Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Helmet Safety: It’s for Horseback Riding, Too

By Adrian Billings, MD, PhD, FAAFP
Presidio County Health Services, Marfa and Presidio, Texas

I have long been an advocate for Texas Medical Association’s Hard Hats for Little Heads bicycle helmet giveaway program and have been involved in many bike helmet giveaways to children in the Big Bend region. I, myself, am an avid cyclist, and I do not get on a bicycle without covering my head to prevent a head injury. However, this was not always the case. I was a child in the 1970s and 1980s when wearing a bicycle helmet was not as common as it is today. I also grew up riding horses and, at that time, wearing a helmet during horseback riding was almost nonexistent.

I live in a rural part of West Texas, the Big Bend. Recently, my three children, ages 4, 9, and 12 years, have begun horseback riding. Our horse, Splash, is very well-trained, calm, and about as kid-friendly as any parent could hope for. In the horse world, Splash is called a “good keeper.” Just as before getting on a bicycle saddle, my children know to cover their heads with a helmet before mounting their horse.

Wearing a helmet while horseback riding and even when just around horses is as important, if not more so, than when riding a bicycle. First, when atop a horse, riders’ heads can be 13 feet above the ground. Second, horses are capable of moving at high rates of speed — up to 40 miles per hour. Third, horses, even well-trained good keepers, can be unpredictable and may buck or become “spooked” at a moment’s notice.  In the United States in 2007, there were 11,759 emergency room visits for head injury from horse riding (NEISS data 2007).

A rider’s helmet is the most important piece of equipment to help prevent an accidental injury when he or she rides a horse — or a bicycle. Be sure you purchase and wear the proper helmet for each sport, which is optimized for potential hazards in the sport. An equestrian helmet, for horseback riding, can absorb a fall or a kick to the head from a horse that the head was never designed to do. Bike helmets are made of lighter-weight materials and are designed to protect the parts of a head most at risk in a bicycle accident, which differ from what’s at risk during horseback riding.

Recently, I experienced two reminders about the risks of horseback riding and the importance of wearing an approved helmet. First, my oldest son, Blake, was riding in the pasture earlier this spring at a fast lope. Blake decided he wanted to stop, so he let out “Whoa!” to Splash, our well-trained horse. Splash did as he was instructed and trained, and he set up for a hard stop. Though he signaled the stop, my son was not quite expecting such an abrupt stop. He flew over the front of the horse, flipped in the air, and slammed down buttocks first, then hit the back of his helmeted head onto the rock-laden pasture.

Blake got up to dust himself off, but he missed the dirt coating the back of his helmet. As his father I did not miss the fact that had he not been wearing that helmet, we may have been heading to the emergency room or worse. I was thankful for that most important piece of equipment, the helmet.

My other reminder happened as I was riding recently and my horse spooked at something. Before I knew it, I was in midair as he literally dropped out from under me, and I fell to the ground. I was all right, and only my pride was hurt. I was fortunate; even though I have considered myself a role model for bicyclists and always wear my bicycle helmet when riding, I was not wearing a helmet while horseback riding that day. I felt very lucky, but I was embarrassed that I was not modeling good safety etiquette. I am now shopping for an equestrian helmet!

When looking for a helmet for horseback riding, purchase a product that is ASTM/SEI (American Society for Testing and Materials/Safety Equipment Institute)-certified. Excellent websites for equine safety are Riders 4 Helmets and the Equestrian Medical Safety Association.

TMA has a fact sheet that shows how to properly wear a bicycle helmet.

Have a safe summer, and wear that helmet when bicycle or horseback riding!


Unknown said...

It's true that a lot of horseback riders don't use any protective equipment. I think the general thought is that if it doesn't have a motor and you're not on the road, you don't need a helmet. I agree, though, that it's absolutely necessary to have a helmet when riding. It's good to see you're story and that a helmet saved your life.

Anonymous said...

And then getting someone to agree to wear a helmet . . .In the U.S. when it comes to helmets, it's tough to get the competition crowd to wear one. But a new organization has sprung up on facebook called Karen's HellHat Posse. It has road riders, barrel racers, extreme riders, etc., all making a HellHat. You can view many of the HellHats, or become a member and get the instructions and hundreds of samples of HellHats people have made. The sky is the limit on creativity, and we now have people who swore they'd never wear a helmet, putting one on for the first time. The best part is the ability to encourage small children and young people to not scoff at a helmet, and make them feel like they are looking great with a helmet on.

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