By Sally Kay 
 
AWinterClassicIOskar
 
According to the Brain Injury Alliance of Kentucky, US hospitals alone treat over 70,000 equestrianrelated injuries annually.   Did you know that three in every five equestrian-related accident deaths are due to brain injuries? Since International Helmet Awareness Day is upon us, I’d like to take a moment and share with you my own story which occurred only a few months ago.  While I’m a life-long equestrian who has always understood the potential risks associated with the sport and the principles behind properly made and fitting equipment, I believe my recent accident is no truer testament to the significance of wearing a helmet that meets the safety standards for its intended use, fits correctly and is worn properly.  Here’s why: 
 
Ummmmpppphhhh…I hit the ground incredibly hard….ouch… a sharp twinge pulsed up the back of my neck…the crunching noise of my right temple vibrated within my ears as I did a face plant into the synthetic footing.  I can now tell you first-hand that there’s truth behind the saying ‘you don’t bounce as much when you get older.”  I lay there motionless much like that of a chalked body outline at a crime scene. I realize that is a morbid thought, but at the time…it seemed an appropriate analogy. 
 
It was June 11, 2017, in Tryon, NC, the second round of the Adult Hunter Classic, and my horse ‘Oskar’ and I were having an even better round than our initial one the previous day that had scored in the mid 80’s.  We came around the turn toward the final line of jumps in the class…the same line we had jumped prior five or six times without issue over the weekend.  The impulsion was there, his ears pricked forward and he was ‘hunting’ the jump. However, as soon as we left the ground for that jump into the line, I felt him hesitate, which is completely out of character. I knew instantly we were in trouble and there was nothing I could do.  It then became a slow motion out of body experience. Oskar’s right toe/hoof became lodged between the top pole and the gate.  We did the infamous rotational fall…he flipped to the right and I to the left.   
 
A chorus of ‘’Don’t move, don’t move!” echoed around me.   Instinctively I knew I was hurt seriously, but to what degree? I’ve been showing horses for over 45 years and had my share of falls both in and out of the show ring...none though as severe as this.  I immediately wiggled my fingers within my gloves and my toes inside my boots and said a prayer of thanks.  Luckily I never lost consciousness, and the paramedics knelt beside me asking the routine questions for any suspected head/neck injury.   What troubled me most though was that I couldn’t see out of my left eye.  What was wrong?  They slowly removed my helmet, secured my head and neck and rolled me over onto the backboard…I still couldn’t see out of my left eye….had I knocked it out?  I could feel the blood streaming down my face.   I had hit the right side of my head so hard on the ground when I landed that the visor portion of my helmet was knocked down at an angle slicing a small area below my left eye…the blood was flowing into my right eye which alarmed not only the medics but those who were standing over me. Their initial reaction was severe head trauma. The ground had also punched me in the left eye, creating a prize-fighter size hematoma…one that Rocky Balboa would have been proud of as it was swollen shut …which is why I couldn’t see.  They suspected my orbital may also be fractured but only the hospital could confirm. I was lifted on to the golf cart and transported to the ambulance…certainly not the finish I had envisioned to an otherwise successful weekend. 
 
I had no idea an ambulance ride could be so bumpy…particularly strapped down on a hard backboard with my head and neck immobilized.   Still what I was fixated on most was my left eye…wow it hurt…not to mention the stinging ‘road rash’ along the left side of my face.  Upon arrival at the hospital they quickly moved me into one of the exam bays in the emergency room. Nurses taking vitals, hooking up IVs and doctors coming in asking questions, followed by X-rays, Cat Scans and MRIs.   Amidst the testing, my son – a young professional hunter rider who witnessed the accident and I understood was one of the first on the scene- did share a text with me that I had won the Older Adult Hunter Championship and the overall Adult Hunter Grand Championship for the weekend.  Of course my thought is, “Dang, I won’t be able to get a picture in the winner’s circle with the Grand Champion Perpetual Trophy!” All kidding aside, this news did offer some levity to a very serious situation.  
 
After all was said and done, I had no concussion, no orbital fracture, but I did break C4 and C5.  Luckily the fractures were in line and away from the spinal column; therefore, no surgery was needed.  The neurosurgeon was very candid and said my helmet saved my life.   Essentially the height and the force at which my head hit the ground created a severe whiplash effect thus breaking my two vertebrae.  The inner padding of the helmet crushed against its side, thus ‘cushioning’ the blunt force trauma of my brain concussing against my skull.  The helmet performed as it was designed as it fit me correctly. The prescribed treatment for my neck was wearing a hard plastic collar for 24 hours a day seven days a week for three months.  Fortunately for me, I healed more quickly and was able to remove the brace in a month, back riding Oskar-thankfully he fared much better than I - in six weeks.   By eight weeks I was jumping a few small jumps and today I’m jumping three foot courses.   No-I am not wearing the same helmet.  Whenever you experience a fall in which your head/helmet hits the ground – no matter how hard you hit-the helmet should be replaced.  Wearing a damaged helmet has been compared to wearing none at all.  It is also my understanding that your helmet should be replaced every five years for a variety of safety reasons. 
 
Which brings me back to where I started….International Helmet Awareness Day.    There have been tremendous technological advancements recently made in helmet design, both structurally and aesthetically.  They are available within a broad scope of price points.   Regardless of your budget and/or sense of style, please select the helmet that meets the safety standards for its intended use, fits you correctly and wear it properly.      
 
Many have said to me, “Don’t you think your accident should be telling you to quit riding?” My reply is simple…”Absolutely not!  In fact it means that my time is not yet up.” I will be forever grateful that my injuries were not worse, and most specifically, I’m thankful for the helmet that saved my life.