4th of July: Friends, Camping and a Helicopter Ride

BCHA member Dan Swenson just had a head-injury accident resulting from a bad fall off his wonderful and well-traveled, mellow mule, and wrote up the episode for the Northern Colorado Back Country Horsemen newsletter. Photos by Cynthia NCBCH.

To Helmet, or Not to Helmet?  That is the question.

I would like to share an experience I had over the fourth of July weekend with friends north of Red Feather Lakes. My wife and I were invited to go camping on private land for what we were going to make a four day weekend. Everything started out great! I rode my bike from our house west of Longmont up to Ted’s place at the intersection of 287 and Highway 14, and Mary Ann followed with the truck, picked me up, and off we went.  Arriving right before dark, we set up camp and settled in for the night. The following day was to be the norm for the weekend which included a nice breakfast, fellowship with friends, and of course, a horseback ride.  More fellowship, dinner, and as usual, lots of laughs followed.

Now years ago I had made the decision to purchase a helmet to wear while riding. I do not ride my bike (mountain or road) or ski without wearing my helmet. My job requires the use of my brain, so that seemed only logical. Well things didn’t start off so good that day. Only a short distance from camp was a small creek crossing that was pretty well overgrown with willows. I dismounted and took out my trimmers and went to work on those willows, and in short order, had that cleared out nicely. I remounted, rode through, and everyone followed…. everyone except Mary Ann. She was riding our younger horse and Bebe just didn’t want to go through that opening and across that creek.

Well of course, when you are riding with six different people you have at least six different opinions about what one should do. We finally decided to ride away, hoping that Bebe would want to join the herd and come across the creek. After 5–10 minutes of waiting down the trail aways, I told the group to go on without us, and I would go back and figure out what Mary Ann and I were going to do. Well about half way back to the creek I heard that dreadful word “HELP!” come from my wife. When I got there she was off her horse and on her back, lying by the side of the creek still holding her reins, with the horse standing uphill and over her.

Bottom line, she was okay. Bebe had come over backwards and Mary Ann had fallen off with Bebe landing on top of her. Needless to say, we were lucky–just two feet away from where her head landed (no helmet) was a nice, flat rock. If she would have hit there, things would have come out much different.

So that was the conversation for the night at the camp. The following morning, the black and blue on Mary Ann’s right leg was starting to have some nice color to it. Everyone was grateful that things worked out okay. Mary Ann decided to saddle up Bebe and ride her around camp just to make sure that the horse wasn’t hurt (the cantle had broken when she’d landed on her back), and that Bebe wasn’t going to have any horse-emotional issues under saddle. Everything was good, so I ponied Bebe on that ride, went through lots of water, and all went well.

Fast forward to Saturday. We are saddled up and ready for our ride with a group of about six folks. We leave camp and head for the first gate, all of a two minute ride. This is what I would call a garden gate, with a bar across the top at about seven feet, so riding under is not an option.  We all have to dismount, and once everyone is through, I start to remount Mattie, the always-wonderful mule, and for some reason she is unhappy and starts bucking. All I can remember is being thrown forward and reaching out to grab around her neck, hoping to hold on. I kinda got slammed to the ground and pulled over as Mattie moved off.  Mary Ann was going to yell something about landing on my fake hip, but I wasn’t moving. She thought I was teasing…. but I wasn’t moving. When she ran up to me, I looked real peaceful, asleep. When she saw the blood pooling under my head, she yelled loud and clear so there would be no misunderstanding and no lost seconds. Oh my God, he’s bleeding! Oh my God, his head is split open! Call 911! He’s not conscious!  There was no misunderstanding.  My head had hit a nice, flat rock.

I regained consciousness pretty quick and they got the bleeding stopped within about 10 minutes.  Everyone jumped into action (thank you, God, for our friends), although Mary Ann and I were oblivious. It was me and Ginny (thank you, God, for Ginny!) and Mary Ann for the next hour.

The first thing I remember is having the EMT from the Red Feather Lakes Volunteer Fire Department asking if I knew my name. Then I remember a not-so-fun helicopter ride (not much of a view when you’re strapped to a board and your head is anchored, looking straight at the ceiling)!  So…. I got spun off right on to the top of my head on a rock. It ended up splitting my scalp into a nice criss-cross, taking 39 staples to hold it together. With a bunch of luck, nothing was broken. I was diagnosed with a mild concussion and sent home.  Here I am a month later, almost back to 100 percent, counting my blessings and thinking about what’s next.

Now both days before, I had ridden with my helmet. What made me decide to leave it in the trailer that day…. good question. Would it have made a difference wearing it? Hopefully yes, but maybe no. Last year I did a day ride with a lady from the Boulder County Horsemen’s group that is big into helmets, and she lets you know it. She had a story of a friend of hers that wouldn’t wear one because, in his words, he was a good enough horseman he could handle his horse and didn’t need one. Well, on their ride, he was wearing a heavy wool vest and somehow, when going under a branch, he got the branch stuck through his vest. He ended up getting pulled off his horse and on the ground with some sort of minor head injury. Also recently, a good friend of mine got back from a big group ride event where there were over 150 riders. He shared with me that 19 of them ended up with unscheduled dismounts. A client of mine, who worked for years at a dude ranch in Estes Park, once put it into perspective for me. He said that when you have a group of 12 riders all riding down the trail, you have 24 different brains thinking 24 different things.

Point is, we are working with and riding these animals, and we love them. We also understand that there is inherent danger with horses and mules. My question is: does protecting your brain from a possible injury make sense?  Then does purchasing a helmet and, in my case, wearing it EVERYTIME naturally follow?

The last point I would make is, if you have seen the pictures of this event, don’t look at me, look at the face of my wife. Yes, we are wearing helmets to protect our heads; but I am also wearing mine so I do not ever put someone I love through all of that terror again. All I keep thinking about is, if I would have come back to that creek… and Mary Ann was out cold…. and her head was in a pool of blood…. you get it.

DISCLAIMER:The materials and opinions contained in the Boulder County Horse Association (BCHA) “Nicker” are being made available to followers of this blog as a service to equestrians for informational purposes only. Neither BCHA, the Board of Directors, members, or anyone else who submits material for this blog, assume any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any opinion, information, product or process disclosed herein. Unless otherwise specifically stated, reference to any position or opinion, or commercial product, process, service, manufacturer, or otherwise, does not constitute or imply its endorsement or recommendation by the Boulder County Horse Association, its officers, directors, or members, or any agency or entities affiliated with the organization.


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