pass a rule requiring protective headgear if the majority of technical delegates and managers say, ‘I’m not going to enforce it.’ Then, it’s a major problem,” noted Malone. “If you think there’s a safety issue, and you pass a rule change, but you don’t enforce it, you really increase exposure to liability.”


  • According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, there were 11,749 horseback riding-related head injuries treated at U.S. hospital emergency rooms in 2008. That’s 32.18 head injuries per day. Statistics don’t include how many of those involved helmets.
  • According to a study done in 2007 by the Centers For Disease Control, horseback riding causes the highest proportion (11.7%) of traumatic brain injuries among sports-related recreational activities.
  • According to a 2006 National Injury Information Clearinghouse study, three of every five equestrian accident deaths are due to brain injuries.
  • An American Medical Equestrian Association study noted that equestrians suffer as many accidents per hour of activity as motorcycle riders, and that there’s a fourfold increase in mortality for injured, non-helmeted riders.

Not done with helmets yet? Learn more about proper helmet fit, read a fashionista’s view on wearing your helmet, and discover more reasons to wear a helmet by learning how rodeo riders have dealt with the helmet issue.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. A longer version of "Are You Fully Dressed Without A Top Hat?" ran in the June 4 Dressage Issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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