I don’t know about you, but I grew up in an age where no one wore a helmet while riding. Sure, we had those fashionable little hunt caps we wore during shows that had all the protective qualities of Hershey’s Magic Shell (you know, the stuff that hardens when you pour it on your ice cream). But, I don’t ever remember a discussion about ASTM or SEI safety certification. Like most people, my old habits, preference and prejudices die hard. As time passed and rules changed, I did get an approved helmet for competition. Yet, to be honest I seldom wore a helmet when I didn’t “have to.”
Then, about 14 years ago, my first son was born. I remember the day that my wife came out to the arena while I was riding and she asked me, at least until our children were grown and independent, if I would promise to wear a helmet when I rode. For those that don’t know me personally, my wife is not a horsewoman. She appreciates their beauty and enjoys having them on the farm, but her connection to horses is totally through her love for me and her willingness to indulge my passion. At the time, it seemed a small price to pay for her continued support. I reluctantly agreed to to wear a helmet from that day forward.
I am embarrassed to admit my own arrogance at that point in my life. I remember thinking that wearing a helmet all the time was overkill. Sure it made sense if I was jumping cross country or riding an unfamiliar horse. But, for flat work or other quiet work with a known quantity in a ring? Seriously? But, I am a man of my word and with very few exceptions I honored my wife’s insistent request and wore a helmet whenever I rode from that day forward.
Last Friday we had a gorgeous cool, dry day. The kind that are extremely rare in Virginia in August. I had the day off work and was really excited to finally have the time to spend a full day with a young horse that I have been bringing along. There were several things I wanted to help him with that I didn’t want to rush and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. One of my agenda’s was to introduce him to “the neighborhood.” Just so you have the right image, I live on a dirt road off of a dirt road in a rural area in Virginia. My “neighborhood” is made up of a few small farms and a half a dozen houses. We started on the ground introducing him to all of those terrifying horse-eating monsters like my neighbor’s jeep, mud puddles, utility construction crews, etc. After an hour or so he appeared settled and quiet and I chose to get on. Everything went smoothly at first until we encountered a ridge of gravel at the edge of the road that had been deposited there by a recent rain. So, like everything else we started patiently working at getting brave.
I will never know what spooked him. He spun and took off at top speed. The last thing I remember is making a reasonably calm assessment of my situation. I had lost a stirrup when he spun. I was pulling on one rein with all my strength to try and turn him, but to no avail. I was considering my options. Would it be safer to try and ride it out or get off?
I woke up on the ground dazed and disoriented some time later. I would like to think I chose to get off, but I will never know. Helpful neighbors rounded up my horse and got me home. My wife got me to the emergency room. The CAT scan revealed a minor bleed on my brain which meant a night at the hospital for observation. Since then I have been on the mend looking forward to a day in the near future when my neck and shoulder aren’t sore. Yesterday I returned to my regular routine of feeding my horses and my helmet caught my eye.
As I picked it up I looked at the left side of the helmet to see the damage. I was looking at the left side because, based on all my injuries, that was the side of my body that hit the ground. I assumed that my head hit a rock or something which knocked me out. To my surprise, the left side was unblemished. The right side, however, sustained significant damage. While I will never know what really happened, I suspect that I either got stepped on or kicked in the head.
You may be wondering why I am telling this story. Maybe it is my own process of healing. One of the most powerful ways of dealing with traumatic events is to share our story. This helps us both by connecting with others and making sense of what happened so that we might avoid similar situations in the future. Maybe it is to set the stage over the next couple of weeks so that I can share my own journey as I get back in the saddle and cope with the inevitable fears and anxieties. I have long held that I would never suggest that my clients do something that I would not be willing to do myself. This is not the first time I have had the opportunity to put my sport psychology techniques to personal practical use. I certainly hope that my clients ultimately benefit from my experience.
The primary reason I tell my story today, however, is to simply say thank you to the lovely, loving woman who asked me to wear a helmet so many years ago. Without her insistence I might not be writing this or anything else today. Perhaps if you read this and you were like I was 14 years ago, you might reconsider and suffer the minor discomfort and slight inconvenience of wearing a helmet.