Debbie McDonald Credits Helmet with Saving Her from Serious Injury in Horse Accident – by Ken Braddick

Ken Braddick of has kindly allowed us to republish his story regarding Olympian Debbie McDonald’s riding accident. Thank you to Ken and his dressage rider/trainer wife Ilse for their ongoing support of the riders4helmets campaign. Be safe – wear your helmet!

Steffen Peters, Courtney King-Dye and Debbie McDonald in 2008. © Ken Braddick/


Debbie McDonald, Olympic and World Equestran Games medalist and World Cup champion, was thrown from a horse in Southern California Tuesday, and said that wearing a safety helmet helped her escape severe brain injury.

“I told Courtney (King Dye) that she saved my life, Debbie, aged 56, told “Ever since Courtney’s accident I have been wearing a helmet.

“I think I dodged a big one.”

She said that on her way to the hospital after the accident on a young and big 17-hand horse in Thousand Oaks, California, she was thinking of her team mates, Courtney and Guenter Seidel who lives in Cardiff, California, and also suffered a horse accident last summer.

Debbie first reported her accident in an email to dressage riders saying: “Wanted to let you all know that I escaped a severe brain injury yesterday by wearing a helmet. I was launched over 30 feet (10m) straight into ground. Escaped with a concussion, facial lacerations and severe whip lash. Please everyone wear your helmets!”

Courtney King-Dye, who was on the 2008 Olympic team with Debbie and Steffen Peters, was seriously injured in a horse accident in Florida almost a year ago.

Gunter Seidel, a three-time Olympian for the United States, was injured in a horse accident in Germany last summer and fractured his pelvis.

The accident to Debbie occurred less than a month before safety helmets become mandatory at national level dressage classes in the United States as well as for junior and young horse classes and seniors who compete in both national and FEI levels at the same competition.

“I feel like I’ve been run over by a Mack truck,” Debbie said of the accident that left her with lacerations on the left side of face that “looks like I was dragged along the asphalt” and a black eye. She suffered severe whiplash and a concussion.

She said that she was riding the horse belonging to a client when it started to go into bronco bucking mode, throwing its head and stretching down between its legs.

“I realized that at some point I was going to come off,” she said.

“I went head first into the footing,” Debbie said. “The helmet showed that the footing went up to the base of the helmet.

“It was like a Christopher Reeves’ fall, with my hands out behind me,” referring to the actor who suffered a riding accident in 1995 that left him a quadraplegic. He died in in 2004.

Debbie said the ambulance arrived quickly and took her to Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks.

Debbie said she was concerned about her neck, but that a CAT scan found no trace of bleeding from the brain.

“I feel very, very, very lucky,” said Debbie who became America’s most beloved dressage rider when she rode the mare Brentina, owned by Peggy and Parry Thomas, to team silver at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain in 2002, team bronze at the WEG in Aachen, Germany, in 2006, team bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics and World Cup champion in 2003, the first American ever to do so.

“I was thinking on the way to the hospital of Courtney and Guenter.

“This has totally convinced me. From now on I won’t teach any one unless they’re wearing a helmet.”

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  1. So relieved you are ok Debbie! Sounds like a serious accident, thank goodness you had your helmet on.
    Sending you thoughts and prayers for a speady recovery, whip lash is certainly painful.

  2. Wendy Saunders says:

    So glad you’re okay AND that you spread the news so quickly. Hope you feel better soon and have no lasting ill effects. Your story will make someone put on a helmet. Your decision not to teach anyone without one will force them to wear a helmet and pretty soon it won’t be a big deal.

    “Wear a helmet. EVERY horse, EVERY ride, EVERY time.”

  3. We all are so glad you are are doing well after such an accident. I am glad you are speeking out about this to many riders laugh at helmets, but they are important.

    Prayers for a speady recovery.

  4. Hi Debbie, I am so glad that this story has a happy ending on so many counts! You are so well known and loved, that I’m sure your words of encouragement (okay, your order) for people to wear their helmets will be taken to heart by so many that don’t wear helmets!

    My helmet saved my life in 2001. I wear a helmet EVERY time I’m on a horse, even if it’s just to “sit and graze” for some down time:)

    Best wishes for a speedy recovery! Anke:)

  5. The Dressage world gets it…how do we get this valuable information to those who ride Western???

  6. Tara Newton says:

    Working in the medical field I see head traumas all the time!! My daughter just a few weeks a go just suffered the same kind of fall off her horse and was wearing a helmet!!! Phew.
    So glad that you are doing good – best wishes and prayers. You are a true inspiration and many more will hopefully wear helmets too.

  7. Thank you for encouraging helmets! And sharing your story. Most people I know who ride Western ride with helmets outside the show arena. And always with them in games. Just have to keep working on encouraging trapaderos or safety sitrrups so boots don’t go thru the stirrups.

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