Over 170 Physicians Involved in Horse Sports Appeal Against Move to Permit Top Hats for Senior Riders in High Level Competition

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Oct. 29, 2020

More than 170 physicians have appealed as a group named Physician Women Equestrians to the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) to stand firm against a move by many riders seeking to retain the option of a top hat for high level dressage competitions.

The organization sent a petition to FEI president Ingmar de Vos following the public disclosure of many senior riders requesting special consideration to be exempted from mandatory requirement for all riders in international horse sports to wear protective headgear. Senior dressage riders were given a one-year exemption in 2020 but that ends Jan. 1, 2021.

“We, the undersigned, are an international group of physicians who ride in all equestrian disciplines, at all levels of the sport,” the letter to the FEI said. “We also treat brain injuries from the emergency room to the intensive care unit, from rehabilitation to psychiatric care, and we believe this petition, if granted, is a disservice to individual riders and to the sport of dressage.”

Equestrian sports, it said, were found to cause some of the highest rates of total
bodily injury, severe brain injury, and mortality of all modern sporting activities. The letter said that rates of helmet use in horseback riding remain “dismally low—ranging from 9%–25%, depending on the activity.”

The PWE letter cited the experiences of Americans Courtney King-Dye and Silva Martin as riders seriously injured in horse accidents.

“But we also see, firsthand, how brain injuries devastate patients and their families. Months lost, uncertain futures, and chronic physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. We monitor patients in weeks or months-long comas after head injuries. We guide their care as they relearn to walk and to talk. We treat their depression and anxiety and distraction and cognitive difficulties. We save lives and help patients adjust to what is their new, often very different, normal. And we wonder: is the option to wear a top hat worth that anguish?

“Dressage at the highest levels is distinctive in many ways–the deep partnership between horse and rider; the dazzling athleticism of the pair; and the tailcoats that clearly signal riders’ expertise. Forgoing safe headgear for style and deeming some riders exempt from safety requirements in such a high-risk sport sends a troubling message.

“We are also parents and our children participate in this most dangerous of sports. We know that a life with horses teaches them lessons nothing else can teach. But we are not fatalistic about freak accidents. We know safety gear can make the difference between being shaken up but uninjured and being admitted to an intensive care unit. So, we insist on headgear for our children, and we, as role models, wear it ourselves.

“We see our children emulate the stars of their chosen equestrian disciplines as others emulate football or basketball greats. Whether they wish to be or not, those elite riders are role models for our young riders, their students, and the public. Young riders may either lose respect for risky traditions and the riders who choose them or have a deep desire to adopt those practices as quickly as possible, unnecessarily risking their own safety in the process. Either way, our sport loses.”