The Helmet Argument

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Carriage Driver in Helmet
Football players wear them. Same for major league baseball players awaiting a pitch at home plate. Even bicyclists and many professional skiers consider them part of their standard attire. So why do a large percentage of equestrians continue to shun protective headgear? After all, riding a horse is also a risk-taking activity. Yet, despite statistics that prove safety helmets can protect a rider from serious head injuries, the same three reasons continually crop up as excuses for not donning a helmet. Are they really valid arguments for not wearing one? You decide.

Argument No.1
Only top-level competitors need to wear a helmet. There’s no need to wear one for leisurely activities such as trail riding.

Counterpoint: There’s no denying that safety helmets are warranted when a rider is engaging in high risk equestrian sports such as show jumping. The United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), which is the national governing body for horse show events in America, found a direct correlation between riders who participated in classes over jumps and head injuries. In 2003, hunter and jumper competitors accounted for more than 55 percent of head injuries reported at sanctioned shows, while eventers accounted for 25 percent. The remaining percentage of head injuries were rather equally distributed among all other riding disciplines. In response, the USEF has tightened its requirement for safety helmets. As of Dec. 1, 2005, all riders—including professionals and amateur adults—must wear a helmet that meets ASTM/SEI safety standards at all USEF sanctioned shows in any class that involves jumping and at any time while jumping on the showgrounds.

But that doesn’t mean that safety helmets are only for riders who jump. Sometimes the most dangerous equestrian activity is the one that seems to be the most benign, such as ambling down the trail on a trusted, placid horse.

Dru Malavase, co-chairman and the original chairman of the Equestrian Headgear subcommittee for the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), remarks that many head injuries occur just when things seem safest. “Most of us walk a lot when we ride recreationally, enjoying the weather, nature, chatting with other riders. And most horses seem to behave better when their attention is engaged or when they are listening to their riders’ requests. The people showing up in emergency rooms,” she offers, referring to statistics compiled as public record, “are far and away casual recreational riders.”

Furthermore, a trio of studies conducted in Great Britain that are considered hallmarks in establishing guidelines for riding safety showed that when riding is examined by activity, it’s simple pleasure riding, not show jumping, that produces the most riding-related injuries. Moseying down a trail may seem like a risk-free adventure, but it is not.

Argument Number 2
It’s fine to endorse helmets for young riders, but an adult is capable of evaluating risk factors and making a personal choice not to wear one.

Counterpoint: Problem is, when an adult rider chooses to embrace freedom of choice and forgo a helmet, and then suffers a head injury, he or she isn’t the only one who suffers the aftereffects. According to statistics provided by the AMEA-SRF, the survivor of a head injury may be faced with long-term disabilities, such as epilepsy, personality changes and intellectual or memory impairment. All of these affect interpersonal relationships. Then there are the medical costs. Hospitalization for a severe head injury runs about $25,000 a day, and extended care over a lifetime can amount to over $3 million. That’s a heavy burden to place on family, friends and society.

Ironically, it’s the independent-minded adults who are logging the most miles in emergency rooms with their riding-related head injuries. Kids, on the other hand, have become indoctrinated to helmet safety because they’re often required to wear them in competitive events, and they wear them elsewhere: on their bicycles, on their skateboards and even in martial arts training. Do these younger riders know something?

“The federal figures on equestrian injuries coming into emergency rooms, which amount to about 75,000 a year, show that young riders, who are generally the highest category for accident-related injuries, are no longer the most injured,” Malavese explains. “Adults ages 25 to 44 now have that honor.” Malavese also points out that, according to the Centers for Disease Control records, the majority of that group is female.

One female in that age group who has bucked tradition and worn a safety helmet in a decidedly non-helmet friendly atmosphere is women’s professional barrel racer Delores Toole. In 2004 she raised some eyebrows and garnered a few snide comments when she wore a safety helmet during her barrel runs at the National Finals Rodeo. She was the first competitor to do so in the event’s 45-year history.
 
