It’s hard to believe that the holidays are almost over. That means I’ll be back on the road again soon, heading to Wellington, Florida next weekend for the first “Helmet Symposium.” It’s a big summit meeting of industry professionals that presumably have an influence over whether or not riders wear helmets and I’ve been invited, I guess because I am one of the few people that do what I do wearing a helmet.
It’s interesting to look at the evolution of helmet wearing in this industry and the stubborn resistance, especially when you compare it to other sports. I grew up in Florida, initially a “backyard” rider (mostly riding bareback, barefoot and often in my bathing suit—we didn’t even own a helmet back then, no one did). Later in the 60s, I started taking English riding lessons and eventually got involved in the hunter/jumper world, and we had to wear “hard hats” whenever jumping (at least when an adult was watching). I remember my favorite hard hat well, in fact, I still have it. It’s a thin plastic shell covered with black velvet—no chin strap and a very rigid visor that was notorious for slamming down and breaking your nose if you fell. There was no chin harness like we know of today, but there was a little elastic band that you could pull down if you wanted to look like a total geek (I cut the elastic off of mine). Most people preferred to leave the elastic off in the hopes that the hard hat would come off if you fell, instead of breaking your nose. Back then, helmets had almost no protective value and might actually do more harm than good.
Eventually technology and research caught up and by the 1980s they started making certified equestrian helmets that actually served a purpose and protected the head in the event something went wrong. Dr. Richard Timms, a critical care physician and researcher, whose career ambitions included PREVENTING injury rather than just treating it, was instrumental in promoting the use of equestrian helmets, even though he was not a rider. Working with a safety product company called Troxel, which started out making infant car seats (before anyone else did), then bicycle helmets and eventually, with Dr. Timm’s insistence, Troxel became the first manufacturer of certified riding helmets. Now, riding helmets is all Troxel does and it is the leading producer of equestrian helmets and is known for their innovation and unique styles.
Today, helmets are not only safe, but they are comfortable, well-fitted and even stylish. So why then is there still such a resistance to wearing a helmet when you ride? You wouldn’t dream of getting in your car and going somewhere without fastening your seat belt, even though you are not planning to have a wreck today. Add to the equation the fact that when you are riding your head is higher off the ground than almost any other sport and you are sitting an unpredictable, potentially volatile animal and it seems like a no-brainer (pardon the pun).
It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of helmet wearing in other sports. When we were kids, no one wore a helmet when cycling; today, a serious cyclist wouldn’t be caught dead without one—wearing a helmet is part of the accepted and cool gear in extreme sports like mountain biking. Riding is just as dangerous as motorcycling in injuries per minute of riding and most people on motorcycles wear helmets, yet only one in eight equestrians do.
Fifteen years ago skiers and snowboarders never wore helmets; but then in 1998 two tragedies occurred within one week of each other and two famous people were killed from head injuries while skiing—Michael Kennedy (son of the late Senator Robert Kennedy) and Senator Bono(of Sonny and Cher fame). Although it’s questionable whether or not a helmet would’ve actually helped in these high-speed tree collision accidents, literally overnight we started seeing more skiers wearing helmets and the ski helmet market exploded. Today, more skiers than not wear helmets and it has become an essential piece of cool equipment that serious/hardcore skiers and snowboarders always wear. Even my husband, a professional skier for more than 35 years, now wears a helmet every time he skis, although he still doesn’t wear one riding.
So what is it about us equestrians that makes us so dang stubborn about wearing protective gear? It’s definitely much more readily accepted amongst the English crowd, with persistent stubborn resistance from the Western crowd. I guess we just loathe to give up our cowboy hats. What do you think is the big reason why riders are resistant to helmet wearing? Is it ego? Do you think it makes you looks weak or afraid? Is it because there are not good role models in this sport? Is it because you don’t think you need one because your horse is so reliable? Is it because helmets are uncomfortable or ugly? What’s your reason? If you do wear a helmet, why? How did you make that decision? These are all questions that will be addressed in the upcoming helmet summit that I will be attending next month. I’d love to see your comments and take them with me to the meeting.
Happy New Year!
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I have been riding most of my life (western) and have religiously worn a helmet for the past 20 years starting when my girls were little and just starting to ride. I know people who steadfastly resist wearing one even after 2 falls with concussions. “Its not cowboy-my horses are broke.”
Even the best broke horse can take a mis-step. I have seen more helmet wearers in local ranch horse competitions and at various clinics with a more western clientele. This is encouraging but either way, I will wear mine. I am way to old to have my “filing system” get messed up and need to be reloaded.
