The Real Helmet Heroes. (#ihad, #riders4helmets)

This week was ordinary in the horse world. We love horses, who have the quickest response time of any domestic animal. We love horses, who are prey animals with senses much more acute than ours and an instinct to spook, or bolt and run when frightened or alarmed.

There were no freak accidents this week, but naturally, someone got kicked in the head doing groundwork. It’s no surprise that someone had a wreck at the mounting block and someone else landed on a rock on the trail. Of course, someone’s horse tripped and fell; that’s what happened to Courtney. And a fair number of good horses predictably came apart, something they’d never done in their whole life. Someone got hurt on their first ride and someone got a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) who’d been riding all their life. Someone is lucky to be alive and someone didn’t make it. And some little girl is wearing her purple helmet like a crown because it’s part of her horse outfit. It means she’s special and gets to ride.

Just like usual, no matter what story we tell ourselves, horses remain horses. Never under our control.

Awareness about helmet safety has grown over the years but also left a rift among riders. Some proudly say, “Every horse, every ride” and some defiantly refuse under any circumstances. Both sides take jibes at the other, while our national attention has focused on concerns about repetitive concussions in contact sports such as football and soccer. A study released by the journal Neurological Focus found most traumatic brain injuries involve horseback riding (45.2%) compared to contact sports (20.2%). Yikes, who are we kidding?

Riding is undeniably dangerous. But it’s in our blood, so passionate riders do the best they can for their horses, good training and the best care we can manage, but part of that is protecting ourselves, too.

Helmets save lives. It’s undeniable. That’s the message of the tenth annual riders4helmets International Helmet Awareness Day, the weekend of Sept. 14th and 15th. I’ve written along every year. I hope to appeal to a rider’s common sense. I try to stay positive as I warn about worst-case scenarios that are more common than we think. Even against undeniable research, some of us just won’t wear a helmet, not for our family or our horses or even for ourselves, so we can stay in the saddle as long as possible. I’ve heard every excuse from how uncomfortable helmets are (not anymore, technology has evolved dramatically) to my favorite, that the rider is too old to change (while holding a cell phone.) I wonder if you’d traveled and met the wide circle of riders I have, if you’d understand why my heart catches in my throat when I see a rider with a bare head.

I used to feel like I was failing, only preaching to the choir. Each year the reader’s comments told stories of courage and resilience, of helmets giving riders a greater chance to ride another day. I thought I was only reaching people who already agreed, but the problem I had in thinking that is the same problem people who don’t use helmets have: limited vision. I was missing the big picture. People don’t change from being called out or lectured to, or even asked by loved ones.

True change of any kind comes from those living the example. Science has proven that kind methods of horse training are more effective than old-school domination methods, but it takes seeing willing, confident horses working well to demonstrate its value. In the same way, when committed helmet-wearers put one on every ride with a smile, the world changes a little bit. When we strap a helmet on to load a horse as well as jump a jump, it’s an affirmation. When trainers wear them and ask their riders to join, it’s a culture. When parents wear helmets with their kids, the future improves because a physical example will always be greater than words.

Helmets are something that the U.S. is behind on. I often hear that the minority helmet-wearing riders get teased. I notice football players don’t get ridicule for their helmets, and horses make linebackers look puny, but here they are, grilling you. It’s a good day, smile at those bullies. It’s a backward compliment; if you weren’t on the right side, it wouldn’t happen. Besides, smiling makes them nervous.

Here’s to those horse people changing the world every day! Adult women in “horse-crazy” purple helmets and men who pull off a ball cap and strap on a helmet; bike, motorcycle, or horse. Here’s to the riders with a dorky sun visor strapped onto their helmet, fighting two issues at once. Here’s to driving home in your helmet because you forgot. Or helmet hair in the grocery store, because there are things more important, and besides, you still have your boots on. Here’s to taking your “hobby” seriously and doing the best in every way. Horses read that self-confidence and commitment, and give it back double.

Here’s to you, proudly wearing a helmet and celebrating your best life. If you have someone to thank for that, today is the day to do it. And if it was your idea, congrats on being a self-starter. Most of all, know the positive impact you are having in the world, the same ordinary horse world, by putting that helmet on, every horse, every ride. Stand tall in the credit you deserve. You are a hero.

Statistics: 60% of riding fatalities occur from head injuries. The number of rider deaths per year due to head injury is 60 (compared with 8 for football.) 45% of all TBIs (traumatic brain injuries) are horse related. Approximately 20% of accidents which result in head injury happen while the person is on the ground. As common for professionals as amateurs, there is no statistical correlation between skill level and injury likelihood. Head injuries are cumulative. An original head injury can be made much worse by additional concussions. Your injury risk depends on the height of the fall (24″ is enough), as well as the speed at which you’re traveling. Even a fall from a standing horse can be catastrophic.

