Equestrian Helmet Law Nearly A Done Deal

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Ever since he watched his 12-year-old daughter succumb to injuries she sustained after falling off a horse without wearing a helmet, Gary Hornstein has been a man on a mission.

The part-time North Sea resident has become a crusader, advocating for stricter helmet laws in states across the country and doing his best to raise awareness of the need to wear helmets when riding horses. Mr. Hornstein’s best weapon in his mission to pass stricter helmet legislation has been his personal story, and he used it recently to help push proposed legislation in New York one step closer to becoming law.

On June 4, 2006, Nicole Hornstein and her trainer went out for a ride together off the trainer’s property in Loxahatchee, Florida, where the Hornstein family lived at the time. Nicole was riding one of her trainer’s horses, an animal she was not familiar with, according to Mr. Hornstein, as they set out on what he described as a “busy residential road.” Nicole’s horse got spooked by a passing car, backed up into a tree and unseated Nicole, who slammed her head against the pavement. She suffered a massive head injury that left her in a coma for 20 days before claiming her young life.

Since her death, Hornstein has been knocking on the doors of lawmakers and doing his best to put stricter helmet laws on the books.

He started in Florida, and in June 2009, Florida Governor Charlie Crist signed “Nicole’s Law,” which requires that horseback riders 16 and younger wear a helmet when riding on public roads and rights of way, and while taking riding lessons. Rodeos, parades and private property are exempt. Under the law, anyone who allows a child to ride a horse without a helmet can be fined $500.

After that, Mr. Hornstein turned his attention to New York, and he had been doggedly pursuing lawmakers in this state, with the help of State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle. Earlier in June, however, the proposed legislation had stalled, and the bill was in danger of being put on the back burner for the remainder of the year.

But Mr. Hornstein went to Albany, and made his way to Assemblyman David D. Gantt’s office. Mr. Gantt heads the transportation committee, which was in charge of the bill. Mr. Hornstein managed to get the assemblyman’s ear in an elevator and told him Nicole’s story, which apparently lit a spark.

“Gary’s personal story is very compelling,” Mr. Thiele said last week in a phone interview. “When that story gets told, it’s very hard to say no.”

“Without Gary’s persistence, this wouldn’t have happened this year,” Mr. Thiele added.

He explained that because the transportation committee had already had its last session, a special request had to be made to House Speaker Sheldon Silver to reauthorize another meeting of the committee. After that, the speaker had to intervene again because the bill has a penalty, and bills with penalties attached to them must be reviewed by the codes committee. The bill made it to the floor on the last day of the legislative session and passed by a substantial margin.

The bill still requires Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s signature, but Mr. Thiele said he is “optimistic” that the governor will signed it into law by the end of the summer.

The law would require anyone under the age of 18 to wear a helmet while riding a horse. Current law requires only children 14 and under to wear helmets. It will also raise the fines for responsible parties, such as trainers or riding establishments, from $50 to $250 for failing to ensure that children are wearing helmets.

“It was one of those things that happened very quickly at the end of the session,” Mr. Thiele said. “I’m obviously very pleased, especially for Mr. Hornstein, that this bill was approved by the legislature.”

Mr. Hornstein said he was ecstatic that the bill made it through the legislature, and he did his best to impress upon Mr. Gantt and the rest of the politicians the necessity of moving it through the process as quickly as possible.

“I told [Mr. Gantt] that six or seven kids will end up being vegetables and a couple will die if we don’t get helmets on kids,” he said. Mr. Hornstein added that he was grateful to Mr. Gantt, Mr. LaValle and Mr. Thiele for their work in getting the bill through the legislature. And he added that he’s not done yet—he has plans to try to get similar laws on the books in Kentucky and Texas, both states with big horse populations.

“I’ll do anything to get helmet awareness out there,” he said.

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