I’m saving the world one head at a time. Steve Leo’s head was the first. He’s the guy who taught my wrist to bend after six weeks of stall rest (a.k.a. a cast) for a compound horse-inflicted fracture. It turned out Steve was a horseman, in addition to being a physical therapist. One step into his Staunton, Va., office revealed that. He’s got horse statues, horse paintings and horse pictures all over the place. So either he was, like me, horse addicted, or he just had really bad taste in art.
Steve specializes in rehabilitating hands and arms, and he might even be crazier than me when it comes to horses. I’ve yet to go on vacation 2,000 miles away and come home with two new horses. I at least contain my insanity to the East Coast. Steve went on a riding holiday in Montana and bought back two Paint colts. I know this not just because I’m nosy, but because among his horse art is an 8 x 10 photo of a silhouetted man on horseback against majestic mountains that are about 100 times the size of our little Blue Ridge bumps. That’s Steve in the silhouette. Very Marlboro Man. Very helmetless.
Since I can still string together a somewhat understandable sentence in less than an hour—despite an embarrassing number of head injuries—that makes me Commandant of the Helmet Police. This is not a popular position, and I’m usually greeted with the same enthusiasm by those I reprimand as the Chief of Internal Affairs is greeted by the police force. But I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years, so my skin is thick, and I am relentless.
“No helmet?” I said to Steve, holding up his Marlboro Man photo. He muttered something about how no one who rides in a western saddle wears a helmet. “So the horn protects your head?” I asked. He’s a Northern Italian and I’m a Northern Jew, which means we were hurling wisecracks back and forth within five minutes of meeting each other. Consequently, he made a few off-color jokes about heads, then ended by saying the one on top of his shoulders was hard enough to take any knock.
I countered with what the ER doc told me after I whined about being knocked out while wearing a helmet: “That’s why you can still talk,” she said with not even a hint of a smile. Head injury was clearly no laughing matter to her.
I told Steve to Google Courtney King Dye’s heartbreaking video to see someone who can barely talk because she wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Maybe that’s what got his attention, or maybe it was the memory of the recent fall he’d taken. His Paint nearly clipped him in the head with a hoof.
“You were lucky. This time. Get a helmet,” I said. No smile, no wisecrack. The ER doc is right. There's nothing funny about brain injury for either the injured or those who have to take care of the injured.
Something worked. The next time I showed up at his office to practice wrist bending, he proudly announced he’d bought a helmet and planned to ride in it from then on—Macho Marlboro Man be darned. That was a few months back. A good officer of the law knows follow up is the key to reducing recidivism. So I called to check up on him. Score one for the Office of Head Protection (OHP). He swears he wears it each time he rides.
Spreading The Gospel
I am obnoxiously evangelical (a natural pairing of two words if ever there was one) about helmets. When the Virginia Horse Council ran a picture on its website of a girl wearing an unapproved helmet—what we used to call “brain buckets”—I emailed them, suggesting they had a responsibility to set an example and show riders in safe and approved gear. Their new photo is another victory for the OHP.
This is an especially important victory for my department because a study released this week showed that young people and females heal more slowly from head injury. This may be the only time I can commend men for their hard-headedness.
Horse magazines, in my opinion, have a responsibility as well. They should step up to the safety plate and refuse to run ads of helmetless riders and refuse to run editorial pictures of people in unsafe head gear, even if it is allowed by the short-sighted organizations that govern the many disciplines in our sport. Yes dressage riders, I’m talking about you.
I’ve also posted snarky comments on Facebook pages when I see pictures of friends riding without helmets or equally bad, the ridiculous top hat. It’s fine if you’re Fred Astaire twirling around the dance floor. Not so much if you’re riding an unpredictable large animal that is hardwired to flee fast.
I got into an extended discussion with one woman who thought the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s new rule banning top hats from sidesaddle competition was discrimination. “Discrimination is being forced to sit in the back of the bus. This is the USHJA finally doing something right,” I posted. I think she defriended me.
I know the ultra-religious rider defriended me after I posted an artsy photo of a helmet with this caption: “I don’t care who you are, how long you’ve been riding or how quiet the horse is. Wear a goddamn helmet.” Her response, and by the way she was the worst no-helmet offender of all: “Wow. Breaking a commandment. Taking the Lords (sic) name in vain. Sad if any one condones this. If they do die, they will spend eternity in Hell.”
But at least we won’t be brain injured there.
There Is No Excuse
I’ve been known to badger people when they tell me they only wear helmets when they show or jump or go in parades or don’t trust the horse or the full moon is waning or whatever stupid excuse they can conjure up.
Conjure is the operative word here because its dictionary definition is “to make something appear seemingly from nowhere as if by magic.” And magic’s what you’re going to need after you hit the ground with no helmet. I could list all the statistics about the alarming number of people who die each year from equine-related head injuries. But death isn’t really the worst thing that can happen. Use your imagination and linger a while in the Depends aisle of the supermarket.
The bottom line is all the excuses are stupid. Just ask Ms. King Dye. Listen carefully because, in her video, it’s a bit difficult to understand what she’s saying. That’s what an unprotected brain sounds like after it hits the ground.
Why am I so militant on this topic, other than I’m militant about everything I care about? Partly because I wish when I was younger someone had slapped me upside the head verbally as I did to a young woman recently who offered up one of the aforementioned stupid excuses for not wearing a helmet. The same way I wish someone had chastised me years ago for not wearing sunblock. That might have saved the chunk of my face the surgeon removed.
But I’m lucky, both with skin cancer and head injuries. Yes, I’ve had too many. Thankfully they haven’t profoundly changed my life the way they’ve changed other people’s lives. But this crusade really has nothing to do with my injuries.
I am a mother. I know the heartbreak of watching your child almost die. There is only one thing worse, and I can’t even write it. I can’t imagine the emotional agony Courtney King Dye’s mother feels every time she talks to her beautiful, talented daughter. I wouldn’t wish that kind of pain on anyone, not even the woman who damned me to Hell.
Everyone is some mother’s child. So wear your helmet. Do it for your mother.
Jody Jaffe is the author of "Horse of a Different Killer," "Chestnut Mare, Beware," and "In Colt Blood," which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, "Thief of Words," and "Shenandoah Summer." She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.