26, April, 2019 1 Comment

I’m judging you. There’s very few situations in life where I judge people’s choices, but if you choose to wear a top hat, here’s fair warning. Of course I’ll still love you and I understand why you’d do it, hell I’ve even done it in the past. Like everyone else, I had the goal of riding in ‘top hat and tails’, because that meant I had finally made it to Advanced level. I still feel a sense of pride and honour when I put my tailcoat on, ten years after I first had that privilege. But now my gorgeous sparkly tailcoat is joined by the most fabulous bling safety helmet.

To be fair to me, when I first made advanced level dressage, a safety helmet wasn’t just a style question, it was still illegal to wear one in the competition arena. It was something that never quite sat right with me. I’ve always been a helmet wearer. It’s got nothing to do with confidence or fear, none of my horses scared me and to this date I have not fallen off anything in the dressage arena. (Finds something wooden and starts tapping furiously.) I didn’t come from a particularly safety conscious family – hell, I grew up on a farm where every step you take is a measured risk! In my life as a registered nurse, initially in paediatric orthopaedics and culminating in a 10 years stint in different A&E’s, I had come across many preventable tragedies and many devastating head injuries. Obviously every accident is awful and many can’t be prevented. The thing that struck me was the guilt that parents, partners & friends felt when they realised that some of the impact of these accidents could have been mitigated by the simple act of putting on a helmet.

I’ve always worn a safety helmet at home and in training. I do remember going through a period as a teenager/young adult when I thought the Americans riding in baseball caps or the Germans with their flying ponytails were ‘cool’ and tried to emulate them. I’d start the ride so attired and end up back at the cross ties in about ten minutes as I felt naked. When I began nursing I also thought how embarrassed I’d be if I fell off without a hat and ended up in A&E. Plus I knew certain paramedics could be a little happy with their ketamine use… (kidding! Sort of.)

When I got to compete at Advanced level, it just didn’t sit right with me. I’d wear a safety helmet at home and at the very time when it was most likely that my horse might do something untoward, I’d put on a thin piece of cardboard and felt. But I had no alternative. And then in 2010 everything changed. American Olympian Courtney King-Dye had a life changing fall schooling a horse at home. Lesley White formed Riders 4 Helmets to promote safety hat awareness. The FEI finally changed their rules to allow riders to compete internationally with helmets. At the time I had a very good friend, Elizabeth Charleston, who had formed the support group THINK (The Head Injury Network for Kiwis) after suffering her own head injury in the show ring.

One day I had a bright idea and headed up to Lizzie’s with red wine and dark chocolate on a mission. We decided that I’d make the promise to wear the safety helmet every single ride. This was before Charlotte was wearing hers, and although I was small fry, I figured that if someone coming up the ranks didn’t want to be the first, I would have set some sort of precedent. The story was picked up by the mainstream media and a film crew sent to the regional champs. Unfortunately it never aired as a few weeks later the first Christchurch earthquake occurred, but the ball was in motion. Now safety helmets are a common sight in the international arena, but in 2011 I was the only competitor at the Olympic selection trials who wore one.

Suffice to say, I am a fan of the helmet. I’ve heard all the excuses, but to me, none of them make any sense. I don’t believe in a nanny state, I don’t think there should be a rule in place to force people to wear helmets. I just can’t understand why you wouldn’t. I’m not quite as harsh as a friend of mine who says ‘if you don’t think your head is worth protecting, you’re probably right’, but know that if you make the choice not to, I am judging you.

Front view of a brown horse being ridden in an outdoor ring



1 Response

Vicky Smart
Vicky Smart

27, April, 2019

This is so right. I competed in show championships wearing a top hat purchased only for the occasion but it never felt right or sensible even but not wanting to be ‘different’ or judged down, however I soon decided that safety was more important than vanity and always wore a proper chin strap safety helmet to compete and ride judge. Now no one even thinks twice thank goodness.

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