The days of the traditional top hat are numbered. Dressage riders must wear protective headgear at all times, in the show ring and out, at FEI events as of January 1, 2021. In addition, helmets are required during the marathon phase of combined driving events. The delay in implementation is to allow time for education and for manufacturers to be able to meet the increased demand
According to Article 140, the only time athletes may remove their helmets would be if applicable sports rules allow for this while accepting prizes, during the playing of the national anthem and other ceremonial protocol. Failure to wear protective headgear when required will result in a yellow warning card unless exceptional circumstances apply. This mandatory protective headgear rule would not apply to vaulting.
As expected, this announcement has been met with both praise and anger. Many people do not believe it is appropriate to mandate safety gear, but they miss the point. They don’t have to wear helmets at home; only if they want to compete in FEI sanctioned events.
I think for many people, the TBI suffered in 2010 by Courtney-King Dye, which sparked the formation of Riders4Helmets, this rule change is overdue. Certainly, wearing a helmet will not protect you from every accident, but if you hit your head after falling off a horse, your helmet absorbs energy by crushing and extending your head’s stopping time to reduce the peak impact on the brain.
The American Medical Equestrian Association calculates that ASTM/SEI approved helmets have reduced all riding-related head injuries by 30% and severe head injuries by 50%. Repeated trauma to the head, even when minimal, can cause cumulative damage to the brain.
The adoption of helmets by high profile riders has helped make inroads. In 2010, Allison Sringer was the only rider at Rolex to wear a helmet in dressage. By 2015 63 out of 75 dressage rides (84%) wore helmets.
In 2012, Charlotte Dujardin won an individual Olympic gold meda wearing her helmet,proof that judges will score an excellent test fairly no matter what headgear the rider chooses. Steffen Peters switched to a helmet in 2017 after looking at photos that showed he was the only rider on the US team to still wear a top hat.
I hung on because of a superstition. Over the years, I became less superstitious. At first it was my tailcoat that I had for 26 years. The top hat was the final superstitious item that I hung on to. I had a couple good tests with the helmet and decided to switch,” said Peters.
Putting aside a tradition that’s influenced riders for more than a century will take time to change, but great strides have already been made in normalizing the “look” of the protective helmet in the dressage ring. Future generations of riders won’t think twice.