By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
LOXAHATCHEE, Florida, Mar. 7–Coutney King-Dye’s accident that has left her in a coma in a West Palm Beach hospital has deeply shocked the dressage community and spurred calls to require safety helmets in competition.
The impact has been felt most keenly at the Palm Beach Dressage Derby CDI-W which began Thursday, the day after Courtney fell when a horse she was schooling not far from the show grounds slipped from under her. Her skull fractured, she was airlifted to the hospital and as of Saturday night still had not regained consciousness but was reported to be breathing on her own. She was to have ridden three different horses at the Derby.
Comments using today’s social media–emails, text messages, telephone calls, Tweets, Facebook postings and old fashioned conversations–point to Courtney’s accident as touching dressage riders, trainers, judges and fans everywhere.
If it can happen to someone as good a rider and experienced as Courtney then, the comments go, it can happen to anyone.
She is a poster girl for the sport. Raised in modest circumstances, she pursued her equestrian dreams by becoming a working student to two-time Olympian Lendon Gray at the age of 15 and went on to become one of the most elegant riders in America and a member of her nation’s Olympic team by the time she she was 30 years old.
When the Derby’s four competition arenas were in full swing throughout the weekend, the most common headware in the warmup arenas were hard hats, including the top of the line GPA titanium helmets that are the overwhelming choice of top jumper riders around the world. Others looked as if they had been unearthed from the backs of closets where they had been consigned after Pony Club, but the message was clear.
Susan Stickle, a much sought after dressage photographer, and Jonna Koellhoffer, started pinning on passersby bows of green ribbon that denote head injury awareness that within a day were a common sight.
The Derby organizers pledged revenue from the VIP hospitality tent to a fund to help defray Courtney’s medical costs.
Canadian Olympian Ashley Holzer, who wears her helmet in training and warm up rides donned her helmet to compete Prix St. Georges.
“I have fantastic children and a fantastic husband,” she said. “I have a wonderful life. Why would I want to risk that?”
Jacqueline Brooks, a fellow Canadian Olympian, wore her helmet in the Derby’s CDI Grand Prix Special.
“I called Ilse Schwarz as soon as I heard the news because she always wears a helmet and I wanted to know how effective it was and where I could get one,” said Danish rider Mikala Gundersen who is based in Wellington. She admitted a frequent plea from her two children, “Mom, wear a helmet.”
Ilse is an Australian who also lives in Wellington. She said she had been inundated with requests from friends across the U.S. and Australia about her GPA helmet, which she started wearing almost three years ago after fracturing her neck when her horse slipped from beneath her. She wears the helmet in national level classes but not in FEI competitions, instead donning the traditional top hat for appearance’s sake.
In a sport steeped in tradition, an integral part is the outfit of top hat and tail coat. Appearances are important.
Some riders questioned how judges view wearing a helmet instead of a top hat.
Asked for their reaction to a rider entering an arena wearing a safety helmet, most judges pointed to International Equestrian Federation (FEI) rules allowing approved helmets to be worn. Some national federations, including the one in the U.S., have gone further and made wearing helmets mandatory in some instances.
USA “O” judge Linda Zang went further.
“When riders enter the ring, most of us judges simply note in our minds that the head wear meets the rules and is appropriarte.
“I would encourage riders to take all steps necessary for the safety of their horse and themselves.”
Natalie Lamping, an FEI judge, suggested that with dressage attire becoming more colorful and fashionable, consideration could be given to designs in which modern helmet technology is incorporated.
Even so, one horse breeder pointed out that photos of helmet-wearing riders of stallions in breeding advertisements, for example, would send a message that the horse is difficult and could adversely affect breedings.
One prominent veterinarian fired off a pointed, three-word text message to all his customers: “Helmets! Helmets! Helmets!”
Six-time Olympian Robert Dover posted a report on his web site asking readers to let him know: “I believe in a miracle for Courtney!” A day later, he reported receiving 250 responses from 10 countries.