The Death of the Top Hat

What Do You Think of the New USEF Helmet Rules?


(first published in the April 2011 Equiery)

by Katherine O. Rizzo

Some of us may remember the days before cross-country safety vests, before ASTM/SEI approved helmets, before seat belts, antilock brakes, cell phone laws, and the like. A time when individuals could choose what safety features they wanted to wear, or not wear, without being penalized by judges. A time when individuals recognized the fact that horses are dangerous animals and weighed the risks of competing or riding.

But sadly, or not so sadly, times have changed. One person’s individual choice could lead to new laws, new rules and new fees that affect everyone involved. We have seen it with seat belts and we have seen it with cell phones, a larger governing body choosing to address a safety issue with new laws and regulations. It should therefore be no surprise that eventually, the horse world would follow suit.

Yes, people have been falling off horses from the first moment man tried to sit on them. And yes, modern technology has provided more and more ways to help reduce the risk of injury resulting from a fall. However, does an organization such as the U.S. Equestrian Federation have the right to make it mandatory for competitors to wear such safety equipment? With insurance companies breathing down everyone’s backs, is this just a way for the larger governing body to help defray the trickle-down cost effect?

These are just many of the points that Equiery readers brought up when we asked for opinions concerning the new USEF Protective Headgear rules affecting the disciplines of eventing and dressage.
On January 25, the USEF passed the Protective Headgear for Eventing (EV 114.1) and Protective Headgear for Dressage (DR 120.5) rules. The eventing rule went into effect immediately and the dressage rule took effect on March 1, 2011.

To summarize, the eventing rule basically states that at all levels of competition at USEF-endorsed competitions, all riders, regardless of age, must wear ASTM/SEI approved headgear at all times when mounted. The rule change for dressage competitions is a bit more detailed and complicated and has several exceptions, including exceptions based on rider age or competition level. To read the full language for each rule, see The Equiery’s Eventing and Dressage blogs on equiery.com.

The passing of these two rules has sparked much debate throughout the state, around the country, and as a few people foresee the FEI following the USEF’s example, the world. The debate is crossing disciplines as well, raising interest from not only eventers and dressage riders, but from foxhunters, saddleseat riders, and more. The Equiery asked its readers the following questions, and the responses are still pouring in.

1) Should the USEF have passed these rules?
2) Are the exceptions to the rules acceptable?
3) Should there be any exceptions?
4) Should similar rules be made for all USEF sponsored disciplines, such as Reining and Saddleseat?
5) Does this rule change or affect your competition plans or budget in any way?

Safety vs. Style
“To sublimate safety to an expression of fashion is a folly which should have been set aside years ago. The new helmet rule is precisely the reason we choose to have a governing body overseeing our sport. The collective prudence of our governing body protects us from our individual lack of discretion.” – Debby Lynn, Damascus, MD

“Although I’m never going to be a Prix St. Georges level rider, the top hat issue is where I see the debate forming. Maybe a company will develop a protective yet attractive top hat.” – Kelly Eigler, Alexandria, VA

“We wear seat belts, our kids are in car seats, helmets are worn for football, hockey, riding bicycles and motorcycles… seems like it’s about time that the riding industry gets the hint.” – Linda Albro, Mt. Airy, MD

“This still remains about vanity in the upper levels. Yes, the derby caps are adorable and look much better than a helmet, but I would rather have my brain intact.” – Cheryl Johnson, Hopkins, MI

“Surely safety is more important than vanity when it comes to competing? Top-level riders should be required to set the example and show superior sense by wearing the most protective headgear possible.” – Hilary Walker, Owings, MD

A Rider’s Choice
“The USEF was right to pass the rules, sometimes people need to be protected from themselves. Until a generation gets in the habit of wearing protective headgear and it feels weird NOT to have it on, it may be the only way to truly protect new riders.” – Sharon Libby, Clarksburg, MD

