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June 15, 2014

Tradition vs. Safety: The Helmet Discussion Continues At The U.S. Dressage Festival Of Champions

Steffen Peters wore a helmet for the Grand Prix test and then changed into his top hat when he learned the rules allowed it because he likes the traditional look. Photo by Sara Lieser.

Gladstone, N.J.—June 15   

When Steffen Peters cantered down centerline in the Grand Prix test at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions, he was wearing his safety helmet with the stars and stripes. But he’d changed into his top hat for the Special. What happened?

“I understood yesterday from [technical delegate] Elisabeth [Williams] that we can’t use top hats because it’s not a CDI, and then last year in Kentucky [at last year’s national grand prix championship] it was very clear that we could not use top hats, and nobody did,” said Peters. “So when I saw Jan [Ebeling] going in [with a top hat] I was confused.”

U.S. Equestrian Federation competitions require approved helmets, but Fédération Equestre Internationale competitions allow for top hats in the arena, and the Festival Of Champions is being run under FEI rules.

Before 2010, you’d hardly ever see a helmet in the Grand Prix. In fact, most competitors didn’t even think it was allowed. But when Olympian Courtney King-Dye fractured her skull in a fall while schooling that March and spent 30 days in a coma, everything changed.

Of the 16 riders who cantered down centerline in the Grand Prix Special at the Festival Of Champions, six chose to wear helmets this year.

For Michael Barisone, who rode two horses in The Dutta Corp./USEF Grand Prix Dressage National Championship, there are two reasons you won’t see him astride a horse without his helmet, and one is the lack of arguments against using one.

“No one can give a reason why a helmet is a bad idea, period,” Barisone stated. “They can take all this traditional nonsense that they talk about and throw it in the trash can because it’s nonsense.”

Barisone said it’s not unusual to make head protection a requirement for participating in an athletic event, and he doesn’t see why dressage should get to be the exception.

“You cannot race NASCAR without a helmet, you cannot ski race without a helmet, you cannot bicycle race without a helmet,” Barisone listed. “You cannot do any of those sports without a helmet; why is this one different?”

The second reason Barisone gives for his decision to wear a helmet is simple: Courtney King-Dye. King-Dye was not wearing a helmet at the time of her accident, and she has since become an advocate for helmet use in all equestrian events.

“She asked me to come help her with her piaffe and passage, and I was supposed to go over to Loxahatchee [Fla.] the day she got hurt,” Barisone said. “After that it was just like, ‘OK everybody wears their helmet.’ You cannot ride on my farm without one; I will not teach a lesson without it.”

King-Dye’s accident is not the only cautionary tale on the books concerning helmet usage. Dressage rider Silva Martin fell from a young horse while training at her farm in Florida this past spring, and she suffered a head injury despite wearing a helmet.

“Silva Martin is recovering from a head injury. She’s as beautiful a rider as Courtney King, one of the best we’ll ever see, and she had her helmet on,” Barisone said. “It’s disrespectful to Courtney King and to all people who ever had a head injury, now that we know better, to not do it.”

On the other side of the aisle, Peters said that while he does wear his helmet for schooling horses or riding in the warm-up arena, he changes into a top hat for the competition ring.

“The bottom line is I still like the look of a top hat,” he said. “If I have a horse that’s a bit more of a handful, I’ll put the helmet on.”

Peters said the show ring is the only place you’ll see him in a top hat.

“I use it at home every day, especially with the young horses,” Peters explained. “So in training sessions, I do [wear a helmet], and exclusively in the show arena I like to use the top hat, but in the warm-up I start riding with a helmet as well.”

The decision to switch up his head gear for the show ring has to do with the history of the sport for Peters.

“It’s tradition, you know,” Peters said. “I’m 50 years old, this year I’ve done it for 30 years, and some things just don’t change.”

Peters does think a day will come when he’ll no longer have a headgear choice for competition.

“I think there’s more and more discussion about it, and it wouldn’t surprise me,” he said.

Read all the Chronicle's coverage from the U.S. Dressage Festival Of Champions.

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