“It was seen by a lot of the girls as sort of a faux pas,” Toole recalls. She says that comes mostly from barrel racing being a part of the western riding culture where cowboy hats are customary attire, not safety helmets. According to Toole, “I heard some of the girls saying they wouldn’t wear a helmet because they wouldn’t look pretty enough. They like to wear the sparkly clothes, and they’re more concerned with how they look to the crowd. Me? I’m more concerned with putting in a good run.”

That’s an admirable sentiment, especially in barrel racing, where the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association required western attire—including a cowboy hat—for all events until they felt the pressure from safety advocates. Now, competitors are permitted to wear a helmet if they choose.

However, “I don’t see much change,” Toole laments. “There have been some bad accidents lately,” she offers, reciting two recent severe head injuries she knows of related to barrel racing, “and the safety helmets are out there, but not a lot of barrel racers are wearing them.” 

Western Riders in Helmets
Argument Number 3
Safety helmets are too hot, too heavy, too clunky or too “English.”

Counterpoint: Thanks to innovations in designs and materials, today’s version of the equestrian safety helmet has solved fashion and fit problems of the past. With a wide variety of styles and even color choices on the market, riders can not only be safer, they can also look sporty and trendy. In other words, the modern safety helmet is not the one you might’ve worn as a kid. That bubble head look? Gone. The chintzy lining that accumulated sweat, grime and dust? It’s been replaced with removable, washable inserts. Remember the snap-out harnesses that chafed facial skin and turned yellow with age? Obsolete. Modern options include baby soft leather and faux suede harnesses. Plus, the harnesses of all ASTM/SEI approved helmets are now permanently attached to the helmet for safety’s sake, and a snap-out harness is a sure sign that a helmet is not a true safety helmet, but an “item of apparel only.”

Andres Lendoiro, vice-president of Devon-Aire, a company manufacturing contemporary, affordable equestrian wear, including the Aegis line of safety helmets, remarks that newer models of helmets are much more inviting than those of yesteryear. One of the reasons? Plastic.

“When engineered properly, these materials have enormous shock-absorbing capabilities,” Andres says. “Plus it’s lightweight, which greatly reduces the total weight of the helmet. It’s not that bulky, hot, heavy helmet that made you sweat before.”

Devon-Aire has responded to complaints from retailers and consumers, who were frustrated with the plethora of sizes in helmets. Maintaining a stock of helmets gobbled up valuable shelf space. And shoppers saw the search for a snug-but-comfy helmet as a marathon event, where several had to be tried on before finding that perfect fit. That led to the creation of an adjustable system in some helmet designs that allows the wearer to create a customized fit, reducing the need to wade through a sea of possible sizes.

“Now our helmets come in small/medium and large/extra large,” Andres says. “Rather than wedging padding into a helmet’s headband to get a good fit, the wearer can just dial in the fit and they’re good to go. It makes helmet shopping easier for everyone.”

Andres reminds riders that helmets, whether just a schooling helmet or the trendy Euro- styled headgear, should be stored properly. “Heat causes atrophy of the materials,” he cautions. “They lose their ability to provide optimum shock absorption. So don’t store a helmet in the trunk of the car, especially in hot weather.”

Age also degrades the functionality of the material in a helmet. Because of that, it’s recommended that helmets are replaced every five years. Plucking that dusty old helmet off the shelf of a tack room may give you a false sense of security. It’s better to buy an updated helmet, store it properly away from direct sunlight and intense heat, and replace it as recommended. After all, there are a lot of helmets out there. But there’s only one you.

Further Reading
How to properly fit an equestrian helmet

Cindy Hale is an author and regular contributor to Horse Illustrated magazine.

38 COMMENTS

  1. We have grown to accept wearing bicycle helmets and it seems ridiculous that people don’t require at least their children to wear them! I agree that as an adult, I can’t afford to be out of work, or permanently injured by a fall from a horse. I always wear a helmet and mostly trail ride flat shod gaited horses. I also team pen and work cattle and although I’m the only one wearing a helmet, I don’t care. I’ve had a concusion before and if you’ve ever had a sever head injury, a helmet is not an incovience.

  2. If you have any questions about the benefit of safety helmets, watch the video “Every Time, Every Ride”. Seeing mothers describe how much they wish they had made their child wear a helmet, and watching former riders with head injuries try to express how their lives have changed is the strongest statement I have ever seen for helmet use.

