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A new rule set global horse sport’s governing body the FEI, making safety headgear compulsory when mounted at an event came into effect on 1 January this year.

But showing — where tradition and elegance are so important — has resisted. Is it time it caught up or, like the hunting field, should health and safety be a matter of choice?

Sports Horse Breeding of Great Britain (SHB(GB)) notified its judges panel earlier this month of a new rule being introduced for 2014. This would make it compulsory for all competitors and judges in its classes, including ladies’ hunters classes and championships, to wear a hat or skull cap with safety harness, that meets current approved BSI or European standards.

Members responded with such outrage that, less than a week later (15 November), SHB(GB) told H&H it had decided to postpone the decision until there had been further discussion.

Rider uprising
Well-known showing figures took to social media to vent their fury, with dozens writing to SHB(GB).

Producer Lynn Russell posted the announcement on her Facebook page and received more than 200 comments from other riders arguing against the proposal.

“I have never know such an uprising,” Lynn said. “People are strongly against this.”

If the new ruling does come into play, then one of the classes it affects the most will be the ladies’ hunters, which are always shown side saddle.

“It’s not vanity, it is the whole persona,” said Lucy Killingbeck, who has won the ladies’ hunter championship at Horse of the Year Show (HOYS) twice.

“It would be like telling models not to wear stilettos, in case they trip and hurt themselves on the catwalk. They wouldn’t look as elegant in flat shoes.”

Many members were frustrated by the apparent lack of thought or reasoning behind the decision.

“If there had been a serious head injury or several show injuries this year, I could understand. But there hasn’t been,” said producer Robert Walker. “It should be a personal choice, unless it gets to the point where it is a problem with insurance.”

Some shows, such as the Royal Bath and West, have already made safety headgear compulsory, due to their insurance terms. There is no indication that other show organisers
have asked for this rule to be brought in for insurance purposes.

SHB(GB) offers no insurance to competitors as part of its membership fees. Judges who choose not to wear safety hats have been asked to sign a disclaimer, waiving their rights, since 2006.

Future of the sport
SHB (GB) chairman Liz Morley told H&H — before the decision was taken to postpone the new rule — that her committee was trying to “take the lead on safety”.

If the rule is brought in, it will bring SHB(GB) into line with other equestrian bodies. Safety hats are now mandatory for all British Showjumping competitors, for British Dressage except for advanced and above, and for British Eventing except for dressage and prize-giving at intermediate championships
and above.

“The safety of our members is paramount,” said Ms Morley. “The society also has a duty of care to our shows to help them achieve the highest possible level of safety.”

Although a vast majority of members are against the rule, a few can see the positives.

“Those who may wish to wear a chinstrap may well be put off for not wanting to appear an amateur against the professionals,” Caroline Wareing, who broke her back in a showing accident, said on Lynn Russell’s Facebook page.

It is unclear how long it will be before SHB (GB) take a final decision on the hat rule. Ms Morley told H&H that talks will take place as soon as possible so that it can be decided before next year’s rule book goes to press.

This news story was first published in Horse & Hound magazine