This week, for the first time since 1978, there will be no Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event. Instead of a Kentucky Preview Issue, the Chronicle’s April 20 & 27 Classic Kentucky Issue features some of the people and horses who’ve made the event unforgettable over the years. We’ll also be highlighting some of our favorite memories all week on coth.com to honor Kentucky.
Allison Springer never meant to start a tidal wave of change when she became the first rider to don a safety helmet rather than a top hat for dressage at the 2010 Rolex Kentucky CCI5*-L. For her, it was a simple, last minute decision.
An A-level Pony Clubber, Springer grew up wearing her Caliente helmet for every ride. But when she moved to Virginia in 2003, she saw her idols schooling on the flat in baseball hats and hunt caps, and she followed suit.
“One Christmas my mom was like, ‘I want to get you the nicest helmet ever, whatever’s pretty and comfortable; whatever you’ll wear,’ ” Springer recalled. “I was like, ‘I don’t need a helmet.’ Then you get to thinking, ‘I’m such a terrible daughter. She just wants me to wear a helmet all the time.’ Obviously I wore one jumping, but I just wore a hunt cap [on the flat].”
After that conversation with her mother, Carolyn Springer, Allison started schooling exclusively in her helmet, but for upper-level dressage competition she still wore her top hat. In the fall of 2009 she signed the “Ride On” helmet pledge, committing to wearing a helmet while schooling and while in the dressage ring at lower levels.
Allison pulled into the Kentucky Horse Park 10 years ago fully planning on slipping on her top hat for the first phase of competition as she always did. It wasn’t that she was unaware of the risks of head injuries—she lost her brother to head trauma, and her close friend Samantha O’Connell (now Lehel) had a bad accident while they were cross-country schooling at Morven Park (Virginia) that put her in a rehab facility relearning how to do basic tasks before she recovered. Not to mention that Olympian Courtney King Dye had had a public life-changing accident a month before Kentucky. But no one wore helmets in dressage at the top level.
Once Allison got to the horse park, everything changed.
“That particular year at Kentucky they were also doing the test event for dressage for the [Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games],” she said. “All of those dressage riders were wearing helmets, and they looked beautiful—except that they would change into their top hats before they went into the main arena. They made a point of schooling in the helmets. I was watching that and thought, one, that the helmets looked better than the top hats—I thought that right off the bat—but two, it really got me thinking a lot about it. I thought it was really funny that they’re changing into top hats from their helmets.
“At the time, Clint Joiner of Haygain, who is a sponsor of mine and a good friend, just asked a question. He said, ‘Why don’t you wear a helmet in dressage?’ ” Allison continued. “I’m like, ‘The only reason why nobody does it is because no one else is doing it.’ I had answered my own question.”
So Allison made her way to the Charles Owen booth. She wasn’t sponsored by the company at the time—she is now—but she did jump in a black and gray Charles Owen helmet. She figured if she was going to buck convention in dressage she should look good doing it, so she asked Roy Burek, the late head of Charles Owen, to outfit her with something that would complement her shadbelly. He delivered with a navy blue model that perfectly matched her attire.
She asked the technical delegate to ask the ground jury if it would be OK for her to wear a safety helmet, and the answer came back quickly: yes.
Her test aboard Arthur went beautifully—she headed into cross-country tied for second—and it didn’t take long for people to sit up and take notice of what she’d done.
“It was amazing the impact it had,” said Allison. “I got some letters and emails from people who said they never felt comfortable wearing their hunt cap to show, and now they had the courage to wear a helmet. It’s funny how much you’re influenced by what other people in the sport are doing. I certainly wasn’t any icon in the sport or anything. I had no big plans; it’s just what happened there.
“I didn’t even know about this, but [doctor and amateur eventer] Lynn Cronin said that if someone wore a helmet in the ring at Kentucky she’d give them $500,” Allison continued. “I was contacted after the fact about that and told her to donate it to Courtney King Dye’s fund. I didn’t know about that, nor did I want to be paid for doing that. It was a very personal decision.”
The trend started by Allison continues to this day, and in recent years most riders at Kentucky have worn helmets for dressage, with a few—primarily foreign riders— electing to wear top hats. In 2021, the Fédération Equestre Internationale will require all athletes to wear helmets while mounted.
“I’m a skier, I’m a horseback rider, I’m an eventer—these are all risky things, but I want to be as safe as possible in everything I do,” said Allison. “I always want to be safe.”