If you have a hard impact blow while wearing your helmet, immediately replace it. There may be damage not visible to the eye. Replacing your helmet every four to five years is recommended.

Maybe it’s time to treat yourself to a new helmet, on sale at a 2019 participating retailer at https://bit.ly/2xM4EYJ

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

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Working with riders of any discipline and horses of any breed, Anna believes dressage training principals build a relaxed & forward foundation that crosses over all riding disciplines in the same way that the understanding Calming Signals benefits all equine communication.

Anna Blake

61 thoughts on “The Real Helmet Heroes. (#ihad, #riders4helmets)”

  1. YESSS!!! I teach riding to at-risk youth and alway joke, “Is it choking you? Is it giving you a migraine? Then it’s a perfect fit.” They just smile and roll their eyes. There’s no better feeling than taking off a helmet after a great ride and feeling the breeze ruffle your hair while watching your horse roll in the dirt.

  2. Thank you for your annual ode to helmet riders. I take lessons at a local barn where I am the only adult who sports a helmet. The barn caters to riders in a discipline where helmet wearing is not traditional. I have never preached about helmet wearing, but others have commented in my helmet, not in a negative way, but more in a reflective manner. I have had other riders note that they simply were never expected to wear one and so never got in the habit. I would like to think that if someone wanted to start wearing a helmet that he or she would not feel so alone in doing so due to my example. Thank you for the encouragement in continue wearing my helmet for every ride.

      • Love it. I simply started wearing one when I had a child in 1991. I’ve worn one every ride. Got involved in 4H when it was required with my daughter and raised a huge group of lesson girls who would never think of getting on a horse without a helmet.
        We trail ride and camp mostly now and notice how we are the minority. Doesn’t bother me either way. Like you said I figure a few will look at me and think about it. I’m 65 and way past caring what I look like.
        When I was 30, I had a bad bike accident. We didn’t wear helmets in those days. I have suffered from migraines on that side of the head along with other issues so I know how it can affect you life forever.

  3. I live in the “Live Free or Die” state of NH where helmets are not required when riding motorcycles. Every time I pass a helmet less rider I say out loud “Welcome to the Live Free and Die state”.

  4. Look for that MIPS technology friends for the latest (yet still very affordable) design to best protect our brains.

    Just before reading your line about the visor, I was thinking about how I’d maxed my dork factor:).

    Great brain protecting minds!

    Another excellent article I can share with my skeptical friends.

  5. I believe you had a post last year regarding brain protection (!) – most comments ever, I think. This subject certainly should be brought up more often – I know of 2 people who were affected! One without a helmet – probably never right after a fall, and one (my friend) with a helmet – concussed & cracked ribs AND a cracked helmet! Was necessary to get a new helmet BUT she was able to go back to her normal life – unlike the man who didnt wear one! That should be the moment of change for anyone as to whether a helmet is necessary or not. After her fall and after my three year old granddaughter started riding (with helmet) I wore one also. Like so many of us when we were kids – somehow managed to get away with no accidents – lucky.

  6. I started wearing a Caliente helmet back in the late 70s. Until then, the only times we wore a helmet (hunt cap) was when showing. I have never ridden without a helmet since. 20 years ago I did have a concussion from a fall even though I was wearing a helmet. It could have been so much worse if not for that helmet. The newer helmets are much lighter and cooler to wear. And I have added a dorky blue visor to my helmet.

  7. You missed one excuse I’ve heard, Anna – brain injuries occur even with a helmet, so why bother? It is true, since my mother was wearing a helmet both times that she suffered a concussion from a fall. In the one case, the helmet was likely neither help nor harm, since it was more from a whiplash effect than hitting the ground. However, in the second case, it certainly was a benefit, as the horse trampled her as she came down. The extent of the concussion, that time, with the protection of the helmet, made it all too clear how bad it might have been with no protection.

    When I was much younger, I had (within the same year) my jumping trainer experience a brain injury that resulted in temporary blindness, and my dressage trainer experience a brain injury that resulted in amnesia. That was enough for me to set aside my carefree, helmet-free ways. Sad that there are even some who know people with serious injury, and still won’t take that simple precaution.