I have to admit: I don’t wear a helmet and I’m not proud of it. I wore one when I was learning to ride but I just don’t any more. I wasn’t wearing one when I got bucked off at a gallop and I have to say that was a wake up call, but I still don’t wear a helmet though. I think one reason a lot of people just don’t know that they can get cool fashions and think of helmets as a “sissy thing”. I do think people should start wearing helmets, including me.
Personally, I used to wear a helmet but now I don’t, although I tell other people to. I haven’t gotten bucked off before but unfortunately I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I was lucky and didn’t get hurt and was riding with a retired EMS worker. I just don’t have a helmet and don’t wear one, even though I know I’d be a lot safer with one I have enough confidence in myself and my horse that I don’t wear one all the time. But as I said I’d be a lot safer if I did wear one.
I have lost two friends in the past six months to horse-related head injuries. Both were extremely experienced horsewomen and neither wore a helmet.
From age 11-20 I rode almost daily, fast and furious, leaving in the morning and returning before dark without a concern for my health. The beauty of youth! However, now being 50 with a family, career and more than one horse to worry about, I feel the need to be more cautious. Six years ago, I decided to use a helmet every time I mounted up. I study natural horsemanship and try to have my horses in a safe state of mind and myself prepared to handle any situation that could arise. I put a lot of hours in the saddle and many of those hours are in the woods. On occasion, I have been unseated and was so thankful for my helmet. I’m on my third helmet which I’m very satisfied with and I forget it’s on my head. Yes, it’s hot in the summer, but it’s a security blanket that gives me the confidence for any riding situation. All it takes is one bad blow to the brain to forever ruin a life and badly effect one’s family and the horse world’s reputation.
I wear a helmet. I was bucked and broke ribs. I think when it comes to trail riding you might not want to wear it because you trail ride for that feeling of freedom. A helmet does not feel free. I do wish helmets gave more sun protection like a hat can.
Just got through reading your blog on helmets that was posted at the end of December. I’m late, but better late than never.
I was thrown from my horse on Dec. 17th, and if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I’m not quite sure what type of injury I would have ended up with. Probably a fractured skull, because my helmet split when I hit the frozen ground. As it was, I ended up with a couple fractured ribs.
For Christmas I received a Troxel GPSII. This particular helmet didn’t fit. The GPSII device was sitting on my C-spine and I felt that it would be too dangerous to keep. I might add that I have a small head. I ended up with a Troxel GPSIII, which feels very comfortable and certainly hope it is as safe as my last helmet.
In closing I might add that I never ride without my helmet, whether it be in the arena or on the trail, and since my accident I certainly will be more aware of wearing the helmet in the correct position.
I have chosen to wear a helmet every time I ride. Now being over 50, despite many years of riding under my belt, I feel the need to be safe for myself as well as for my loved ones. I have found a comfortable style helmet that I can tolerate for hours on end. Yes, there is helmet-head to contend with, but with the many hours I log in the saddle, I need to keep safety as top priority.
My need to wear a helmet is doubly confirmed this year as I have lost two friends/acquaintences in the past seven months due to head injuries involved with horse accidents. Coming from a small town, word got out of the deaths and I received calls inquiring if it had been me. This made me realize the magnitude of these accidents and just how they affect everyone. I have vowed to my friends, family and myself to do everything I can to be safe while working with my horses. Please, everyone, protect yourselves.
I started wearing a helmet when I begin taking English riding lessons at the age of 20. I grew up riding and was most often bareback with no thought at all to a helmet (I don’t know if I was even aware they existed.) After switching to English, it became habit to wear a helmet while in lessons, but as soon as the lesson was over the helmets popped off as we cooled our horses down. I’m a little ashamed to say it actually took two separate violent and unexpected spooks when we were in ‘cool down’ mode for me to realize the risk is there all the time, not just when jumping. From then on, my motto became ‘I prefer my brains unscambled.’ Nowadays it’s so ingrained I feel a little naked without one.
I can’t say there aren’t times when I get irritated at wearing a helmet – especially on particularly hot summer days when my hair looks totally stupid after I’ve gotten all hot and sweaty while riding, but if my older reasons weren’t enough, my daughter rides now too, so on those few occasions when temptation creeps in, I just remind myself it’s ‘practice what you preach’.
I always wear a helmet. I started to when taking up riding in the Sierras where there is a lot of rock but now always wear one. Heard a story of an endurance rider who got on a horse at camp to try the person’s saddle, horse reared, she went off and hit the picnic table and died. So, there is no time when it’s ok to skip it. Not worth it. Guess it’s the look people don’t like. A mashed head looks worse though.
We require helmets when mounted at our facility. One “big name” trainer who came to evaluate a horse we had for sale for his client refused to don a helmet (we have several loaners available) and instead bought the horse without trying it!
I remember the velvet hunt cap all too well; the metal plate in my head makes that easy.
