Millions of people ride horses, a sport that has its exciting and dangerous moments. Kids start when they’re less than five, and I have a friend who sees riders in her barn in their late 80’s. I have another friend who at age 56 took up hunter-jumping, did endurance riding (25 miles in a day) in Arizona, then fell jumping back East, broke her back, healed, studied dressage, then reining, and is now learning western. She is a Greenwich suburbanite who is on a horse almost every day of the last 10 years. Now that is enthusiasm.

helmet on ira on Moose—2004

But I think in this sport, it is common. Horse riders—whether world class or simply local barn level— are often so committed to their sport that almost nothing will stop them from daily or frequent practice. They seem obsessed, blessed and are to be admired for their devotion and envied for their passion. I think more of them are women than men, but no matter how quiet and timid some of these ladies seem at a dinner table, they are determined to ride. I met such a female some years ago who rode every day for 17 years, driving to her horse’s barn a half hour or so away even in rainstorms and winter blizzards. She had to ride, even if it was indoors. Not mounting her horse daily was not an option. It was her life.

My first and only horse, Moose, an Arab-Percheron cross, died last year at age 27. But we had many great years of riding in the woods, pastures, jumping, and just being buddies. He only threw me a couple times, and could have often, when he was startled by a flushed grouse or a static tractor that he noticed. I was pretty good at shifting weight, squeezing legs and hanging on in a fraction of a frightening milli-second.

I always wore a helmet, as silly as it looked for me to be adorned in black velvet head gear on the road or plain dirt trail. But I was cautious, being brand new at the game, having only bought Moose when I was 50. I made myself learn to ride English, so I couldn’t hold on to a Western saddle horn when my horse cantered or galloped. At one point I was taking two-foot jumps bareback. Not bad for an old geezer in his mid-50’s.

With this simple background, I was very saddened to read that an Olympic rider, Courtney King-Dye, was injured last March and suffered a serious head injury, because she wasn’t wearing a helmet. Shocking. She was in a coma for about three weeks, and is now slightly recovered.

Courtney King-Dye and her late Olympic mount, Mythilus © 2008 by Nancy Jaffer

Here are excerpts from one news story:
Courtney often wears a helmet, but she was not in this instance. Lendon Gray, her mentor, said that for the last 15 years of her riding career, she wore a helmet and hoped she could encourage others to do the same, but helmets are rarely seen at a dressage show.

Another Grand Prix rider Heather Blitz has started a campaign that urges dressage riders to wear helmets, as she requires her students to do.

Citing the need for dressage riders to acknowledge the inherent risks of being on a horse, she said, “Courtney’s accident reminds us all how vulnerable we are around horses.

Recounting the accident, Lendon said of the horse, “We think one hind foot stepped on the other and he sort of semi sat down and tipped over sideways. Courtney was basically under him; she stayed in the tack and obviously her head hit the ground.”

Paramedics were on the scene quickly and Courtney, who had suffered a skull fracture, was taken by helicopter to the hospital.

“Overnight the pressure on her brain went down,” Lendon reported. That was the good news. But she said a neurologist had no idea when Courtney might wake up. “She could wake up right now or it could be weeks or even months.”

In mid-June, after another Olympic rider, Guenter Seidel, broke his pelvis in a riding accident, Courtney King-Dye, who came out of the coma by March 29th, had this to say about her recovery:

“I still don’t have proper use of my right side and speech is difficult, but I guarantee I am working hard on them!” she reported on her Internet site.

“I am amazed how much the brain does. But I feel very lucky being like my normal self and having my memory; I see a lot who don’t have that luxury. I explain that my brain may be terribly screwed up, but my mind is good! I kick butt on anything mental they throw at me, so what if I can’t walk; I can think!

“At first I didn’t think I would ride again partly because my neurologist said if I hurt my head again, it will not be 2 times as hard to come back but 5 times; and I can tell you, it’s not easy now!

“But the fact is (even though I have a good education) I can’t see myself doing anything else. I have been asked a lot if hippotherapy sounded good, and at first I thought ‘those horse are so far below my abilities!’ But in reality, horses always make me feel better, so until my balance is better why not do it on horses who are used to it?

“I heard that Lendon (Gray) visited me while I was in the coma with a rein, and it made a huge difference! Jason (her husband) says he was not too impressed with it because he was still trying to get me to communicate, and here is Lendon reminding me how to ride! But it worked; it’s what my body knows. So thanks to Lendon for being such a big part of what’s going on!”

You can read all about Courtney’s accident and her own words at her blog. As she says, hopefully her accident will convince more riders to wear helmets and spare some of them from the terrible dangers of horse riding head injuries.