We end one year and start another with the news that one sporting legend has died and another is fighting for his life. Showjumper Lionel Dunning died suddenly on December 30 and as this blog is posted, racing driver Michael Schumacher fights for his life after a skiing accident.

Lionel’s name may not be as globally renowned as that of Schumacher – and, of course, we’re all hoping that the driving ace will pull through – but in the horse world, Lionel was a legend. He was a proper horseman who got the best out of the most difficult animals, especially Jungle Bunny: the horse who put the Q in quirky. Here they are winning the 1981 King George V Gold Cup:

Lionel was also a great teacher and would help any partnership, at any level, provided the rider wanted to learn. He was wonderful at encouraging young riders to be brave, whilst at the same time, teaching them to stay safe.

He knew what he was talking about. In 1975, Lionel suffered severe head injuries in a bad fall and was told he would never ride again. A year later, he was back competing with the best in what became known as the Golden Age of Showjumping.

After his fall, Lionel always wore a hat with a three-point harness. Remember, we’re talking about the late 70s and early 80s, when he was the exception rather than the rule. But even if fellow competitors didn’t all copy him, no one laughed and no one moaned that he was flouting tradition or ‘spoiling the picture’.

Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.
Lionel Dunning of Great Britain riding Boysie at Hickstead April 30, 1983.
Photograph courtesy of Getty Images.

So can someone please explain why there is currently such a hoo-hah in the showing world over the Sport Horse Breeding of Great Britain’s rule that competitors in all ridden hunter and sport horse classes ‘must wear a skull cap or hat with safety harness according to current BSI or European standard at all times when mounted’? From some of the reactions, you’d think they were being asked to ride naked in the ring.

A hat without a harness might look lovely, but even if it stays in place, it won’t pass impact protection tests. And whilst no hat can guarantee full protection, isn’t it common sense to give yourself the best chance?

If you’re old enough, cast your mind back to 1983 when it became compulsory for car drivers and front seat passengers to wear seatbelts. There was shrieking about freedom of choice similar to that we’re now hearing about the hat rule, but does anyone now think twice about getting in and belting up? Eight years later, it became compulsory for rear seat passengers to wear seatbelts when fitted; that one went by with a whimper rather than a bang.

It will be interesting to see how The Side Saddle Association views the issue. Of course ladies look elegant in silk hats or bowlers, though some choose to wear ‘ordinary’ safety hats, and I’m told you’re more secure sideways than astride. But if you do come off, you’re more likely to come off in a big way – I’ve seen a side-saddle rider half-unseated when her horse spooked during a flat showing class and finish hanging sideways and upside down. If she hadn’t been in an indoor school with quick-thinking rescuers, her story might not have had a happy ending.

Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Henderson.
Photograph courtesy of Carolyn Henderson.

If you’re showing – or, at the risk of alienating another group of riders, riding Western without a safety hat – maybe you should think more about those you care about and who care about you rather than sheer vanity. I hope you have a happy, safe and healthy 2014.