  8. I’m one of the “helmet every time” people. Made an unplanned dismount for the first time in over 40 years when my usually calm guy spooked and, by the time I hit the ground he was, literally, out of sight! Thank God I didn’t break anything but I was very sore, bruised & hardly able to walk for weeks. I also hit my head, hard, and if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet I can only imagine what could have happened! A horse’s reaction time is 1/7 of a second! Think about it. No one can plan or prepare for an instant like that. Wear a helmet-it’s your best chance of survival.

  9. I just want to announce that I threw a helmet in the trash last week when cleaning out my trailer. It took a hard hit a year ago and had taken plenty before that and was definitely more than 5 years old. I’m frugal, always thinking things can still be used for something and figuring a diminished helmet is better than no helmet at all. So in the light of the seriousness of the issue, I’m tossing back up helmets. I will buy one more new one. I keep one at the arena where I work, one where I have a trail horse and one in my trailer. Because I know myself. Because I’m forgetful. Because I’m valuable. To my horses, to my family, to myself.

  10. I previously only wore my helmet when riding. Then one day my horse spooked and ran over me when we were doing groundwork. He managed to clip me in the head with one of his rear hooves in the process. Lesson learned — the helmet goes on as soon as I walk into the barn.

  11. I don’t understand how any barn with liability insurance can allow their riders to ride without a helmet. My boarding barn has a strict rule. No riding without a helmet….period. My helmet has protected my noggin more than once. I would not even consider riding without it.

  12. Anna, I like that you write these helmet articles every year. During my seven years of limited distance endurance riding I found that those of us wearing helmets are definitely a majority in the sport of endurance. I know many people who have grown up with horses in the days before helmets, but now they always remember to wear one. For those who still ride without, like you say we can be the smiling example without ever saying a word. I am proud to be one of your helmet heroes!

  13. Not only “on” the horse and “around” the horse but BEHIND the horse. I drive miniatures. They’re all horse and by some, not considered dangerous because of their size. Ha!

    Years ago, not following my trainer’s example of being carefree and helmet-less, I drove my little 250 pound guy in a lesson and I wore a helmet. Leading him back to the stable for unhitching (which should have been done before leading the horse anywhere, sigh, another cardinal rule broken) I walked along with lines in hand, mini pulling the two wheel cart.

    The spook happened as we climbed a grassy rise. The little guy took off. I let go and he went forward, pulling the left wheel of the cart up my back and neck and over the top of my still helmeted head. It happened in an instant but I was safe because I hadn’t taken my helmet off. Shoulders and neck were sore for a week, but nothing like what the wheel would have done to my noggin.

    Like the dentists say, “Brush the teeth you want to keep.” I’d say your brain is something good to have around your whole life.

    Thank you for your life-saving reminder!

  14. I think you know that I am a firm believer and advocate for every ride, every time, every discipline. I am only an occasional rider and started pretty late in life. I have been so thankful that helmets were required by my teachers. I have only had a handful of falls but two were significant enough that I did incur concussions, both while wearing a helmet. I can only imagine how much worse things would have been without the protection.

    Thank you for continuing to write out and demonstrate about the importance of helmets.

  15. Thank you! I’m not riding as much as I’d like, but went ahead and replaced my five year old helmet this year any way. I’d be interested in thoughts on helmet storage. Mine came with instructions to not leave in extreme heat because it can break down the cells of the safety foam so I always bring it home. I’m in Texas so that barn does get hot! Am I being too dramatic?

  16. I believe I saw some stats about more emergency room visits and more serious injuries (total) from horseback riding than from motorcycle riding. As a person who has suffered multiple childhood concussions (some bicycle, some equestrian) I can’t afford not to wear a helmet. Who wants to follow me around writing everything down because my short term memory is shot — no one. ;D

  17. I’ve had three concussions…in a helmet all three times, but the first two were with the old “shell” hard hats–no padding, no suspension. Not that protective, except…maybe they were more than I thought. The third was straight into the ground from a really hard buck-off (while mounting) in a modern helmet…and the cumulative whack really got to me (mostly out of it now, but a few things still bother me–can’t ride faster than a walk in a round pen for the dizziness.) Helmet had a dent in it; I took it in to be replaced as soon as I could drive again, and now have a spare helmet for the next time something whacks it. Also wore a helmet when I started riding a bike again after 40 years (I’m not riding now, due to a different injury.) I wear a helmet every time I ride though I grew up way back when only jumper riders wore them (and I never fell off, then.) Can’t say I *like* the feel, the sweat trickling through my hair, the inability to wear a really useful hat against rain and sun…but I am remarkably fond of my brain…and not being able to read, write, or knit after this last one for awhile…UGH.

