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Discovery Discovery May 2002
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Tragedy Leads to Study of Horse-Related Injuries in Montana

by Evelyn Boswell

Shelly Otoupalik Shelley Smith Otoupalik was working the day a call came into the emergency room. Somebody had been injured on a ranch 80 miles away and needed the Life Flight helicopter immediately.

A flight nurse at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Otoupalik learned in the air that the injured person was a 35-year-old woman involved in a horse-related accident. But only when the helicopter reached its destination did Otoupalik realize that she'd visited the ranch before.

It belonged to her best friend, the 35-year-old woman she was flying to help. The woman died two days later, leaving a husband and four children.

"That was what got me started," Otoupalik said about the study she soon undertook on horse-related deaths and injuries in western Montana. "I started looking around and talking to others. We were noticing a lot of horse-related injuries and deaths. In fact, we were seeing more horse-related injuries than motorcycle injuries in the emergency room at St. Pat's."

Otoupalik wrote a thesis on horse-related injuries and deaths for her master's degree in nursing. She graduated last May from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Clarann Weinert and Dale Mayer from the Montana State University-Bozeman College of Nursing were members of her thesis committee.

In April this year, Otoupalik received money from the Zeta Upsilon (Montana) Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau International to extend her study. Zeta Upsilon is based at MSU-Bozeman and Carroll College. The second phase of Otoupalik's project began April 15 and will focus on horse-related injuries and deaths seen at 16 Montana hospitals that serve on the Western Regional Trauma Advisory Committee (RTAC). Otoupalik will work with Trauma Services at St. Patrick Hospital to complete the study.

"It's an area that needs lots of research," Otoupalik commented. "It's an up-and-coming area."

Otoupalik's original study found that St. Patrick Hospital, a Level II trauma center drawing from 11 counties, saw 482 people with 802 horse-related injuries between 1995 and 2000.

Thirty-seven percent had arm or leg injuries. Thirty-one percent had head or neck injuries. Six people died. The youngest victim was one, and the oldest was 88. Males between 30 and 39 made up the largest group of patients. May was the worst month for accidents.

"Use of protective head gear was minimal to non-existent," Otoupalik added, noting that, "The wearing of helmets carries the image of being soft and vulnerable. It does not reflect the Western persona of a tough, manly and capable cowboy. Consequently, 'real cowboys' and all those who would be 'real cowboys' have sided away from protective headgear."

Weinert said Otoupalik's study was unique, "certainly not something we have looked at." Pleased that the study would be extended, she said it has plenty of application for Montanans.

Mayer commented, "Shelley's research was absolutely wonderful. I think it's very important for horseback riders around the state to know the risk of head injuries."

Besides more research, Otoupalik's thesis recommended the development of a program to encourage riders to wear helmets. Otoupalik has since started a program called "Ride Smart" which is free to 4-H groups, riding clubs or any other group that asks her to speak. She gives away free equestrian helmets from Troxel, a Ride Smart sponsor.

Helmets are the single most effective way to prevent head injuries, thus decreasing the deaths and disabilities associated with horse-related accidents, Otoupalik said. Otoupalik said she, her husband and daughter wear helmets whenever they ride. Together, they own an indoor and outdoor riding arena near Arlee.

For more information, contact Otoupalik at (406) 549-4964 or

Evelyn Boswell is the technical writer for the Office of Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer.




© 2000 Montana State University-Bozeman

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