It's Only Your Brain Afterall

Jun 4, 2010 - 9:34 AM
Traditional attire may not include helmets in many equestrian disciplines, but tradition won't protect your head. Photo by Mollie Bailey.

We do it automatically: get in the car, fasten the seatbelt. This is drummed into us from the time we’re old enough to be aware that we’ve been strapped into a car seat. When we turn 16 and prepare to test for our driver’s licenses, the instructor shows us horrible pictures of the consequences of unintentional experimentation with the laws of physics. Most people get the message, even without active campaigning by state police.

Why, then, is there such resistance to automatically putting on a helmet when we get on a horse? I talked to a lot of people (wearers and non-wearers) in a lot of different disciplines to get a better picture of the thought process behind the decision to wear or not wear a helmet.

“I’m only riding on the flat, not jumping.”

This sentiment echoes across all horse disciplines.

  • Dressage riders worry about overheating during their sweat-building schooling sessions.
  • Hunter riders, who, until recently, didn’t have to wear protective headgear, don’t like the feel or the look of the helmets and aren’t doing anything dangerous anyway.
  • “There’s only sand in the arena.”
  • “I’m just going on a trail ride.”
  • “The ground’s soft.”
  • “I won’t be doing anything that’ll make me fall off.”
  • “Cowboys don’t wear helmets.”

The worst accident I ever had to clean up happened to my best friend. We were 500 yards from the end of a 25-mile trek, walking (yes, walking) on a loose rein down a road, and the horse slipped and fell. He scrambled to his feet and was fine; my friend was unconscious for two days, and she was wearing a properly fitted helmet. The helmet split down the side with the force of the impact. The doctor in the emergency room said bluntly that if she hadn’t been wearing a helmet, there would have been no need for the ambulance—just a shovel. Even 20 years after the accident she still has some lingering damage.

Nicety was a lovely little beginner horse. She was in the lesson program because she was so beautifully behaved. One windy autumn day, I was holding Nicety for a student at the mounting block when a gust of wind blew a leaf or something (we never found out what) into her line of sight and she shied. The student lost her balance, slipped out of the saddle and hit her head on the mounting block. Or rather, hit her helmet on the mounting block.

Horses, as we all know, are living beings with minds of their own. Horses are prey animals and instinctively react with fight or flight reflexes—ways which may not be apparent to their riders and which may be impossible to stay with. A leaf fluttering in the mounting area might seem like the preliminary warning of a panther attack to a horse. A spook, a stumble or even a low overhanging branch could result in a fall which could cause a nasty head injury.

“It’s not macho.”

For this particular argument, I talked to professional bull riders. You want macho? These guys are macho. They may be insane (they don’t call it the longest—and most dangerous—8 seconds in sports for nothing), but bull riding is definitely macho. Trying to stay on top of a ton of angry pot-roast is no sport for the faint of heart, yet a lot of these guys wear helmets.

Cody Hancock, 2000 World Bull Riding Champion, said he’ll wear a helmet in 2010 competitions on Why? He commented that he’d had three or four concussions in 2009, and a lifetime total of “probably 20,” but he doesn’t remember exactly. He also has three little girls and believes it’s time to start acting like a responsible adult.

J.W. Harris won his second consecutive gold buckle (the “gold standard” of bull riding) wearing a helmet. More and more of the younger riders are wearing helmets.


Ben Benavides, of HiDef Rodeo is a former rodeo competitor who provides audio/visual and announcing for rodeo and rough-stock competitions nationally. He explained that two schools of thought exist about why many bull riders do not wear helmets. The first is tradition—Cowboys wear cowboy hats.

The second is more scientific. A helmet weighs anywhere from a .25-1 pounds and is positioned at the end of the cowboy’s body. Riders who learned to ride bulls without a helmet find the additional weight multiplies the centrifugal/centripetal force, interferes with vision and freedom of head movement, and with the cowboy’s balance during the whiplash of bucking.

The harnesses on some of the helmets currently on the market interfere with the wearer’s ability to tuck his chin, the accepted way to prevent neck injuries while riding the bull. Benavides said it was like the effect of crack-the-whip, with the neck at the receiving end.

However, Benavides added that Texas and several other western states have mandated the use of approved protective headgear for youth competitors in rough-stock events like bull riding and saddle and bareback bronc. This means that every junior high or high school kid who is now riding bulls will have grown up learning to ride wearing a helmet. He thought that within the next five years or so, we’ll see a great many more young men in helmets.

Bull Tough Inc., San Antonio, Texas, makes headgear designed by bull riders for bull riders. Morris Futch, the owner, designed the new helmet after a friend was killed in an accident. His helmets attempt to answer all of the more scientific arguments. They’re as light as possible in weight, are designed to move with and not against the rider, addressing the chin-tuck question, and have a faceplate that prevents the bull’s horns from reaching the face. Previous helmets with facemasks used hockey-style faceguards with wide enough spacing to permit a horn to enter.

Futch said that three of the top five money-earners in the Professional Bull Riders Association, including last year’s world champion J.B. Mauney, now wear helmets when they compete. He added that with the technology available in his helmets, the reasons for not wearing helmets are primarily ignorance.

The PBR introduced and encouraged the use of body protectors a few years back, and now most competitors wear them. Body vests are lightweight and useful as billboards for sponsorship, add to the macho image since they look like bulletproof vests, and make a noticeable difference when that bull steps on you. As helmets become more commonplace, they too, like chaps and vests, will become billboards for sponsorship advertising in professional rodeo. Professional bicyclists already wear their sponsors’ logos on their helmets. It isn’t far away in rodeo.

