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Horseback Riding & Concussions: Don’t Get Right Back On

Bajo gives her gray mare, Tika, a pat on the neck

I was 7 years old when I took my first horseback riding lesson. One of the very first things I learned? When you fall off, you have to get back on. And let me tell you, in the riding community, they don’t mean get back on tomorrow; they mean right now.

Of course, there are exceptions when serious injuries happen. But for the most part, that has been the expectation — some might even say traditionfor many, many generations of riders.

Old Traditions Meet New Data

Fast forward to 2021. Stephanie Bajo, PsyD, a lifelong rider and also a neuropsychologist at UVA Health, is hoping to change the “get-back-on” culture. She has looked at local emergency room visits to assess rates of concussion. One finding? A higher rate of concussions treated among horseback riders than football players and others in high impact sports.

Concussions need to be taken seriously, but with proper management, you can expect a full recovery. However, getting a second head injury right away can lead to slow recovery, and in rare cases, have devastating consequences. That’s why it’s critical to be honest about any symptoms following a fall.

Bajo has spoken to local equestrian groups to provide concussion education and to encourage them to rethink how they treat falls. The most important message? If you fall off a horse and hit your head or have any symptoms of concussion, you should get checked by a medical professional before you ride again and risk another fall.

Here’s her advice for riders, parents, and trainers.

Learn Concussion Symptoms

Be familiar with the symptoms of concussion:

Bajo and her gray mare, Tika, trot down a gravel driveway
Bajo and her dapple gray mare, Tika, trot down the driveway. Bajo hopes all equestrian disciplines will normalize wearing helmets to help prevent concussions.

Check the Rider After a Fall

Don’t encourage riders to get right back on after a fall if:

After a fall, follow Bajo’s recommendations:

Bajo also says, if in doubt, it’s always good to check with your primary care provider.

Wear an Approved Riding Helmet

Bajo encourages riders of all disciplines to always wear an ASTM-approved helmet while riding. It’s a good idea to wear a helmet even when handling horses on the ground, she says.

Always replace a helmet after a head-impact fall, or once the helmet reaches the end of its recommended use. That’s typically 5 years, but check with your helmet manufacturer.

A close-up of Bajo and her gray mare, Tika

Changing the Helmet Culture

Western horseback riding disciplines traditionally don’t wear helmets. But Bajo points out that neither did other equestrian disciplines in the past. Now many of those equestrian disciplines require them. She hopes that all equestrians will normalize helmet use.

“Change within a culture takes time. But if enough individuals have the knowledge of the risks and take action to address them, the norms around helmet use can also change,” she says. “I would encourage riders in all disciplines to learn about the consequences of riding without a helmet, especially the increased risk of skull fracture, and to remind themselves of these risks every time they ride."

As a rider, Bajo understands this advice represents a shift for the equestrian community, and she doesn’t discount that. But she says that the data talks, and the data says it’s time to reconsider some of those old traditions.

Tags: neuro

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