In early March, a young woman was thrown from her dressage horse during a routine schooling ride.  She was rendered comatose and two months later in a rehab facility with a mild hemiparesis but finally able to swallow.

The woman was a member of the US Equestrian Olympic Team, one of only two sports where men and women compete equally.  I say “was,” because we both know it is unlikely that she will ever be able to compete again at a high level in dressage, one of the most demanding partnerships between man and animal.  She has recovered remarkably well and hopes to teach riding; unfortunately, even her young age was not young enough for better recovery.  She is at higher risk for epilepsy, personality and emotional residuals as well.  In short, she suffered a catastrophe.  Fortunately, she didn’t end up vegetative, especially since the accident occurred in Florida, where adults with 600 gram brains are felt by cardiac surgeons to be conscious and doing well, because they smile even if they can’t comprehend 15 years after the insult.

Florida and the 109th Congress aside, what is finally occurring is a helmet debate in the equestrian community, similar to the helmet debate seven years ago in the cycling community, where 9 years earlier, almost to the day, Andrei Kivilev, a superb Kazakh rider, collided with two other riders on the Paris-Nice race.  The other two were fine; Kivilev, 29, hit his head and died the next day, leaving behind his widow and six month old daughter.  His death was a catalyst for mandatory helmets in major cycling races, which first did not mandate helmets for mountain top finishes, but now do.  Every cyclist in every major event wears a helmet.  Something good came out of Kivilev’s death; hopefully the equestrian community will do the same.  Already, several equestrian riders have stated publicly that they were saved by a helmet they began wearing.

But there is still no mandate.  Dressage riders must dress formally; indeed, proper riding attire is considered appropriate dress anywhere, something I often kid my wife about.  Helmets are not part of dressage riding.  Well, the judges need to get over it and deduct points should someone not be wearing a helmet.  Better yet, it should be cause for immediate disqualification if any rider on a horse at any time at a horse event is not wearing a helmet.

In 1976, Arizona allowed motorcyclists not to wear helmets.  I remember the demonstrations at the Capitol.  I wonder how many have since died or been permanently maimed as a result of not wearing a helmet.  It is time for a helmet debate in this country.  At what point do an individual’s rights conflict with the rights of his loved ones to have him (usually a him) around and whole, and society’s rights to pay for the extra care that going without a helmet and having an accident causes?  It’s a fair debate.  I know where I am on this issue.  I, like many of my former colleagues, bitterly remember coming into an ED at 2 a.m. to take care of another drunken biker who wasn’t wearing a helmet.  In my case, the lack of payment was a minor annoyance.  The sleep I lost was not so minor.  We live in a republic.  We have a government, and by definition, that government has some control over us, even in the hinterlands of Alaska.  We need an honest, factual debate on regulation, without Rush, Bill, Glenn, Sarah, Keith, Jon, Rachel or Steven.  In my view, failure to regulate almost took down the world’s economy and has given us wireless service that is worse than many third world countries.  There is an imperfect but better middle ground out there that we need to find; otherwise, Zappa’s Law about universality has a third part:   hypocrisy, in addition to hydrogen and stupidity.

Growing up, I didn’t know about seat belts; today, even in Arizona, 75% wear them.  I skied for 40 years without wearing a helmet; I didn’t know better.  Or didn’t want to know better.  I knew that ½mv2 =mgh, and a fall at 25 mph was like falling off the roof.  I would wear a helmet today if I skied.  In my three major bicycling accidents, my helmet was significantly damaged, damage my skull didn’t have.  I was not knocked out, even when I could hear the back of the helmet go WHACK! on Moore Road, the day I broke my clavicle.

Physicians need to frame the helmet issue and lead the debate.  And after we deal with helmets, we will have to deal with a hot, extremely difficult issue:  the long term side effects of playing football as the game is currently played, for the data show that the sport is far more dangerous than anybody ever realized.

For now, the equestrian community must recognize the dangers of being 10 feet off the ground on an unpredictable animal, and where a head might hit if the animal bucks.  It won’t be the only buck in the equation.

We will never drive trauma centers out of existence, but every physician should want to.  I hope most trauma physicians would be among the first to agree.



  1. MJEG Says:

    Reading your post i am reminded of a resent story I read in the news about a man who was killed in a motorcycle accident on his way to an event to protest mandatory helmet wearing, the man was killed and would have lived had he been wearing a helmet (according to the article; i don’t remember the specifics).

    I stumble upon your blog from time to time after finding it on some Pathfinder site many years ago. I myself am also a Pathfinder alumni, as well as being a current medical student. Besides being a medical student I am also the grandson of two physicians: growing up any time one of my cousins would even ponder the idea of getting a motorcycle my grandfather would take him down to the hospital to show him the effects of a motorcycle crash.

    Having spend enough time in the trauma room myself during my training I agree every trauma physician advocates for the use of helmet wearing. I have seen first hand the tragedy as I have watched individuals die from their extensive injuries. Injuries which could have been prevented had the individual been wearing a helmet. I have also seen patients come in; their lives only saved by the fact that they were wearing a helmet. It’s one sad story after another. When we take the Hippocratic oath we dedicate our lives to saving the lives of others. I just wish other people would also take the necessary precautions to protect their own lives. I’ve worked too hard to save lives, only to watch them dives because their injuries are beyond repair.

    • Mike Says:

      My brother (Pathfinder 60-63) sent me the article you referred to. It was in New York State. I am out of medicine but still canoe, 44 years after Pathfinder, annually in Minnesota. Will probably go to Source Lake next year. “Wearing Red” on my blog is about Pathfinder. Helmets saved my brain at least 3 times when I rode a bicycle. I unplugged too many ventilators on young people who were brain dead from accidents where a helmet likely would have saved their lives.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: