Another entry for the February Helmet Story Contest. We will accept entries from anywhere in the world. Please submit your entry no later than February 29th, 2012 (must be a minimum of 500 words AND include a photo) to email@example.com for your chance to win a Riders4Helmets Saddle Pad (your choice of AP, Dressage or Western) and a $50 Equestrian Collections gift certificate ($50 certificate will be substituted for one from another retailer should the winner reside outside of the USA).
As an equestrian, a former mountain biker and rugby player, and a large animal vet, I am familiar both with concussions and their effects on the people who get them. When riding, no matter what horse or where I always, always wear my helmet.
My 4 yr. old mustang Brennir has proved very difficult to fit with a saddle, and I have been riding him bareback almost from the day I started him. This has given me the chance to test out some helmets. He has had his bucks and moment, but though he is occasionally willful and temperamental, he has never been prone to spooking. On this particular day, it was hot, and buggy, an August afternoon with humidity sticky in the air. Far from being even faintly spooky, he was practically asleep. It was like he was stuck in tar, unable to move beyond a slow walk. I decided a ride through the fields would be just the thing to put both of us in a better mood.
I was not riding at a busy barn. Rather I was riding at a farm owned by a client that was at one time a boarding facility but now had only one resident horse. There was a path cut through the hay fields, but I was the only one who ever went riding out there. Usually, it belonged to the wildlife.
The ride started off ok. My horse was sluggish, but once we hit a buggy section of trail, he broke into a nice trot for me. I let him speed up and canter most of the way down the long side of the huge oval cut through the fields. When we reached a mostly bug free zone, I slowed him down. It was at that point that I noticed a few sand hill cranes out in the unmowed field. For those unfamiliar with them, sand hill cranes are large birds (maybe 4 ft. tall?) resembling great blue herons. They are not friendly, and extremely loud. I was actually pleased by this, because cranes are common in my area, and my horse and I had not yet encountered any in his trail training. We walked on, and I was pleased that the cranes, several hundred feet away and screaming while flapping their wings, did not seem to bother Brennir a bit. This was typical for him. When he did have an issue it was because he didn’t want to work as hard as you wanted him to. He never wasted energy reacting to stuff around him much.
As we passed the cranes, I felt my cell phone start to slide out of the little holder that kept it strapped on my hip. I always carry my phone with me in case one of my clients has an emergency like a colic or bad injury while I am out riding. A few weeks before, it had come loose from the holder after a long canter, and I lost it in the fields, and had to walk quite a ways to find it. Just before the trail goes up a hill, it takes a fairly tight turn, almost a right angle. Not wanting to lose my phone on the hill, I stopped him right there, nearly standing in the uncut hay fields, to fasten it more tightly. My horse has always excelled at standing still, so I draped the reins over one elbow, preparing to fight with the fussy cell phone holder. I bent over sideways, am bareback, reins in my elbow, fussing with the strap (everyone is thinking how stupid I am right now, but every trail rider I know has done something like this at some time, they just were lucky enough to not get hurt), when suddenly, from a few feet away, a crane, who was hiding down in the uncut alfalfa, jumped up, flapping its wings and screaming so loud my ears rang.
I’m not sure exactly what happened next. I know I jumped right up off my horse, because the crane scared me, and my horse bolted forward, but didn’t rear or buck. Since I didn’t really have a grip on them to start, I lost the reins immediately, and I don’t remember actually having any physical contact with my horse after the crane appeared. I think I might have been hanging in the air after jumping, and when he lunged forward, he caught me and flipped me up like a spatula flips a pancake. Somehow I was thrown backwards 8 to 10 feet, landing on my back with enough force to break my collar bone into several pieces, break my 2, 3,4, 5th and 7th ribs, and puncture a lung. Neither my doctors nor any of my horse friends could figure out how that scenario resulted in the kind and degree of injury I had. As a former rugby player, I know how to fall, and I have come off of this horse at a gallop with nothing more than a sore muscle. I was in the air long enough to watch my horse run several strides forward, stop, turn his head and make eye contact with me, and start coming back. When I hit the ground, the sound was like someone breaking an armful of thick sticks. I was alone and it was several minutes before I could take a normal breath or even sit up. I was unable to get on my feet because my collar bone was fractured in multiple places and dislocated from my sternum. Every time I tried to get up, it would push up through the skin. Eventually I was able to crawl around and find my phone and call my partner to come and get me. If I hadn’t had a helmet on, I could have been laying there for hours, alone and unconscious. My horse stayed by my side the whole time, obviously a little confused and nervous but otherwise fine. I don’t blame him at all. I think almost any horse would have spooked at such a large, loud bird appearing unexpectedly at such a close distance.
In the end, I had a compound collar bone fracture with a bunch of muscle/ligament damage, numerous rib fractures, a punctured lung, and bleeding in my chest cavity. What I didn’t have, though, was a head injury, because I was wearing my helmet. When I saw the first ER doctor, as soon as the nurse said ‘horse accident’ he asked ‘were you wearing a helmet?” when I answered yes, he said ‘Thank God!’ . I was transferred from that local ER to the trauma unit at a larger hospital, and every doctor, nurse, even the x-ray technicians I saw asked the same question first ‘ were you wearing a helmet?” And the response when I said yes was always tremendous relief. I found out later I was one of four horse accident victims the trauma unit had had in several weeks. I was the only one without a TBI. I was the only one wearing a helmet. I was discharged before several of the other cases, even though I came in after them. One of them was in intensive care.
I ended up spending a week in the hospital, where I had surgery to plate my collar bone back together, and a chest tube to drain the blood that had built up in my chest cavity. The doctors said that the lung injury combined with a brain injury could have been much more dangerous, because brain injuries interfere with breathing and other functions sometimes.
It’s only been five months since the accident, but I am already mostly healed and back riding. I have about 80% of my strength back in my left arm, but my rib fractures are not fully healed and still painful. It could be a year or more for them to heal completely and I now ride with an AirVest to protect them as well. I hope I never have another accident like that one, but if I do, at least I know the words I’ll hear from the surgeon will be “thank God you were wearing a helmet!”
- Denise Bickel DVM