When Kemi O'Donnell dropped off her 12-year-old daughter for a riding lesson at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club, she told her she'd be back in 20 minutes.
The next day, Christen O'Donnell died from injuries she sustained when the horse she was riding was spooked for no known reason.
Christen was on the horse with her trainer walking by her side in August 1998. Suddenly, she was flung from the horse and landed on her head in the 4 inches of sand that covered the ring.
Kemi O'Donnell thought Christen's velvet hunt cap was enough protection. What she didn't know was that the headgear was not intended to provide protection in the case of an accident.
It was merely for show -- an accessory.
"After her death, I didn't realize it was a piece of apparel and didn't offer any protection from head injuries," O'Donnell said.
In the years following Christen's death, her mother worked with then-U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., to create legislation requiring companies to manufacture helmets that meet the safety standards established by the America Society for Testing and Materials, a nonprofit developer of safety standards used in U.S. law.
Since 2002, the bill -- the Christen O'Donnell Equestrian Helmet Act that was drafted in 2000 -- has been overturned four times in the Senate, and with no clear reason as to why. The law would require all equestrian helmets manufactured and sold in the U.S. to meet the ASTM safety standards. The law would also impose fines on companies who try to pass off their unapproved hats as approved helmets.
O'Donnell has been working to get the bill reintroduced after Dodd retired in 2010.
Enter U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4.
On April 17, Himes announced he would join O'Donnell's efforts to move the legislation forward for approval in the House of Representatives.
Himes, who has a daughter who rides horses, said the bill is "smart and well-balanced."
"It's not forcing people to do anything," Himes said. "If people want to foolishly ride without helmets, they can still do that. It's really designed to end the uncertainty of whether something is a safety device or whether it's cosmetic."
O'Donnell has spoken three times at the Riders4Helmet annual safety symposium, which brings together representatives from all equestrian fields -- dressage, racing, show, etc. -- to discuss safety issues in the equestrian world.
Initially, O'Donnell received weak support for the bill. A majority of those in attendance at the symposium believed the bill would require riders to wear helmets, which is not the case.
"If you go on a horse and you don't wear (a helmet), that's a choice you make," O'Donnell said, referring to those who wear cowboy hats or dressage riders who wear top hats. "The problem is the unapproved helmets. You think you're doing something to protect yourself, and you're not. That's false marketing and it's a consumer protection issue, not a regulation."
O'Donnell said often hats that offer no protection -- like the one Christen was wearing the day of her accident -- are displayed on the same shelf as helmets that have passed safety regulations. The headgear looks nearly identical.
"It's a false representation," O'Donnell said.
"If a helmet is going to look like a helmet, it will have to have basic safety features," Himes said.
In 2002, when O'Donnell and Dodd were first working to put the legislation forward, traumatic brain injuries were not a focus in the athletic community.
Since then, safety equipment in high-impact sports, such as football, have fallen under increased scrutiny as research has come to show the effects head injuries have on the brain.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission's National Electronic Injury Surveillance System data, an average of 100 riders die each year as a result of a horse-related injury.
Additionally, head injury was the leading cause for hospital admission in patients with equestrian-related injuries, according to a 2007 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. In 2009, of the 14,446 horse-related injuries, 26 percent required hospital admission, according to the Equestrian Medical Association.
O'Donnell said many manufacturers have stopped selling the apparel hats, but they're still available through eBay or some retailers.
"We want to make sure no one can start making them," O'Donnell said.
Though the safety-regulated helmets are required in the show circuit, O'Donnell said the injuries don't just happen in the ring, but are possible while riding along trails or in a lesson, as was the case with her daughter.
"Horses are horses," O'Donnell said. "You're at the whim of them. The level of the rider makes no difference with a head injury."
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