Wrestling with Helmet Safety.


I almost got in a bar fight a few months back. It was bad: I got frustrated and when that happens, I resort to sarcasm. It was not professional of me, and I would feel better about this whole episode if I was sorry. The problem is that I’m not sorry.

Riders4Helmets International Helmet Awareness Day is coming right up. On Saturday, July 12th, equestrian retailers around the globe will be offering special one-day only discounts on helmets. I don’t get a free helmet for saying so, I just want to remind everyone it’s a good time to shop. (Dealer link here.)

Is it getting old? Every year at this time I write about helmet awareness. Some times I write in the horse’s voice and some years I try to appeal to common sense. I am most haunted by the blog about my biggest personal fear (read here). This day still sticks in my mind years later.

This has been a rough week in the equestrian world. We lost a couple of elite riders. Whenever we lose people, we want to draw an arbitrary line between them and us, a line that keeps us safe from their fate. “I don’t ride horses like that, I don’t jump that high.“ It couldn’t happen to you because you are safe in another discipline. “I am only a trail rider, I don’t even canter.”

That’s crazy talk, of course. No horse is bomb-proof. Horses are flight animals and in the worst case scenario, instinct will win over training. Where serious injuries on horses are concerned, the disabling or fatal ones are all most all head injuries. No surprise, and most active sports require helmets these days.

This year it seems there have been more than the usual number of injuries, especially out on the trail. It’s hard to come out ahead in a tangle with a thousand pound horse but helmets do balance the odds a bit.

Statistically, western riders are the hold out group. The most common argument has to do with a western heritage. That western hat habit is about 200 years old, a decent period of time as habits come and go. Dressage is about 2000 years old, most of us consider Xenophon the founder, riding and writing about it in 406 BC. If Dressage riders can wear helmets after centuries without them, it should be possible for western riders to at least give it a try when riding.

Maybe you are rocking the backyard cowgirl image. Maybe you think your heritage, (and mine by the way), is so patriotic and pure that gravity doesn’t work on you. I notice you defend it…well, defensively.

It isn’t that I don’t remember being a kid riding bareback in cut-offs. I still see online photos of girls like I was back then, smiling in the sun on a kid-broke horse. Only the byline is asking for prayers; she’s in a coma. Or a photo of a little boy who loves rodeo but needs donations for medical bills after his horse fell on him. Someone usually comments, “Where’s his helmet?” but it’s painfully too late and almost seems mean to mention by then. Is his mom comforted remembering that she didn’t wear a helmet as a kid?

Disclaimer: I am an equine professional. I read the small print when I buy liability insurance that says I’m responsible for the safety of others. Being knowledgeable about safety is part of my job and I would require helmets for my riders, even if my insurance didn’t already. Are you the sort who hates laws put on personal freedom? We wouldn’t need them if we all showed more personal responsibility. And this is the conversation that gets people defensive.

I know I can’t change the minds of cowboys and cowgirls who think their proud heritage will save them from brain injury. Riders who think a fashion statement is more important than… okay, the rant begins again. Sorry. I’ll take a breath…

Because there is no debate, nothing to defend. Helmets save lives, just like seat belts. And still, we needed the law. So there are helmet laws in a couple of states. The USEF has passed wide sweeping helmet requirements. Excuses are flimsy in the face of brain damage but years later, the resistance is still there. It seems hopeless. How many times does human ego get in the way of common sense in the horse world? Should we give up on these riders?

My almost bar fight was with a woman who had a concussion with memory loss and was still proudly bragging about riding without a helmet. Should a stranger be more concerned about her and her kids than she is? Will this bicker-fest ever change?

WMHelmetHannah2Then there’s Hannah, our barn rat. She got a pink helmet for her second birthday and the rides started. Now she is almost big enough for the breeches that she wears under a pink sun dress or a princess costume. Her tiny paddock boots almost stay on her even tinier feet. The pink gloves are huge but they match her helmet, which does fit perfectly.

She climbs on top with her mom’s help and calls, “Walk on!” Namaste and I obey and at the end of the ride, she always has a hug for him. She leans down and in a very quiet voice, she whispers, “I will love him forever.”

Girls and horses: It is the oldest story in the world. With one pink improvement.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Wrestling with Helmet Safety.”

  1. Reblogged this on Kicking On and commented:
    I’d like to add that where I come from, the Showing and Hunting communities are also very resistant. But I will also be blogging to promote Riders4helmets again in the near future.

  2. There’s no motorcycle helmet law here so you see some of the most unusual head gear go roaring past. They claim it helps them establish their independent nature. And I wonder about the EMTs and street workers who get to clean up the mess.
    Yeah I was young and dumb once and I was incredibly lucky! Which led to me becoming much older with the wiser part in question.