  3. excellent article. i am one of the few that wear a helmet occasionaly even though i know the how bad head injuries are and deal with them every day in my line of work. i know i should wear one more , but i get lulled into the false sense of security.

  4. I do not wear a helmet when I ride my horse. I like to trail ride. I do not compete in any horse events when I ride. I think its a matter of choice to wear a helmet. If someone chooses to wear a helmet, I think thats great. The Helmets I’ve seen protect the top of the riders head from the top of the ear on up. It does not protect the side of the head or the neck. I feel a person is more likely to be injured from the neck down rather than receiving a head injury. Thats the main reason why I do not wear a helmet.

  5. I didn’t used to ever wear a helmet. I learned to ride when I was a kid growing up in Wyoming and helmets were unheard of. But all it takes is a horse with a bad habit of grabbing the bit and running away with you combined with a poorly maintained saddle and a cinch that breaks under the pressure of trying to get the horse’s head turned to stop the run-away. . . I was knocked unconscious. It’s hard to stay on a horse when your cinch breaks! I wear a helmet EVERY SINGLE TIME I get on my horse now. I’ve encouraged my friends to do the same. I’ve told them my story. Only one of them has listened. The rest are still tempting fate.

  6. I have been saved from injury by a helmet. I was not jumping. I was not galloping, cantering, or walking. My horse and I were standing waiting for my daughter to mount up on her own horse, when the my mare’s right hind slipped under her on the wet grass. She had not spooked, she just slipped. She litterally sat down. I flopped off, hit the back of my head on the ground, and craked the helmet. The mare who slipped in the grass? She’s a Hanovarian dressage schoolmaster who successfully competed 4th Level only a few years ago.

  7. I think helmets should be worn in ALL riding situations. When I was 14 I worked at a place that gave trail rides to tourists. I was leading my first ride ever and my manager said that I was on a safe horse and I’d be fine and that I didn’t need a helmet. The horse ended up throwing me in the river, giving me a concussion and breaking my left jaw joint. I think if I’d have been wearing a helmet, my injuries wouldn’t have been so severe. That was supposed to be just a relaxing, carefree trail ride, but for me, it wasn’t. I always wear a helmet, no matter how funny or silly I may look. I’d rather look silly with all my brains in my head where they belong, than be ‘cool’ and have a serious head injury. your head isn’t something you wanna take chances with.

  8. those stupid arguments. argument 1 only top-leavel competitors need to wear one? yeah right do you know what you horse is going to do at every monent?? i don’t think so you never really know untill it happens when your horse is going to spook.
    argument 2 only kids need to wear them. you have to be kidding me. kids believe it or not do have a brain and can evaluate risk factors.
    argument 3 helments are too hot, heavy ect. i know that but news flash its not a fashion contest.

  9. Great article!! I ALWAYS wear a helmet whenever I am working with horses….I consider it very mandatory. A friend’s horse knocked her down, and if she hadn’t been wearing her helmet she might have been seriously hurt or worse. Wearing helmets can save lives. PLEASE WEAR YOUR HELMET!!!

  10. I grew up around horses, a savvy rider knows the animal that they are about to partner with, knows how to read the animal… period.
    I agree that those that are training animals that they are not sure of, young riders included, should wear helmets… I think the blanket rules that are being pushed in the fair grounds of america are over bearing. As a mini-horse driver, and standard size rider… I have always taken the safe route for both equine and myself. Helmets are a good idea dependant upon the scenario and I feel that no matter what critter you climb on, you are taking a risk,… even rodeo bronc riders typically do not utilize helmets, and you know they are in the range of danger.

  11. Great article! I also agree that helmets should be worn whenever riding. Rather be safe than sorry! Besides, how hard is it to snap on a helmet before your ride?

  12. I’m a hunter jumper and I would NEVER ride any horse without a helmet other than my own. However, I have ridden horses on trails in other countries and they are not concerned about the safety as much because I believe they aren’t as uptight as we are in the US. If we should ALWAYS wear a helmet when we ride should we also in a car? When running? Riding a bike? On a plane? etc.

