I’m saving the world one head at a time. Steve Leo’s head was the first. He’s the guy who taught my wrist to bend after six weeks of stall rest (a.k.a. a cast) for a compound horse-inflicted fracture. It turned out Steve was a horseman, in addition to being a physical therapist. One step into his Staunton, Va., office revealed that. He’s got horse statues, horse paintings and horse pictures all over the place. So either he was, like me, horse addicted, or he just had really bad taste in art.
Steve specializes in rehabilitating hands and arms, and he might even be crazier than me when it comes to horses. I’ve yet to go on vacation 2,000 miles away and come home with two new horses. I at least contain my insanity to the East Coast. Steve went on a riding holiday in Montana and bought back two Paint colts. I know this not just because I’m nosy, but because among his horse art is an 8 x 10 photo of a silhouetted man on horseback against majestic mountains that are about 100 times the size of our little Blue Ridge bumps. That’s Steve in the silhouette. Very Marlboro Man. Very helmetless.
Since I can still string together a somewhat understandable sentence in less than an hour—despite an embarrassing number of head injuries—that makes me Commandant of the Helmet Police. This is not a popular position, and I’m usually greeted with the same enthusiasm by those I reprimand as the Chief of Internal Affairs is greeted by the police force. But I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years, so my skin is thick, and I am relentless.
“No helmet?” I said to Steve, holding up his Marlboro Man photo. He muttered something about how no one who rides in a western saddle wears a helmet. “So the horn protects your head?” I asked. He’s a Northern Italian and I’m a Northern Jew, which means we were hurling wisecracks back and forth within five minutes of meeting each other. Consequently, he made a few off-color jokes about heads, then ended by saying the one on top of his shoulders was hard enough to take any knock.
I countered with what the ER doc told me after I whined about being knocked out while wearing a helmet: “That’s why you can still talk,” she said with not even a hint of a smile. Head injury was clearly no laughing matter to her.
I told Steve to Google Courtney King Dye’s heartbreaking video to see someone who can barely talk because she wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Maybe that’s what got his attention, or maybe it was the memory of the recent fall he’d taken. His Paint nearly clipped him in the head with a hoof.
“You were lucky. This time. Get a helmet,” I said. No smile, no wisecrack. The ER doc is right. There's nothing funny about brain injury for either the injured or those who have to take care of the injured.
Something worked. The next time I showed up at his office to practice wrist bending, he proudly announced he’d bought a helmet and planned to ride in it from then on—Macho Marlboro Man be darned. That was a few months back. A good officer of the law knows follow up is the key to reducing recidivism. So I called to check up on him. Score one for the Office of Head Protection (OHP). He swears he wears it each time he rides.
Spreading The Gospel
I am obnoxiously evangelical (a natural pairing of two words if ever there was one) about helmets. When the Virginia Horse Council ran a picture on its website of a girl wearing an unapproved helmet—what we used to call “brain buckets”—I emailed them, suggesting they had a responsibility to set an example and show riders in safe and approved gear. Their new photo is another victory for the OHP.
This is an especially important victory for my department because a study released this week showed that young people and females heal more slowly from head injury. This may be the only time I can commend men for their hard-headedness.
Horse magazines, in my opinion, have a responsibility as well. They should step up to the safety plate and refuse to run ads of helmetless riders and refuse to run editorial pictures of people in unsafe head gear, even if it is allowed by the short-sighted organizations that govern the many disciplines in our sport. Yes dressage riders, I’m talking about you.
I’ve also posted snarky comments on Facebook pages when I see pictures of friends riding without helmets or equally bad, the ridiculous top hat. It’s fine if you’re Fred Astaire twirling around the dance floor. Not so much if you’re riding an unpredictable large animal that is hardwired to flee fast.
I got into an extended discussion with one woman who thought the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s new rule banning top hats from sidesaddle competition was discrimination. “Discrimination is being forced to sit in the back of the bus. This is the USHJA finally doing something right,” I posted. I think she defriended me.