“It’s too ugly.”

This may have been true in 2001 when USA Equestrian started requiring juniors to wear helmets with a properly fitted harness. Those helmets looked like mushroom caps and had straps that could choke you, so it was fashionable for the young stock to wear their helmets with chinstraps—if they were fastened at all—dangling by the collarbone. Some security.

Since that time, companies have introduced many different styles, and you can find one in your choice of fit, color and shape.

Eventers can purchase customized helmet covers, while striping kits are available for decorating the “skunk stripe” helmets favored in the hunter and jumper rings.

Your individuality is limited only by your imagination, nerve and disposable income. A few years ago, it was fashionable for kids to have their helmets adorned with Swarovski crystal designs. Take a look at these photographs that demonstrate what a little creativity, a lot of glue, time and money can do to a helmet.

“It’s too hot.”

Manufactures have made giant strides in creating lightweight, breathable helmets such as those the endurance riders wear. They’re built on the lines of bicycle helmets but are specifically designed for horsemen. You can find helmets today with flow-through air ventilation in a variety of colors and some even come with moisture-wicking linings.

“My discipline marks you down if you wear one.”

Although hunters are considered the most conservative of traditionalist horse sports, they pale in comparison to dressage. Where else would a precise dress code outline what you may and may not wear when coats are excused? Where else would you be eliminated (and I’ve scribed for a judge that did this in a Grand Prix test) for wearing a tie or a buttoned-up shirt when you are not wearing a coat?

Hilda Gurney, 1976 Olympic bronze medallist and a U.S. Equestrian Federation  S-rated judge, said, “As a judge, I respect a rider’s decision to wear a safety helmet at any level. My judging or impression is not affected by a rider’s decision to wear or not wear a helmet.”

Sally O’Connor, S-rated judge, author and noted horsewoman said she would treat a rider wearing protective headgear in a Grand Prix equally with a rider in a top hat. However, she mentioned that until more competitors start wearing protective headgear in Fédération Equestre Internationale level classes, it’s likely that judges will subconsciously favor the traditionally dressed pairs.

Lendon Gray, Olympian, author and noted dressage clinician, said she was one of the first dressage professionals to switch from hunt caps to helmets. She has struggled with the pressure on her junior FEI-level students to wear top hats rather than helmets, but she advocates the wearing of helmets at all times.

“My discipline doesn’t permit protective headgear.”

As a matter of interest, the FEI rules for dressage are very specific. The dress code for FEI dressage on the FEI website, Article 427, titled “DRESS,” states that a top hat or uniform headgear is required. However, an asterisk after the heading guides the reader to a footnote, which states: “If, for safety reasons, an athlete wishes to wear approved protective headgear, this is permitted.” This exception applies to all levels including Grand Prix.

In eventing, helmets are the rule from the first time you get on your horse at the show grounds. Pony Club, the blue chip standard of safety-first, has required helmets whenever mounted from the organization’s first days. This is partly why Pony Club gets significantly lower insurance premium rates than any other equine organization. The USEF requires protective headgear over fences. The American Quarter Horse Association, while not mandating helmets, certainly encourages wearing protective headgear it hunt-seat divisions. Hunter riders, once the most flagrant flaunters of headgear of any kind, now vie to wear the most fashionable approved headgear available, the GPA and the Charles Owen helmets. Doesn’t appear to cramp their style or their winning ways.

They’re too expensive.”

David Basehart, of Wise Choice Tack and Trailer, said his company carries approved helmets that range in price from $39.95 for a basic schooling helmet to as much as $450 for a trendy show helmet.

“A helmet is certainly cheaper than insurance premiums or emergency room bills,” he said.

However, despite helmet affordability, he worked out a program with one of his suppliers to provide one county 4-H program with free helmets for every child in the program every year.

He was surprised at the repercussions. Parents demanded to know who he thought he was, giving their kids such “sissy stuff.” Several fathers ranted that they’d never in their lives worn helmets and they would be *&$#* if they let their kids wear them. After receiving negative comments over several years, he ended the program.

My trainer doesn’t wear one except at shows.”

Fine. That is between your trainer and his conscience. He’s supposed to be an expert horseman who advocates safety first in all activities related to horses. He is setting a very bad example to his students, particularly juniors.

The ASTM/SEI has done countless studies on the effect of an irresistible force (your head, attached to your body, in flight as you part company from your horse) meeting an immovable object (the ground or a tree) with and without some kind of protection. Every one of these studies shows that in a properly fitted approved helmet, you are far more likely to walk away from the accident with minimal damage to your brain.

Remember, when your skull strikes the ground at speed from a height of 8 feet (the average height you are off the ground on an average-sized horse), your brain is traveling at the same speed inside your skull and doesn’t stop until it smashes into something. With a proper helmet, the impact is significantly lessened, and your brain doesn’t bruise itself by slamming into the skull wall.

“It musses up my hair.

If that’s what you think your brain is worth, you’re probably right. I talked to my hairdresser about dealing with “hat hair.” Her suggestion? Take a brush and a bottle of mousse to the barn with you. Dampen your hair in the bathroom to fluff it up after you ride. It sure beats taking out stitches or physical therapy. Ask anyone who’s tried the latter.

Kathie P. Mautner grew up as a “Foreign Service brat,” and now she works as an insurance attorney and competes in ballroom dancing. Her horse experience includes eventing, dressage and hunter/jumpers as well as volunteering as a Pony Club D.C. “I’m a survivor of ponies of all sizes,” said Mautner. She also writes humor pieces for the Chronicle recalling her mispent youth as well as a serious column every now and then.


Category: Columns

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