  3. I made my forever commitment to wear a helmet back in 1984…and got ridiculed a lot at dressage shows….and some of those people are not around anymore due to head injuries…I wrote the poem “Helmet Hair” to address the lack of logic in not wearing a helmet….it is in my notes…feel free to use it where ever you want…it has been used in several magazine articles about safety.

  4. I remember that fight. And she’s still not wearing a helmet. However, I have seen a lot more riders wearing helmets at Latigo, many of them western riders. Not on roping night or speed events, of course. But I see it and it makes me think that there’s hope.

  5. Anna, I did not hear of any fatal riding accidents in the horse world. The only accident I heard about was a horse racing accident where the woman jockey was hurt and the horse had to be euthanized.

    Who died?

  6. I started riding in the late 1960’s. I still remember my parents taking me to get a helmet before I could start lessons. I will be forever grateful! I’m sure that your Hannah will feel the same 🙂

  7. Oh so wonderfully expressed. I am a (relatively) recent helmet convert but now I strap one on every ride, every time, even for “just a trailride.” Thank you for this post.

  8. I always wear my helmet and sometimes wear it on the ground if I’m handling a very unpredictable horse. I don’t get the whole “too cool for a helmet” attitude. I might have to print this off for my current barn! 🙂

  9. Keep talking the talk. You’ll never know when you just might be the one who gets the message across, and it’s a message that matters. I’m a fairly recent convert. I’m the “cowgirl” who grew up pretty much like you describe here .. taking all the risks, never worrying about the consequences. Not coming off a horse in almost two decades, then getting tossed twice in a matter of months opened my eyes. Or maybe wisdom really does come with age? Who knows, but I’m never going back to my foolish ways. I wince when my husband and his buddies ride off in their cowboy hats and baseball caps. And yeah, I wonder if I ought to helmet-up for other things, too! 😉 http://anothercowgirlup.wordpress.com/2014/05/26/equine-roller-derby/

  10. I love you Anna. You are my idol! You have a way with words and you help me find the words I am looking for when I am leading a group of 4H horse girls. You validate all the ways I handle animals and think are the right ways. Thank you for your Blog. Someday I hope to meet you in person. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  11. Unbelievable that 4H riders here are not required to wear helmets, isn’t it? I was shocked when I went to my niece’s show last summer – western pleasure, etc – and she was the ONLY one in a good sized class with a helmet on. Her mom is a physical therapist who has worked with head injured children and adults, and I’m a nurse practitioner who spent most of my career in the ER. I would NEVER ride without a helmet after some of the things I’ve seen; and, like so many of us, it made a big difference when I had a big fall. Helmet cracked instead of my skull. Thanks for keeping up the dialog!

      • Our county fair has a Rodeo Queen contest which one of my 4H girls was interested in entering. We found out it is against the dress code to wear a helmet, and a competitor who wears one will be disqualified. The parents must sign a waiver of liability for their child who is not wearing a helmet. Insane, I know. I have done rounds with the superintendent of this competition. It would be so lovely to see a queen with a crown on her helmet, with lots of little eight and nine year old fans watching, thinking it is cool to wear a helmet like the rodeo queen. Ahh, maybe someday…

        • There is a youth riding group in Denver, the Westernaires. Not a helmet anywhere and I can’t stand to watch… This clearly has to change from the top down. It’s nuts.

  12. I worked in the kidney transplant lab after college and we called anyone who rode a motorcycle, ATV or horse without a helmet an organ donor.

  13. I always wear one. Even on my elder horse “just” dinking around. I think the change has to start within the competitive arenas (literally). Riders must be required to wear helmets (with chin straps, sigh) in order to compete. I didn’t understand the peer pressure aspect, until my DQ self went to watch (aboard my horse) team roping practice. No one said a word to me, no one made fun of me, no one even acknowledged I was the only person wearing a helmet. Everyone involved was friendly and welcoming. I was shocked to find myself feeling stupid and as if I should take it off, it’s not like I can’t ride, right?
    No, I didn’t take it off, but it gave me a bit of insight into the “no helmet” culture, and potential pressure some folks might feel. I am as unapologetically helmet-wearing as they come, not easily swayed, and I felt stupid for wearing one? Wow. Shocked me. I had to cowgirl up, leave it on, and remind myself I PROMISED. I was stunned by my internal reaction. Wanting to be part of the group is a much more powerful incentive than I realized.
    Good thing I left it on. I found myself accidentally dogging a steer, doing a zillion rollbacks at lightening speed. If I had come off, I doubt my skull would have made it.