“Frankly I think it is pretty silly for an organization to legislate rules such as this for adults. It is my choice. It seems to me that the really serious injuries involving riding are spinal cord injuries, which are totally unaffected by head protection.” – Tom Pardoe, MFH, Goshen Hounds, Woodbine, MD

“I think the USEF was the logical organization to take a leadership role in the area of helmet use. However, I also realize that not everyone will agree, and professionals and upper-level riders may be in a better position to make an informed choice.” – Victoria Carson, Middleburg, MD

“I am sick and tired of other people making rules for us instead of letting adults know the risks and make their own decisions.” – Marla Stoner, Damascus, MD

“The people who think that wearing protective headgear is a personal decision and everyone else should mind their own business forget that if a head injury should occur, their decision impacts many others - the people who have to care for them and the taxpayers who have to contribute to the riding healthcare costs.”
– Cheryl Johnson, Hopkins, MI

“I feel that it should be up to the rider to make that call for his or her own self.” – Anonymous from Kentucky

What About Traditions?

“As a fox hunter, I understand and love the beauty and pageantry of traditional clothes and equipment that bespeak our history and roots. As a very mortal human, and one whose physical integrity has been preserved by the constant use of a sturdy jockey helmet and safety vest, I eschew tradition in favor of safety.” – Debby Lynn, Damascus, MD

“The top hat has always been a tradition, don’t screw this one up too.” - Anonymous from Kentucky

“Injured as I’ve been, I’d still prefer to wear my antique, silk, useless-yet-lovely top hat while riding in the ring sidesaddle. On the other hand, I completely agree with wearing an approved helmet at all other times.” – Kelly Eigler, Alexandria, VA

Who Should Be Exempt?

“I think the rules should be in effect for all riders and all disciplines. No one is exempt from injury. Freak accidents do not discriminate by discipline or level.” – Carolyn Del Grosso, Olney, MD

“I don’t think that there should be ANY exceptions. I’m not sure how being older (above 18) makes your head any less vulnerable to head injury. What kind of example are we setting for those below 18, do what I say, not as I do? Absolutely, protective headgear rules should apply to all riding disciplines” – Cheryl Johnson, Hopkins, MI

“At this point, yes, I think the FEI should adopt rules requiring headgear for all equestrian sports. No exceptions. There is no rational reason for an exception. All equestrian disciplines should have the same headgear rule.” – Diane Ayers, Severn, MD

“I find it hard to believe that any rider, in any discipline, should be exempt from wearing protective headgear while mounted.” – Hilary Walker, Owings, MD

“Very few, if no exceptions. Youngsters looking up at the example of advanced riders need to see that they too respect themselves enough to wear protective headgear whenever on a horse. I would limit the exception to allowing the FEI rider to change from the protective headgear to a top hat while waiting to do their walk-around before entering at A. Similar rules should be made for ALL sponsored disciplines.” – Sharon Libby, Clarksburg, MD

“KIS (keep it simple), protective headgear should be worn by ALL riders when mounted, period.” – Ahesahmahk Dahn, Baltimore, MD

Budget Burden?
“The whole thing is totally stupid. I’m not going to spend the money. With these new rules, I probably won’t compete anymore.” – Marla Stoner, Damascus, MD

“I know that if the USEF had not passed these rules, the insurance companies soon would have clamped down anyway. Our membership fees should not have to cover higher insurance policies due to higher injury rates. We simply cannot afford the higher insurance, higher medical cost and higher emotional traumas of the past. Society is changing. It’s all the way of the future and it’s run by insurance. That’s just the way it is. We need to move forward and focus on the joy of the sport again.” – Colleen Kelly MISBS, New South Wales, Australia

“Much of the hysteria over protective headgear and the compulsory use of such is clearly driven by the insurance industry and an unfounded fear of being sued.” – Tom Pardoe MFH, Goshen Hounds, Woodbine, MD

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© The Equiery 2011