Strong Reaction from Around World to Petition to Save Top Hats in Dressage Competition

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The 2018 World Equestrian Games team medals podium–German riders (gold) wore top hats in competition, United States (silver) all wore helmets and Great Britain (bronze) all wore helmets. File photo. © Ken Braddick/

Oct. 25, 2020

News of a petition by 150 leading dressage riders seeking to retain the right to wear top hats in senior high level competitions to keep alive tradition in the sport sparked strong reaction around the globe.

The differences of opinion were displayed as much as anywhere by two Australian Grand Prix riders, Simone Pearce and Gitte Donvig, both of whom were seriously injured in riding accidents but offered differing opinions.

Much of the elite tier of international dressage signed the petition to the International Equestrian Federation to have the organization’s overall governing General Assembly meeting next month to exclude top level dressage competitions from a blanket requirement for safety helmets beginning in 2021.

Simone Pearce, 29 years old and based in Germany, departed from her usual reticence on issues: “I think it’s very selfish and irresponsible to publicly encourage young riders to ride without a helmet in any situation! We as professionals have a duty to be positive role models to the younger generations and to the equestrian community alike! I understand the argument that the rate of accidents in the competition arena is very low; however it is possible so why not eliminate any risk?

“Just last year I had a terrible riding accident myself which makes this topic all the more close to my heart. I was so badly injured that I ended in the intensive care unit in hospital for a week with nine broken bones, a punctured lung and hematomas in my abdomen. This freak accident happened at an exhibition show on a 14-year-old Grand Prix horse; it was a completely devastating accident which nobody could have predicted and I can’t imagine what more could have happened if I wasn’t wearing my helmet: I really think it might have saved me that day!

“The equestrian sport at any level comes with so many risks and I don’t understand why some people think that ‘looking good’ could ever justify putting someone’s safety at jeopardy.

“I think it’s time for the younger generation of riders to step up and show what is ‘cool’ and above all safe in modern dressage! I mean who wouldn’t want to wear a helmet with so many amazing options available in this day and age? Let’s step into the new age of dressage in the most modern, stylish and safe way possible.”

Gitte Donvig, 40 years old and based in Australia has been competing at Big Tour since 2007.

“I’ve resisted the temptation to comment on this issue so far,” said the daughter of Mary Hanna, the doyenne of Australian dressage and who signed the petition, “but now I must. I think I’m probably the most qualified to. I am both a Grand Prix rider and a severe Traumatic Brain Injury survivor.

“I was wearing a helmet when a young horse spooked and fell with me. The helmet made no difference. It was the angle of how I landed.

“This is an emotive topic for many, but know this: Dressage riders don’t get head injuries riding FEI horses in competition. They get injured schooling horses at home. The statistics tell us this. My life experience tells me this.

“I am one year into a grueling recovery. It affects me, my children, my friends and family. It probably will for years to come. But it wasn’t anything other than an accident. Nothing sensational. Just a normal day, schooling and training horses, cause that’s how I CHOOSE to earn a living.

“Top hats are a tradition and adults should have a choice. People still have the option of a helmet if they want. Freedom of choice.”

Laura Graves, the only American to ever become world No. 1 which she was on Verdades, led the United States team–all four wearing helmets–to silver at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Tryon.

“I find this incredibly surprising,” she wrote. “In an era where we are trying to move dressage to be more mainstream and we fight some of the archaic FEI rules. Here is a petition, which in my mind is simply foolish. I agree, every rider should (and does) have the right to choose his/her headwear, but at home. During competition should not be an option. Why wait for a serious accident? I am humbled to consider myself a role model in this sport. I do and will ALWAYS wear a helmet.”

Patrik Kittel, Sweden’s top ranked rider, a three-time Olympian and one of six members of the FEI Dressage Committee, said: “I am all for safety, but I am also for free possibility to choose for yourself. So far I know No one has ever hurt themself in a high level dressage test in the arena!…

“And I love my top hat, it’s classical to the dressage… I am also, of course, positive to headgear for all training and prize giving.

“But I think that I can now with age 44 choose if I want… to ride with my top hat in the test.”