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Darien Mom Joins Lawmakers In Call For Equestrian Helmet Safety Law

Kemi O'Donnell, along with Courtney King-Dye, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, discuss proposed new legislation to protect equestrians at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien.
Kemi O'Donnell, along with Courtney King-Dye, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, discuss proposed new legislation to protect equestrians at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien. Photo Credit: Casey Donahue

DARIEN, Conn. – Kemi O’Donnell joined lawmakers Tuesday in front of the spot at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien where her daughter was killed in a horseback-riding accident as they renewed their commitment to safety requirements for equestrian headgear.

The Christen O’Donnell Equestrian Helmet Safety Act is named for O’Donnell’s daughter, who died in 1998 at the age of 12 as a result of a traumatic brain injury suffered after a fall from her horse at the club.

The act, which has been introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Richard Blumenthal and in the House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, would require equestrian helmets to meet minimum safety requirements.

O’Donnell said the traditional velvet hunt cap her daughter was wearing did not protect her in the fall. Those hats and ones like it are often marketed and sold alongside helmets, she said. Consumers are often unaware that what they are buying will not offer much protection in the event of an accident, she said.

“If Christen had been wearing an approved helmet that day I know she would be alive, there’s not one doctor or person who says that that wouldn’t be the case. Unfortunately she was wearing a hat that I thought was a helmet,” O’Donnell said.

Blumenthal and Himes, both Connecticut Democrats, both said the bill, which had previously been introduced by then-Sen. Chris Dodd in 2002, 2004 and 2006, would not require riders to wear a helmet. But it would require manufacturers to make it clear whether a headgear is a protective helmet or a decorative hat.

“This is an important, common sense piece of legislation that we’re going to try to work with Kemi and many other advocates to see voted into law,” Himes said.

With all the focus on concussions and head injuries in sports such as football, the danger in equestrian sports often goes unrecognized, Blumenthal said. He said that 12 percent of all traumatic brain injuries in the United States are a result of equestrian sports.

“It is about standards, about criteria and requirements for safety. If somebody is wearing a device that’s supposed to protect her, it ought to really offer that protection,” Blumenthal said. “There are too many people who wear cloth caps that are very decorative, very nice looking, but they offer no protection. In fact, for a lot of people, the existing helmets may create a false sense of security.”

They were joined Tuesday by Courtney King-Dye, a former Olympic dressage rider who suffered a traumatic brain injury after falling while not wearing a helmet. Requiring safety standards would generate renewed interest and participation in the sport, she said.

“There is no downside to this bill, it’s simply obligating sellers to be honest about what the product is. Selling a hard hat that looks like a helmet and is placed with the helmets is like selling a car with no engine that’s placed with working cars,” King-Dye said.

Himes and Blumenthal have introduced the bill but acknowledged that it is unlikely to get passed in this congressional session. The bill is gaining momentum, both said, and they are planning on reintroducing it when the next session starts in January.

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