A disagreement between style and safety for Mississippi’s 4-Hers has ended on the side of safety following a four-year campaign by an Itta Bena equestrian to require all 4-H riders to wear safety helmets when on their mounts.

The debate was settled when the Mississippi State University Extension Service, whose agents administer 4-H programs across the state, was directed to require all 4-Hers who show horses to wear a properly fastened, tested and approved helmet whenever they are mounted on a horse. That new rule took effect on March 7 in a directive issued that same day by Gary B. Jackson, MSU Extension director.

Previously, only riders performing in speed events — barrel racing, pole racing and stake racing — had to wear the helmets, and then only while in the ring competing.

Jan Sturdivant, who keeps horses and has taught riding on the Itta Bena farm she shares with her husband, Mike, said she took up the cause after seeing some young riders put in a dangerous position while riding in a parade on pavement with only their cowboy hats to protect their heads.

“I’ve been after the riding part of 4-H to require their students when they’re on a mount to wear equestrian safety helmets,” she said. “... I’ve taught riding for maybe 50 years and have always worn a helmet and had my students wear helmets.”

Standing in her way, however, were tradition and style with young women competitors — and their parents — believing their wardrobes could be topped only by western-style cowboy hats and not eastern-style riding helmets.

Not one to be turned away when she believes she is right, Sturdivant researched head injuries in equestrian events. She found stories and testimonials about riders who experienced traumatic brain injuries during accidents that could have been lessened if they were wearing helmets, such as Lara DeWees, a barrel racer who died from head injuries suffered in a fall during a race in Hattiesburg in 2016, or Olympian Courtney King Dye, whose debilitating head injury came when she was warming up her horse in her own barn.

But, more importantly, Sturdivant also read of the effects of repetitive concussions suffered by young riders whose mounts threw them or they fell off during training or in competition.

According to the Brain Injury Research Center, “An estimated 300,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries, of mild to moderate severity, most of which can be classified as concussions (i.e., conditions of temporary altered mental status as a result of head trauma) occur in the United States each year.”

Just as in football, the practice among young equestrians has been to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get back on their horse. Now even football is looking at the long-term effects of a lifetime of brain injuries, starting with youngsters. But no one in football is arguing that kids should stop wearing helmets.

Statistics and reports compiled by Sturdivant show:

• Equestrians are 20 times more likely to sustain an injury than a motorcycle rider, per hour.

• There are 60 deaths each year among equestrians due to head injury.

• Almost 20 percent of equestrian injuries are head injuries.

• There were 15,000 emergency room admissions for equine-related head injuries in 2009.

Sturdivant went up the food chain of the Mississippi State University Extension Service without finding anyone who agreed with her or wanted to challenge tradition. She said she waited at one point more than two years for action to be taken before reaching out to MSU President Mark E. Keenum. She sent him information on head injuries from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the availability of helmets to protect riders, then called him.

“The president said, ‘Of course my little child wears a helmet when he rides a bicycle,’” Sturdivant said. And that decided it.

From there, the directive rolled downhill until last month’s announcement by Jackson that the helmets would be required at any 4-H event when a rider was on a horse.

“While only 19% of all horse-related injuries are associated with the head, these injuries are the leading cause of equine-related deaths,” Jackson wrote. “Mississippi State University recognizes that any child’s death that could have been prevented through the implementation of commonsense safety precautions is one death too many.”

Extension 4-H agents are on the front lines of the hats vs. helmets debate. Although they said they work for MSU and will follow the directions given by their director, agents in Leflore and Carroll counties are hearing from parents and riders on the other side, too.

“As an Extension agent, I support the rules,” said Christina Meriweather in Leflore County. “Our No. 1 thing is kid safety.” Meriweather said she has heard from 4-Hers and parents who want the girls to “look the part” when showing their horses, by wearing cowboy hats that fit with their glittery presentation of boots, jeans with big belt buckles, and fancy western shirts.

Meriweather has heard from parents who point to the open shows where both adults and kids compete in events without the helmet rules. They tell her that “4-H sets its self aside.”

But Meriweather has a reply: “We’re a youth organization, not a fashion organization,” she said. With registration coming up and the district competitions on June 6 and 7, she has heard that some kids who have competed in the past won’t show up this year, and only because they want to wear their hats instead of helmets. There’s also a petition being circulated by “hat parents” who want MSU to rescind the helmet rule.

Sturdivant said her studies have taken her to one expert who has looked into each of the evolutions in other states that eventually resulted in the adoption of helmet rules for riders, and every one of them was a struggle that generated complaints and threats to take their horses and go home.

Meanwhile, to demonstrate that helmets can look great and natural, Sturdivant gathered Emilie Oakes, a 19-year-old Pillow Academy senior; Kate Harding Mattox, an 18-year-old Pillow senior, and Emilee Myers, a 13-year-old sixth-grader at North New Summit School, at Sturdivant’s barn last week for a photo shoot. The girls looked protected and not uncomfortable or out of place in their helmets.

Contact Gavin Maliska at 581-7235 or gmaliska@gwcommonwealth.com.

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