Thoughts About Riding Helmets

By Bonnie J. Hilton

Saddle and Bridle Magazine Equine Articles


Crane logo Riding Helmets and Safety. Written for Saddle & Bridle magazine by Bonnie J. Hilton.
© copyrighted horse article.
1. If you are an instructor or trainer, either with or without your own home base of operation, do you carry liability insurance? Facility owners or managers please take note as well. For the section under teaching or actual riding (or driving) did you happen to check off a section that wanted to know if you required the use of protective headgear or helmets? Maybe nothing was noted about helmet use, and that can be possible. For my application I checked off yes in that section. Did you read your Master Policy? Is there a section about dishonesty or fraud? My policy states, "Any fraud, misstatement or concealment by you in relation to any matter affecting coverage or in connection with the making of a claim hereunder shall render your coverage under this Master Policy null and void and all claims you have under this Master Policy will be forfeited." If the helmetless rider, who gave me the lame excuse and continues to use lame excuses with facility management, should receive head trauma and any kind of claim is lodged against the facility, I wonder what will happen if I or my adult student who was with me at the time, have to give depositions. If this same individual takes instruction, and that instructor carries insurance and does not practice what they signed, what will be the outcome of any claim for them if they allow this individual to ride helmetless?

2. But what about releases and hold harmless agreements? In 2004 I was forced, yes forced, to develop a new and improved document for my insurance company to review and keep on file. I am required to have all my students sign it. In this document it states that for all mounted activities in which I am fully engaged as an instructor, the wearing of an ASTM F1163-01/SEI certified helmet is mandatory. The facility where the helmetless rider boards, has a release and hold harmless agreement and I have been told that the wearing of an approved helmet is contained in that document. The student that I was teaching at the time, as well as another student, board at this facility. They wear helmets. It does not matter what type of riding they are doing, they follow the standards that the facility presented to them in writing and that they signed and agreed to. That piece of paper is not some frivolous document to be taken lightly. It is a life jacket in the legal tide of litigation we are all swimming in and it needs to be taken seriously.

3. How about a No Helmet agreement? The helmetless rider brought attention to another thought provoking statement made about another facility. It was stated that at this other facility riders can sign some sort of release that allows them to ride without a helmet. I thought that was of interest. So I would assume that on that facility's insurance they state that they don't require the use of helmets and another release must be covering risk management for the insurance company, as well as for the facility. I was intrigued enough on this to call my insurance company and I got some vague answers to the scenarios that I presented. I don't think I need to run this one by my lawyer. I can hear him chuckle. Make sure that the person signing knows what they are signing and that there can never be a claim that they were under duress, that they didn't understand what they were signing or what rights they were signing away. It may be of merit to have a witness to some signatures on some releases. I would make very sure that any helmetless release produced for my facility explained what the risks of head trauma were and I would go as far as having a viewing of Every Time .... Every Ride before allowing anyone to sign it.

4. How do you explain a double standard to a child? Do you omit the facts about head trauma and underestimate the child's intelligence by telling them that helmet use is only because of rules, which when they become an adult they don't have to follow anymore? The adult student that I was teaching at the time that the helmetless rider appeared had her 11-year-old daughter with her and observing. I asked her about what she had seen and we had a discussion on the subject of helmet use. Since the majority of all the riders she sees wear helmets, and she has worn a helmet since she started riding, it isn't an issue with her. She knows what brain protection is. She understands the tradition of some styles in the show ring and the higher risk factor of working outside of the ring. I have to quote here from some compiled information. "With the expanded use of ASTM/SEI-certified helmets by riders under the age of 21, the largest group of head-injured riders has become ages 22-35. Many of the most serious injuries and deaths happen to riders older than 35."

5.Customer confusion! What do you do when individuals come into your care, custody and control who come out of a venue where helmet use is not mainstream? Here again, you must rely on your legal responsibility and honesty as to what you have signed for insurance, if you carry it and what your personal stand is on this safety issue and the standards that you want to produce. Maybe you don't want to have any standards. I had an interesting conversation with a facility owner in the state of Massachusetts several years ago who has trail rides, hay rides and recreational riding programs. Helmet use is not mandatory and he has not had a problem in all the years they have been operating. So, what does that mean? When I tried to find out what his releases and insurance were based on for the actual riding part of his program, he kept hedging his answers, which led me to believe that he had some sort of farm policy and was probably not even covered for some of what he was now offering. Having been involved with one nasty law suit, that brought a lovely insured facility to its end, I simply can't see playing Russian roulette this way.

6. There is no such thing as a controlled environment. We tend to get this confused with the contained environment that we often function in with our equines. Please remember that the helmetless rider I confronted was not in a contained environment. We can contain the problem but that doesn't always mean that the containment will control the problem. As a trainer I will opt for a more contained environment when I am handling or riding a new horse or an equine known to have behavior problems. My safety, my personal risk is not necessarily lessened by that containment and I am well aware of that. I do know that if the horse gets away from me, hopefully, the containment system being used will keep it from running away into a more litigious area. We also have a false sense of security in our rings and indoors. We don't want to think about the what ifs.

In recent years here in New England there have been some interesting accidents in contained environments (including the show ring) when control was lost and riders have parted company with their mounts. Should I note that these people were not jumping. Severe head trauma was not on the list of injuries, which I feel was a direct result of the protective helmets that were being worn at the time. (One of my students did receive a slight concussion, with the helmet on.) Since several of these helmets were sent back to the manufacturer to be replaced, you have to wonder about the what if.

7. Providing Helmets. Since the bicycle helmet law was instituted in my state I was pleased to see that my home town police department took the initiative, from some funding source, to offer free approved helmets and fitting to the children. I never had a helmet when I was riding my bike either, but that was how many years ago? Ancient history, before we knew about the cumulative affects of concussion. Schooling helmets are not that expensive but if money is the reason a rider is helmetless, then I suggest taking the initiative, if you are the instructor involved. I also suggest to my students, to pass on their older helmets, as long as they are totally intact, to their facility or person of choice. I am not trying to change tradition, nor do I feel that anyone involved with safety issues has that as part of their agenda. I enjoy the tradition of the ring. We are all involved with quality of life and education as it pertains to risk. You manage risk with applied knowledge.

My late father once told me that you can work with the public on two levels, either through education or legislation. As an instructor I would hope that we only need continued education to keep developing awareness for the safety of our sport. Sorry to say some individuals are difficult to educate. I am one who applauds the recent helmet rule changes by the USEF concerning jumping. However, I feel that instructors need to be more vigilant in their teaching of the different risk factors as you change riding venues. Educated riders make educated choices based on their level of expertise and the horse's possible reaction to the change. I will always remember my first out in the open ride with a Saddlebred gelding I had put under saddle for a facility I was working for. As we were walking up the wide path from an open field back to the barn a deer came bounding out of the woods, across in front of us and into the woods on the other side. I had not prepared my mount by deer proofing! I don't think he had ever seen a deer and thankfully he had a delayed reaction to the incident which gave me enough time to ride it through. I had a helmet on and although I didn't come off, I remember that ride because of the what ifs.

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