In June of 2016 I attended a presentation that changed my view of how I treat my students after they fall off a horse.
The subject? Concussions. The presenter? Dr. Lola Chambless of Vanderbilt University. Dr. Chambless is a neurosurgeon and also a rider. She is able to speak two languages—that of the medical fraternity and also the somewhat arcane language of a fully involved horsewoman. It was fascinating and horrifying at the same time.
I learned that riders should not get back on their horse immediately after a fall. Instead, they should wait for about 10 minutes. This period gives the rider and the instructor time to assess whether or not the rider is fit to ride again that day.
The talk was filled with statistics that I found both interesting and disturbing. We learned that a high percentage of all of the head injuries that are seen come from the riding world. We also learned that second impact syndrome can have a life changing effect for a rider.
I left that meeting determined to change the way I interact with my students who fall off.
Of course, putting that into practice is more difficult than I envisioned. We, as riders and trainers, are fully integrated in the belief that we should jump right back on our horse. The
new path is uncomfortable or perhaps inconvenient, and although it has become part of my thought process, I am talking the talk but not walking the walk.
Helmets Aren’t Designed For Hunter Hair
Now let’s flash forward to December 2016 when Dr. Chambless presented at the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Annual Meeting. I was looking forward to hearing her presentation again. She is a great speaker, and her topic is compelling. Imagine my surprise when I realized I’d missed a very important fact in her earlier presentation.
That fact? Apparently, when we teach our riders to put their hair up in their helmet we are drastically decreasing the effectiveness of the helmet. The helmet is made to sit close against the skull. Hair up causes the helmet to act differently and has the potential to cause greater harm than wearing your hair down. Not to mention that often riders have their hair down for schooling and up for showing—all with the same size helmet. This adds the dimension of a helmet that does not truly fit.
Again, Dr. Chambless was so compelling on this point that I resolved to educate my riders on hair safety. Therein lies the rub. Hunter hair is practically a religion. There are articles and YouTube videos of how to wear your hair up in a net. Riders who wear their hair in a braid are mocked for being sloppy or against tradition. I have taught countless generations of children to wear their hair up. I have to admit that I love the look of well executed hunter hair.
I spoke to several people about wearing their hair down. The biggest worry cited was that a judge would judge against that rider for lack of tradition. There is no rule in our really large rulebook that deals with the treatment of hair. But, we all know that there is an unwritten code that only intimates of our sport understand. The nervousness about judging may actually be somewhat warranted.
I had to pause and think about how to effect change. This is especially true since I will probably be swimming against the tide. In teaching, personal examples often stick in student’s minds. Here is an example from my own life.
In 1982 I had an accident that I don’t remember having. The day started on the wrong foot. I was showing a young horse, and I had been up most of the night on foal watch. I asked the owner to scratch the horse, and the owner told me that if I didn’t show, the horse would be removed from my training program. I was younger and less secure, so I suited up and went
into the ring. Apparently, the horse stopped, I fell off, and my helmet fell off, which allowed my head to hit the foot of the standard. I was unconscious for about 20 minutes. In fact, I woke up in the middle of a sentence. Off I went to the hospital where I was diagnosed with a concussion and told not to ride for several weeks.
My first action was to buy a helmet with a harness. In those days, only racing helmets had harnesses, so I bought one and endured the mockery of my peers. I vowed that day that I would never again ride without a harness.
The industry caught up with me a few years later. We all learned that our beloved helmets were not safe, and we needed to make a shift to ASTM helmets.
The outcry was huge. People fought the change using all kinds of weapons. Now we all wear helmets with harnesses at horse shows. True, there are some who defiantly leave their chinstraps undone, but most people have learned to comply.
As the world’s knowledge advances we must advance with it. As a sport, we are captivated by tradition. But we should also keep an eye on science and research. Our horses’ equipment and look have changed for the better over the years. We should give ourselves the same chance to be safer.
So, what is more important? Tradition or safety? Obviously, the answer is safety. The journey to the new reality may not be an easy or smooth ride, but I challenge you to: “Let down your hair.”
This is a Between Rounds column “Rapunzel, Rapunzel Let Down Your Hair” by Mary Babick, which appears in the March 27 Horse Show Issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’d like to read the article in its entirety, you can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. Or you can purchase a single issue or subscribe on a mobile device through our app The Chronicle of the Horse LLC.
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