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Despite Riding Risks, Helmets Still Optional In Some Equestrian Events

Steffen Peters, of the United States, rides Ravel during their bronze medal performance in the Grand Prix Special event of Dressage at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky.,  Sept. 29, 2010. Ed Reinke/AP hide caption

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Ed Reinke/AP

I consider myself more than a little bit lucky to have what's known as a "bombproof" horse.

To you nonhorse people, that means something could explode next to him, he wouldn't even flinch. Nevertheless, I never, ever get on his back without my trusty safety helmet, securely fastened.

So it was with more than a little sadness that I noticed quite a few world-class riders in the practice ring at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky.,were wearing either nothing on their heads or baseball caps.

I was horrified, as were many of the horse aficionados around me. Among other things, that sort of riding sets a terrible example for the many children who were getting their first exposure to horse competition at any level.

It also made me wonder about the rules. As an amateur in eventing (where the horse is required to do dressage, cross-country jumping, and stadium jumping), I know that you can be eliminated for being riding your horse anywhere on competition grounds without a helmet.

I also know that in dressage (a sport that does not involve jumping but that does involve extremely large and often unpredictable horses) it's traditional at the upper levels not to wear a safety helmet of any type, but rather a completely crushable top hat.

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It is equally traditional for more advanced dressage riders (most notably members of the Olympic team) to be seen and photographed riding their horses in baseball caps.

So I fired off an e-mail in search of answers from the Federation Equestre Internationale, the governing body for the WEG, which is held every four years and includes eventing and seven other horse sports.

Indeed, the helmet rules are "discipline specific," responded FEI spokeswoman Grania Willis. Each equestrian sport decides for itself. So eventers and endurance riders must wear their helmets at all times, show jumpers must wear them only while actually jumping, though it is "strongly recommended also for anyone working a horse in the exercise and schooling areas or anywhere on the showground," Willis wrote.

Meanwhile, dressage riders are "strongly recommended" to wear helmets "when training and in pre-competition warm-ups," although not in actual competition, where helmets are optional. There are no helmet requirements for reining and vaulting.

Over my several decades of riding, helmet rules have been shockingly controversial, particularly as evidence has continued to mount (pun intended) about head injuries and what a good job a properly fitted helmet can do to prevent them.

About 20 years ago, when the old-style velvet covered hunt caps were first replaced with the safer but bulkier models meeting what's known as the ASTM-SEI standard, there was a lot of whining from my riding companions.

Not not did they make our heads look like mushrooms, but they also cost a lot more than old-style caps. "Well," replied the owner of our barn. "If you don't think your head's worth $75, then it probably isn't."

The dressage community appears to have gotten its wake-up call earlier this year, when U.S. Olympic team rider Courtney King-Dye — riding in practice without a helmet — fell off in a freak accident in Florida and was in a coma for a month.

King-Dye is recovering well and is now leading the charge for all equestrians to wear helmets. Ironically, one of King-Dye's sponsors has now launched a campaign called riders4helmets that held a "helmet awareness day" in July at the same Kentucky Horse Park where the WEG is now being held.

Among the events that apparently made the biggest impact (another pun intended) that day was a "cantaloupe drop" that demonstrated the difference between dropping a melon from 13 feet (approximately the height of the average head from a horse) with and without a helmet. Needless to say, the cantaloupes without protection fared far worse then those encased in helmets.

There is reason for hope. When he went to accept his bronze medal for the Dressage Freestyle, U.S. rider Steffen Peters wore not his top hat nor his familiar baseball cap, but an actual helmet. He had dedicated the ride to King-Dye.