  18. I have a new helmet and finding it easier to wear than a bush hat, but what is with the visor comments? I like a visor. Keeps the sun out of my eyes and rain off my specs. A local teenage girl was seriously bucked off recently from a western saddle, hit her forehead on the horn just beneath her helmet, knocked out cold and concussed but she is ok. My boss wears one but its old and too big and I think it could break her neck if she caught the front of it. Last weekend’s clinic was all western except for one dressage rider, in a helmet. Thanks for this Anna. I’ve been lucky, but the statistics speak for themselves. I’m for the bone dome.

  19. LOL! I knew you were teasing! Helmet with visor, and safety glasses, every ride. After reading some of the comments, I think I should start wearing the helmet for longing too. Especially this time of year. Its cooler, windier, and the vicious squirrels and horse eating trees are out in force. 😆

    • Maybe. Some folks are riding in those new air tech safety vests, they look comfy and work well, too. I think the thing I see the most as a trainer, is people are very complacent around their own horses. We need to find that line of positive awareness.

  20. Fantastic article Anna, I am so with you on this issue about helmets, I for one would not be here today with being an avid helmet wearer, I also religiously wear one on my bike too.
    Jane Myers
    AKA The Horse Rider’s Mechanic.

  21. Back in 1983, I was a green rider on a green horse. I was riding by a stall with an uncut stallion, crazed by a mare in heat somewhere in the barn. He charged us and scared my horse who jumped sideways and slipped, going down on his side with me on his back. Besides a crunched foot, I also hit my head. No one wore helmets those days and all that was available was this english hard hat which had no straps. So I started wearing a bicycle helmet and did so until they started having decent riding helmets. Every horse, every ride. Thank you for writing about helmets every year!

    • Therese, I always know your comments, as a rider and medical professional, carry some informed knowledge on two levels. This comment made me smile, you would have worn a pan on your head, you were so clear about the danger. (I recently met a neurologist who doesn’t wear helmets and it was such a contradiction…) This is that kind of crazy unpredictable incident that would have challenged an experienced team as well. Great comment, thank you.

  22. I see that complacency a lot too. My mare is sweet, well mannered. I hear how she’s the sweetest horse in the barn. Little kids want to kiss her. I don’t allow it. As good as she is, she’s a horse, not a puppy, with super quick reaction times. She can go from 14 hands to 17 hands in a heartbeat. When I teach, I try to give lessons on horse behavior as well as riding. Another problem I see a lot, is someone entering the ring while another person is longeing a horse. I don’t let anyone enter the ring while I’m longeing. As good as she is, she is a horse, and has her “moments”. This actually ties into the helmet discussion. A friend was cooling out her horse, while someone came into the arena to longe, probably to get the kinks out. The horse on the line exploded, slammed into my friend, sending her head first into the boards. Her brand new helmet cracked open. Thankfully she was fine. How many times have you seen someone remove their helmet because they’re only walking to cool out? Complacency is everywhere in the horse world.

  23. Thank you, Anna, for your annual article. I am proof that you are not just preaching to the choir. I got a late start in the horse world, and, as I was used to wearing a helmet for biking and skiing, it seemed natural to wear one when I started riding at age 63. However, after a year of riding Western in Arizona, where helmets are rarely worn, I concluded that helmets weren’t “cool”…in either sense of the word. Yet, I always had a niggling unease, which was reinforced by the statistics you cited in your post last year. I thought about your article nearly every time I rode bareheaded, and, finally, decided to go back to my helmet a month or so ago. There have been other changes in my life that contributed to that decision, but your post was a major influence. Keep posting! You did change at least one mind!

    • Susan, thanks for saying so, although your common sense was nudging, too. Isn’t peer pressure an interesting thing, even at our age? Have a great winter, I’m looking forward to coming there in November. So beautiful!

  24. Yes, yes, and yes! I’m a professional dressage trainer, and I crashed and burned today. First time in 15 years I’ve come off a horse. My mistake, isn’t it always. Thank goodness I’m an every ride helmet wearer. Need a new helmet after today. I just got cleared to ride after a concussion in August, from falling backward into a concrete retaining wall trying to herd my cat into the house. So, I’m back on the injured reserve. If I’d been wearing my helmet when cat-herding, I would be much better off today. And if I hadn’t been wearing it today, well, I hate to think about it. I might not have been able to think about it. It was a very hard fall.

    • One dressage trainer to another, I usually get hurt in the kitchen… cat herding can be complicated! but your message is so important, thank you, Nancy. And so glad you were riding in one, glad you are still with us. Heal well, and bless what’s left of your helmet.

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