The Easiest Choice

Mar 7, 2014 - 2:25 AM
Lauren's made her choice. Photo by Susan J. Stickle.

I lived in New Hampshire for a summer, a working student for Pam Goodrich, 21 years old and having the time of my life. New Hampshire is the one state in the union where seatbelts are not law, and I always just found it odd, the adamance and passion people would use to defend their choice not to wear one.

“They don’t guarantee my safety!”

“There are lots of accidents where seatbelts leave you worse off. They can even kill!”

“No one gets to tell me what to do!”

And I suppose these things are true. Even though seatbelts have been proven overwhelmingly effective, there are indeed times and places where they’ve been bad. And yes, the same rules that tell me that I can report the news even if my government doesn’t like it also dictate that, in the State of New Hampshire, I don’t have to wear my seatbelt.

But I do. I do, even in New Hampshire, because it just seems like an easy concession to make. It’s not uncool to wear one’s seatbelt. They’ve made them comfortable. And they’re an accepted part of the culture. Why raise a stink?

In 2006 a client horse, an incredibly safe and dependable creature, tripped and went down while I was riding it. I bonked my head. Other than a little soreness the next day, I was fine, mostly due to luck, and partially due to the helmet I had on. It’s a non-story, except that the only reason I had a helmet on that particular day was because I had learned the day before of a woman that I’d met at a horse show, a competent professional rider, who’d taken a spill out hacking a dependable horse, and was in a medically-induced coma, from which she never woke. There were very few professionals in helmets back then. It was uncool. A few years after that, I was shocked to stable across the aisle from a woman at a CDI who showed in a helmet.

“You can do that?” I asked her. “Isn’t there a rule that you have to wear a top hat?”

But between my own spill and Courtney King-Dye’s in 2010, I’d gotten on the helmet bandwagon 100%, at least at home. I still showed in a top hat at FEI, and even at third and fourth level, because I was a professional rider, and professional riders showed in top hats. It’s What Was Done. 

And then Courtney’s horse tripped, and the world changed. More people wore helmets. More people showed in helmets, even at FEI. Big name riders. Olympians. Olympic Gold Medalists. Helmets got more fun. They now come in every color of the rainbow, with sparkles, with air vents. They’re sleek and pretty and athletic-looking. Gone are the days of the mushroom head.

And it even became law, sort of. Helmets on all riders at a horse show, regardless of level or status. You can still show in a top hat at an international event, one governed by the FEI, if you’re over 18, but there are rules about the warm-up, and about youth competitors, and riders on young horses. It’s progress, of a sort.

It’s even to the point where the Masses are really vocal about it. I have a few great photos of old, from showing Midgey and Ella and Billy and Cleo pre-2010, and sometimes when I use one of those photos to accompany a blog, someone will post on Facebook, “Why no helmet?” I’m not willing to give up those great old photos. But I can understand the sentiment.

But there are other comments on Facebook, and at the horse shows, and in the tack rooms. They don’t prevent all injuries. They’re not failsafe. There are the odd incidents where yes, a helmet can actually increase the chance of injury. And why just helmets? If we’re acknowledging that simply getting on a horse is inherently unsafe, why don’t we require body protectors? Air vests? Why do we ride at all?

If just tripping on the ice outside your house can kill you, why don’t we wear helmets and bubble wrap all the time? If Carlos Gracida, the 10-goal polo player, died just 10 days ago wearing a helmet, what’s the point?

I can understand this perspective, I guess. I’m not a confrontational person. But you don’t ride on my farm, or in a lesson with me, without a helmet, ever. I require this because I’m responsible for you, because you’re trusting my judgment on when to half halt and when to apply leg, and so you’ll trust my judgment on this as well.

And I choose to ride in a helmet every day, every horse, every ride, every place, because I can. Because it’s an easy concession to make. Because it might have saved my life back in 2006, or it might not, but I was grateful for my helmet then, just as I was grateful when another incredibly trustworthy horse tripped and fell with me on him in 2009, and my head never came anywhere near the ground, just as I have been on every boring day where I’ve stayed on all the horses since. Because little girls look up to me, and to my peers, and we should set a good example for them. Because Courtney’s unwanted legacy is that it’s become OK, even cool, to show in one. Because working student Molly put nifty sparkles on one of my helmets, and I think it looks snappy.

And because, at the end of the day, whether you think it’s a fool’s errand or not, I choose to wear my helmet to honor Courtney, and Silva Martin, two of the most beautiful riders I’ve ever seen, and all of the others out there who’ve ever come too close to leaving this earth, who remind us every day that it could happen to any of us.

It could have been us. It could have been me. They are my colleagues, and I honor them. It’s an easy choice.


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