The more skilled I become in my horsemanship, the more “risk adverse” I am. It seems contradictory but in fact, increased awareness prompts a lot more thinking about the “what ifs.”
I practice natural horsemanship and it’s so interesting to see how many folks who practice natural approaches with horses do NOT wear helmets. For some, it may be based on a perception that natural horsemanship practices somehow makes folks safer on and around horses.
Based on my observations, a horse is a horse and the risk of head injury is equal for everyone regardless of the approach or practice followed.
Thanks Julie for being a common-sense role model for wearing helmets. I question horse practitioners who don’t–especially those who are in positions of influence in the industry. That said, I think a worthy topic of discussion at the FL helmet conference would be about the responsibility that leading industry practitioners have to their students and customers in advocating and practicing safety themselves. I’ll be interested to hear about your conference experience. Please be sure to share it with us. Thanks!
I have been riding for over 40 years and will not get on any horse without a helmet. My early riding years were spent fox hunting, the velvet hunt cap you described, was part of the hunting attire. I got used to the feel of a hat and then got to the point when it did not feel right to ride without a hat.
When my daughter started riding years ago, I would not let her on her pony without a helmet. I told her that broken bones will heal but a broken head is not easily fixed. Now, she always wears one (she is 24 now)and thinks people are crazy if they do not wear a helmet.
Unfortunately, as long as most of the wildly popular TV horse experts ride without helmets, it will be an uphill battle to convince their followers to wear helmets.
I wear my helmet EVERY time I ride. I think it is sad that it takes tragic incidents (ie: Kennedy, Bono, and in the fairly recent news Courtney Dye-King’s tramatic brain injury) for people to start making changes. It is such a simple, quick and comfortable thing to do. A helmet is as comfortable as a baseball cap or cowboy hat… in fact I find after I untack and put away my horse, I often realize I am still wearing my helmet, and didn’t even notice! It does take a bit to find a helmet that fits the shape of your head, but man, some of the newest helmets fit like a glove! Thanks Julie, for being a good example, and for bringing this topic up for people to share their feelings.
I have this conversation with a good friend, who is also a doctor, quite often. He insists on his daughter wearing a helmet, but won’t wear one himself. I believe he thinks he can handle his horse well enough to not fall.
I think everyone, at some point, falls.
It will take significant role model changes for this attitude to change. That’s what it took among cyclists – I remember the debates in the cycling community years ago. In fact I worked on an effort to get more cyclists wearing helmets when a friend’s life forever changed after a head injury from a bike accident.
Also there’s a “cool” factor. People who spend considerable money on bling that goes around a horse’s ears, are going to want to have a certain look. Interestingly endurance riders tend to all ride with helmets – there helmets are cool…
Bottom line: The more individuals such as yourself that wear helmets, and the more competitions that require it, the more life changing head injuries you’ll prevent. As long as the Parellis, the western pleasure competitions, and the barrel racers continue to ignore the realities of brain injuries, the more we’ll see, particularly among young riders who think of themselves as immortal and tend to ride rank horses.
Thank you for taking this on – I use you as an example with my daughters when they argue about wearing a helmet.
PS I went from not wearing a helmet to wearing one at all times. It’s to the point that I have the same sense of unease if I don’t have it on as I do if I haven’t put on my seat belt.
I always wear a helmet but I started riding as an adult and never didn’t wear one. I also teach therapeutic riding where everyone is required to wear a helmet. I’ll wear a helmet on the quietest oldest therapy horse since I can’t control if the horse isn’t paying attention and trips or if it gets stung by a horse fly. Though I don’t wear a bike helmet unless I’m riding in traffic where I can’t control other automobiles and what not.
I had a fall this past August and if I was not wearing a helmet I would have been dead, literally. The helmet ended up in three pieces and if I had not been wearing it that would have been my head. It is always a smart idea to wear a helmet. Ego, or whatever other reason, should be checked at the door
One of the reasons I love your show so much is the fact that you ALWAYS wear a helmet when mounted on the show. I think one of the reasons that it is not very common is the fact that role models in the horse world do not wear helmets. I pride myself in wearing a helmet when I ride, but it is not always easy. Last year I was in Arizona visiting family and I had the opportunity to go on a trail ride with my aunt but no helmets were around. I admit that I rode anyway. The most common complaint I get about helmets from my friends that do not wear them (I ride dressage) is the fact that they say they are hot. I think it is more a “cool” factor though. I notice many people will move in to my trainers barn (a well respected dressage barn with lots of upper level riders) wearing helmets when they ride, but as they go up through the levels or even just spend time with the top riders they stop wearing them. I think if more top riders wore helmets more lower level ones would as well. I thank you for wearing a helmet and I hope that more pros follow your lead!