Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thursday's Final Thoughts On The Matter of Helmets

Thursday’s Final Thoughts


The Matter of Helmets

I was sent this comment by 'jme' of Glenshee Equestrian and it really is too long to put in the comment section, so I decided to give the comment its own space. I must say I do agree with her completely and hope that by posting this it puts an end to any further discussion and disagreement with Julian. I’d like to go on record and simply say that we just are at a place where we can agree to disagree. Thank you all for your comments and participation in the last few posts on helmets. Safe riding to you all.

This was going to be a comment, but I blabbed on for too long.

To be serious for a moment, I agree with most of what Julian said, but I also read both Julian’s post and comments here, and he did specifically compare english vs. western riders, claiming english riders were poor riders and western riders were good. He even went so far as to zero in on a specific geographical region where better riding originates - the American West. That leaves me out. I must be an especially shitty rider because I ride english, I’m from the East Coast, AND I wear a helmet.

No one is disputing the unconscious potential for “risk compensation” – I’m sure it can happen. But just how much does it actually contribute to serious accidents caused by reckless riding or driving? I don't think the studies have shown it makes any significant difference, except in the reverse – that those accustomed to the protection of safety gear feel more vulnerable and act more cautiously without it. But that fact does not prove the inverse. People who have never used safety gear and suddenly have it may feel slightly emboldened, but not to the degree, that it would cause anyone to act irresponsibly, enough to recommend NOT wearing a helmet, or to suggest that doing so puts us in danger! “Safety equipment, ultimately, has done little good or even no good at all.” That’s absurd. It is like saying, “I had better not wear a helmet lest I feel too confident and take too many risks!” Rubbish. An individual decides just how much risk they are willing to tolerate, and then adds protective gear on top of that, not the other way around. If you honestly think that way, riding safety is the least of your worries. And those of us who are well accustomed to our helmets, having worn them from our first ride onward, are well past that learning curve, I am sure.

Having suffered serious neck and spine injuries, I’m a cautious, safe and responsible rider because I don’t want to break my neck. I also don’t want to fall and have my loose horse get in traffic or otherwise hurt. These concerns moderate any recklessness that a helmet might theoretically induce. The helmet is just icing. None of us with any sense relies on it for our total protection; it simply has a useful function. But for someone who works as a health and safety officer, Julian’s disdain for helmets is shocking, to say the least. That he goes on to suggest that the reason riding accidents occur is because people rely too much on their helmets is, to be frank, preposterous. Riding accidents happen for a number of reasons; if one happens to occur because of poor riding skills or training, it will occur with or without the rider wearing a helmet. I’m the first to agree that there is some horrific riding out there (that’s basically what my entire blog is about!) but I blame general ignorance and an industry of professional trainers who make their money by selling people a line of bullshit about their riding abilities to keep them coming back for more. “Stroke the ego” is the motto of most. What has a helmet to do with that? People (hopefully) learn their lessons and limitations when they fall – a helmet helps ensure they live to put those lessons into practice. Sure, some never learn, but that’s a flaw of the individual psyche, not of general safety practice. What Julian refers to as the “Safety Taliban” is merely a recognition of this flaw and an attempt to save ignorant people from themselves. I’m all for natural selection, but I think the point GHM was making is that children are not able to make these choices for themselves. If some adults need to be treated like children as well, that’s their problem - until they cause ME an accident. I can’t tell you how many times bad riding of others has put me and my horses in danger. But, because I, personally, am an accomplished and responsible rider, I don’t need a helmet? I’m not willing to take that chance, thank you.

I don't mean this as an attack on Julian personally (and I doubt GHM meant it that way either.) I like him, and I enjoy his astute observations and thoughtful writings. But we don’t always have to agree. I think we have all stated that he has a right not to wear a helmet if he chooses (though individual facilities also have a right, for insurance reasons at least, to require them.) If he feels the need to justify his position with a persuasive argument, that's ok; he has a right to share his opinion and even try to change ours. What I think some of us (ok, I) took exception to was the part where he suggested people who wear helmets do so because they don't know how to ride properly or pick a suitable mount: “If the level of risk is so high that a helmet is essential then I suggest that it is being used to cover up for other omissions.” Sure, for some, it might be true. But here and in his own post on the subject, he seems to be implying that those of us who wear helmets are fooling ourselves (and “missing the ‘real’ points big time”) because we’re a bunch of over-emotional, irrational, untrained, ‘fraidy-cats who genuinely believe a riding helmet is a substitute for riding lessons and common sense. If he didn’t imply this, then that’s at least what I heard when I read it. But that's a pretty broad generalization to make, and that kind of unhelpful comment can have the effect of making people not want to wear a helmet because they don’t want to be perceived as inexperienced, unskilled or fearful.

