Debbie McDonald’s Road To Recovery: Helmet Saved Her Life

On Feb. 3, 2011, World Cup champion and Olympic and World Equestrian Games medalist Debbie McDonald was schooling a young, powerful 17-hand horse at her home facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., when the gelding startedOn Feb. 3, 2011, World Cup champion and Olympic and World Equestrian Games medalist Debbie McDonald was schooling a young, powerful 17-hand horse at her home facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., when the gelding started

Story originally posted by: by Lisa Kemp, KempEquine.comRepublished from

On Feb. 3, 2011, World Cup champion and Olympic and World Equestrian Games medalist Debbie McDonald was schooling a young, powerful 17-hand horse at her home facility in Thousand Oaks, Calif., when the gelding started bucking. She’d recently begun wearing a helmet while riding, in support of friend and Olympic teammate Courtney King-Dye, who suffered a catastrophic fall and four-week coma in March 2010, nearly a year before. McDonald credits that helmet with saving her life.


Flying off the horse in a Christopher Reeve-type falling position with arms outstretched behind her, McDonald hit the ground hard. “I really got drilled into the ground in this fall. I was knocked unconscious, and even with the helmet I sustained a severe concussion and whiplash,” reports McDonald, age 56.

The helmet absorbed the brunt of the force, as they’re designed to do, but McDonald says while she’s thankful the worst damage happened to the helmet and not her head, the outcome wasn’t a pretty sight. “They saved the helmet for me. The whole shell shifted; it’s pretty disturbing to look at.”

After King-Dye’s fall, McDonald had started wearing a helmet anytime she climbed aboard a horse, as an ‘in honor of a fallen soldier’ nod. But things escalated from there. “First I started wearing one, then I wouldn’t teach anyone not wearing a helmet,” she says. “And, ever since my own accident, I’m very serious about it.”

Dressage World Trends

While she’d never been knocked unconscious before, McDonald says modern dressage trends mean there’s a greater chance of serious injury. “When it comes to dressage, we want bigger horses and more powerful gaits, but with that power we can also have bigger bucks.”

Although serious accidents in the dressage arena are thankfully few and far between, that’s not to say that something serious can’t happen at any time, even to experienced riders. McDonald points out that major concussions can occur from a fall or impact in horseback riding as in other sports, and that head injuries can result in a later tendency toward depression and other issues.

At the time of McDonald’s fall, safety helmets were already on schedule to become mandatory for most dressage competitors. With an eye toward improving rider safety for all disciplines, the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) had already passed two stringent safety helmet requirements at their January, 2011, annual meeting.

The first rule, effective immediately, required anyone mounted on a horse at U.S. nationally rated eventing competitions to wear an ASTM-SEI-approved helmet at all times while mounted on the competition grounds.

The second rule applied to dressage, and required all riders to wear protective headgear while mounted, with exceptions granted for riders age 18 and over while mounted on horses competing only in FEI levels and tests at the Prix St. Georges level and above, including FEI Young Rider Tests, the USEF Brentina Cup Test, and the USEF Developing Prix St. Georges Test. The effective date for this second rule was March 1st, less than a month after McDonald’s accident.

Brain Trauma and Athletes

In recent years, head injuries and brain trauma in sports has received more public attention, along with opportunities for research. The National Football League (NFL) has partnered with the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, supporting the Center’s research into long-term effects of head trauma in athletes with at least $1 million. But while football was #2 on a 2009 list of total head injuries treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for sports and recreational activities, horseback riding was still #11 on the list, with 14,466 head injuries that year.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) website reports that while head injuries account for 18% of riding injuries, they are the number one reason for hospitalizations. A 2007 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that between 2001 and 2005, traumatic head injuries in equestrian sports were the highest of any recreational athletic activity.

McDonald says that sustained head trauma isn’t something to be taken lightly. “Concussion is a very serious thing. It’s not just a ‘bump on the head,’ it’s a trauma to the brain. From my own experience I can see how serious it is, how you can get weird sensations and not even feel like yourself,” she reports.

Recovery Is Hard Work

McDonald’s post-accident rehab has brought her to the point where she now no longer suffers from the terrible headaches she had at first. She’s even begun working out again. But sadly, this accident has meant an end to her riding days.

“I’ve had a bad neck for several years, and already had one cervical fusion, so with everything else going on it would be pretty risky to have another unpredictable fall,” she reports, adding that she’s still going to be in the horse world, just in different capacities. “Thank goodness I love coaching, because that’s where you’ll see me now!”

And Even Harder Work

While McDonald’s rehab has been difficult, her friend and teammate Courtney King-Dye’s rehab process has been life-changing. When she was first told recovery would take a long time, she thought she’d be ready for the 2012 Olympics. However, over a year later, King-Dye still needs assistance when walking.

“My life revolves around therapy; speech, physical, occupational, aqua, hippo, plus things I do on my own such as the treadmill and pottery,” she says, adding that recovery from a traumatic brain injury often takes years, not months.

While she’s kissed the 2012 Olympics good-bye, King-Dye’s set her sites on 2016, and fully intends to resume competitive riding. “I’m fortunate not to suffer from some of the permanent cognitive difficulties commonly involved in these types of injuries, and I’ve become acutely aware of just how lucky I am, in terms of the type of injury and the help and support I’ve been given in the recovery.”

Looking To The Future

McDonald feels lucky that this head injury didn’t happen earlier in her career, and says she’s thankful she started wearing a helmet when she did, even though at the time it wasn’t required or even a popular choice.

“If it hadn’t been for Courtney, I might not have changed my feelings about wearing helmets; it’s not that I didn’t have friends who had accidents, just that there hadn’t been anything quite as serious as Courtney’s fall,” says McDonald, who points out that while there might still be resistance from riders about wearing helmets in the Grand Prix and FEI arena, it’s simply a matter of appearance and tradition.

“This issue is about people accepting change, and accepting that wearing a safety helmet is simply a different look,” she concludes. “Hopefully the judges are looking at more important things anyway!”

Both women hope their highly-publicized falls will inspire other riders, including high-level ones, to reconsider any ‘anti’ position on safety headgear.

“It’s not common for trainers to wear helmets, because they don’t feel they’ll fall off or be in any danger. However, I’m proof you don’t have to fall off to get a brain injury; my horse simply tripped, and then fell on me,” says King-Dye, adding that she used to believe that wearing helmets should be a personal decision. “After my fall, I realized that FEI riders are role models, so we’re responsible for a whole lot more people than just ourselves and our loved ones. Every FEI rider is a role model to someone, whether they know it or not.”

International Helmet Awareness Day 2011 is Saturday June 11. Learn more by visiting