    • So interesting. A client of mine who rides western says no one teases her when she puts her seat belt on, but she gets it for wearing a helmet on the trail… What is it about helmets? Good job of gutting it out. 😉

  14. Every time; every ride. I have only been gifted with one brain.

    And as far as Hannah goes, every time I read “I will love him forever,” I get something in my eyes…

  15. First time commenter. My wife had a serious horse accident in late 2007 — fortunately no head injury. But we have worn helmets ever since. Some times it takes a hard lesson to learn. If you ever come to New Mexico I’ll have your back in any bar.

    • Thanks for commenting, Dan. I am glad you and your wife got the second chance, you were smart to take the first cue. Glad to have your nod. And I am also feeling like there are a quite a few folks out there that I would like to meet in a bar. Thanks.

  16. If manufacturers can make leather riding boots that zip and are actually comfortable to walk in and riding shirts that breathe (like athletic wear you’d sport at the gym), why can’t someone develop a protective helmet for Western riders that looks so close to a cowboy hat that you’d have to really stare at it to notice the difference? Wed heritage with safety.

    I am a helmet wearer as I fell off my horse at the halt about ten years ago and sustained a mild concussion–with a helmet. Yes, it can happen at the halt (if you’re sitting there all relaxed and your horse spooks, which is what happened in my case). And if my helmet hadn’t been on, who knows how my brain would have fared.

    P.S. If you are a helmet manufacturer and you like my idea, just remember me when legions of cowboys are wearing the new and improved helmets. 🙂

    • They make those helmets that look like hats, but no one has stolen your fortune… I have never seen one worn. Your tumble is classic, the reason to wear a helmet consistantly… that fall at the halt can be even more bone-jaring sometimes!

      • So glad to know my imaginary fortune is intact!

        It WAS bone-jarring. He spun, I was mid-air like a cartoon for a split second, then just landed butt, back, head (on my back) simultaneously. I regret that I did what you’re “supposed” to do, “Get back on!” I cantered a bit and wondered why the riding arena footing was moving in waves like the ocean. Thankfully I realized I wasn’t right and should get off. A friend took me to the ER. Not an experience I want to have again.

  17. Thank you so much for highlighting this important safety issue. & for highlighting the ‘pink’ improvements!! I’m due a new helmet & found that one of my local stores is in the offer for 12th July. Yipppeee!

    I have had very, very few accidents via horses. Two big crashes (both not my horse). The second one the horse fell after slipping on the teeniest bit of slope on an otherwise straight/flat grass track on a pleasure ride via EGB. I had delayed concussion that day & I only just found somebody to undo the accident trauma to my neck that had got stuck. I’d been to loads of people, but I still felt like my head was pushed to one side & that I couldn’t ever get quite straight. Thanks to my helmet & homeopathy (arnica/aconite) I came out of the concussion quite quickly but was still dazed for a day or two. I’ve treated people who have had serious head injuries. The knock on effects can last a lifetime. Where a helmet! 🙂

    • Thank your for this comment. Seems the recovery time for these brain-related injuries is kind of quirky and long winded. Glad you are well and glad you had a helmet in the first place. Some folks hear this kind of story and say, “See, the helmet didn’t work.” But the exact opposite is true.

  18. Dressage and bar fight in the same sentence…..I’m still getting my head around that one. Wonderful safety message, Anna!

  19. Winky Mackay-Smith once shared with me this sharp quip that has useful for closing helmet arguments with thought provoking effectiveness:

    “If you think your hairstyle is worth more than your head you’re right!”

    • I watched his video and I agree in part. I do more ground work that anyone and don’t get on a horse that I don’t think is ready either. Fine. My last wreck happened at the canter and the horse I was on collapsed from a medical condition. No disobedience. Horses stumble, bee stings happen, if (big if) you know and can control the horse, it doesn’t mean you can control the world around you. It is irresponsible for a trainer to say otherwise. I know it’s an unpopular stand to take in the western world, but it is time professionals get real.

  20. Hear Hear, keep on saying it. We all wear helmets at my barn now. But, it wasn’t always so. Sometimes peer pressure works the other way as well. It is the only safe way to ride.

  21. I’m originally from England and helmets were a must, I wish back protectors were also around at that time as one of those would have been very helpful 🙂 We hear the sad stories even with helmets and inflated vests but just think how many people across the world are saved from serious injury every day because of their helmet.
    I went to the Elizabeth Stampede and a great bunch of people from a local hospital specializing in brain injuries were fitting and giving away free helmets.
    As a member of a local riding club and a mother of a young rider I’m astounded at how many kids do not wear helmets, one thing that irritates me nearly as much is I have yet to see one child there that wears a helmet with it fitted correctly and not bouncing to the back of their head. I would really like to see an enforcement of helmets for children especially at local clubs and competition.

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