Some of us find a helmet “essential” even when there is little to no risk because we know even the quietest horses are unpredictable and even the best riders can fall. Further, while Julian’s horses are lovely and admirable animals, they would not be suitable mounts for every discipline, and not every rider has the luxury of a bomb-proof horse; they are the exception rather than the rule. We ride the horses we have, and we ride the horses we find most suitable for our own personal endeavors. For some of us, that includes more sensitive, athletic, animated or even “hot” horses. I, for one, have specialized in working with “difficult” horses, and have given many a permanent home. Does that mean we all deserve to be injured when we fall off because we haven’t chosen “safe” mounts? Or does it maybe mean the average horse is still a creature of instinct and of a certain nature, and we take that into consideration when training and riding, including how we outfit ourselves on horseback? It doesn’t necessarily mean we neglect training the horse or educating ourselves in correct riding techniques, but it does mean there is a place in the world for “real” horses as well as “ideal” horses. If we all dispensed with our less-than-perfect horses, the slaughterhouses would be full and the stables all empty.

Above all, I think GHM intended this to be an amusing post, not an actual scientific debate. I think she was poking a bit of fun at Julian’s extreme views just as he poked fun at what he considers to be ours. We all know the basic facts. Julian’s obsession with statistics gives the impression that his real-world experience with other types of horses and riding is limited, whereas many of us have seen and experienced a great deal during our lives with horses and rely on that experience, and not cold, empty numbers, when making our choices. Following his numbers the logic here, baffling as it may be, is that, since a helmet is allegedly not likely to save your life in an accident (and may cause you to take unnecessary risks,) you might as well not even bother to wear one! That’s a pretty defeatist – not to mention illogical – statement. But I’d also like to submit that most of us who have had accidents don’t ever bother to report them, so the statistics Julian relies so heavily on are worth little. Most horse people who are not seriously injured (and some who are) never bother to report their injuries. I’ve broken bones, torn ligaments, mangled my neck and back, and destroyed helmets, but I never so much as went to a walk-in clinic, much less my doctor or a hospital. When my helmets were damaged, I just threw them away and bought new ones. Nothing was ever reported. Take just this small sampling of riders who have commented here saying their helmets either saved their lives or mitigated an injury. How many of these riders reported these incidents? I’m afraid the only incidents that are reported are the ones that end in fatality or grave injury despite the helmet, skewing the sample and making these “authoritative” statistics almost worthless. Too often, when the injury is serious enough to warrant a visit to the hospital, a helmet will help but will not necessarily save you. On the other hand, it can prevent a more moderate injury from becoming a major one. I don’t know if a helmet has literally saved my life before. Probably it has. But I know it has spared me much more grave injuries than I might have had on numerous occasions. That’s scientific enough for me. If you ask whether I took unnecessary risks because I knew I had a helmet on, I tell you horsemen take “unnecessary” risks every time they put their foot in the stirrup, with or without a helmet. If helmets had never been invented, I’d still be doing what I do, bareheaded, if I managed to survive this long without one. But I’m glad I don’t have to. Statistics don’t save lives, and yet some of us prefer to rely on them rather than protective gear. That I don’t get.

Then there is the typical male accusation that we women are being “emotional,” which also implies “irrational.” That kind of belittling, chauvinistic attitude is not unexpected, but it is uncalled for and uncouth. Are we emotional about life and death issues? Who isn’t? Are we emotional about our horses? I think any good horseman is – you have to love the animals to dedicate yourself to this kind of life, and to treat them fairly and with respect. Those of us who have ridden a lot, or ridden a variety of horses, or challenged ourselves, etc. all know the risks because we’ve all fallen off. If you’ve never fallen, you’ve never pushed yourself to improve, and are no horseman at all. The first school where I took riding lessons actually taught something called the “flying dismount,” at all paces from halt through jumping; it was essentially practice for falling off safely! This, too, has probably saved me injury or worse on numerous occasions; but more than that, it is an admission that falls are a part of riding, and they too should be as safe as possible.

I think we all understand that a helmet is just another layer of protection. Alone it can do nothing, and it’s not infallible. And injuries can occur anywhere on the body not covered by a helmet as well. We get it. My feeling is that, even if you’re riding a perfectly safe horse (not that such a horse exists,) it can still fall, even when properly balanced and on good footing (as has happened to me) someone else can lose control and run into you (this is fairly common in a busy indoor, a horseshow schooling ring and even on the a trail) a piece of tack could break (even the best made tack in good repair can fail) and you might land on your head (as I have done many times in the past;) what could wearing a helmet hurt?


Until next time

Quote of the Day

The horse stopped with a jerk...and the jerk fell off!

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