  13. I do believe that people (adults, anyways) should have the right to choose whether or not to wear a helmet when riding at home/for recreation etc. That said, I believe that those choosing not to are being unwise. It’s just a routine-type safety precaution, like wearing a seat belt, looking both ways before crossing, etc. And helmets DO safe brains; serious head injuries DO happen, and I’d personally rather have that extra protection.
    In my opinion, it’s even MORE important to wear a helmet when riding a horse than when riding a bicycle; a bicycle doesn’t have a mind of it’s own, can’t spook, and can’t rear. Plus, you’re only falling from a height of about… 3 feet off the ground? As opposed to about 5-6 feet, moving at speed.
    I can’t remember ever riding without a hard hat… It’s called common sense. 😉

  14. I think that adults should be able to make the decision of whether or not they want to wear a helmet or not. BUT, I think that everyone should wear a helmet whether they are jumping or not. Even if they are riding a very bombproofed horse that they trust. I would much rather wear a helmet, than risk a head injury.

  15. I used to think that I had a right to choose, and certainly I do, however, my brain is my greatest asset and accidents can and do happen. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are or even how good you actually are, you can still fall off or have your horse come down. As adults, it is also our responsibility to set appropriate examples to those who look up to us. I do not drive without wearing a seat belt and I do not ride without wearing a helmet.

  16. In the end its the riders choice to wear one or not. It’s up to them to make the ethical choice to wear one or forgo it and whether or not they personally can live with that choice. I go to an equestrain college where it is required on campus to wear a helmet, for insurace reasons. but a majority of us tend to hit the trails withot them as a PERSONAL choice. Now if you own a boarding facility and you have a problem with people not riding in a helmet then you can put that in your contract requiring everyone to wear one.

  17. I ride western and have never worn a helmet all my life. I am 37 now I decided I had it in me to break one more young horse. She did awesome but one weekend on the trail I screwed up. Dropped my rains to tie a jacket on the back of my saddle and the others in the group moved forward and so did she but she decided to buck for the first time ever. I was caught so off gurad I crashed and hit my head. I had a concussion and realize now I do not want to risk a head injury. As an ICU Trauma nurse I have always known better but thought oh well it is my head. I admit I was wrong I never ride without a helmet even at home in our arena.

  18. I’m highly opposed to the safety gear craze. In particular, riding helmets. None of the comments and examples are convincing. The introduction of riding helmets will lead to more injuries, because people end up in the saddle that aren’t ready. They’re told to wear a helmet and they’ll be fine. This is the wrong approach! Proper horsemanship is the only right approach. Superman was wearing a helmet. Was he fine? People will always try to come up with a quick fix, because they don’t want to put in the time and effort to become a horseman or horsewoman. Helmets provide a false sense of safety. Better agility, knowledge and preparation are far better choices. You may wear a helmet and end up crippled for life anyway. For instance, if you truly lose your balance, don’t pull on the reins, grab some mane and hold on until you feet hit the ground. Then finish like a judo breakfall. I teach my students to ride horses bareback with just a leadline and halter. If they cannot mount a 15 H tall horse by themselves, they aren’t agile enough to ride and need to shape up. A horse has to be trained to always look at the leader, before flight or fight instincts are allowed to take over. Horse and rider have to be in complete harmony. They’re reaction to bad situations have to be rehearsed like a fire drill from time to time. I discourage others
    from riding, if they feel they need a helmet. If must be understood that riding a horse is a dynamic activity, requiring good reflexes, feel, timing, balance and adjustments. Also, I’ve found that when people state that they grew up around horses that doesn’t necessarily mean that much. A horseman is not made by mere association with other horse people, he has to constantly engage his mind to eventually master the situations described above. I’ve spent thousands of house in the saddle, riding in all weather conditions , in traffic, passed by ambulances an fire trucks with their sirens going. I wear a straw cowboy hat, because it provides the best protection from hours of exposure to the sun. During the winter months I wear a fur hat covering my ears, forehead and neck. I’ve found no practical use for a helmet.

  19. I am the currents EMSA (Equestrian Medical Safety Association-www.emsaonline.net) President. In 2007 we were renamed from the AMEA/SRF. As a former orthopaedic surgeon whose career was immediately changed by a closed head injury on a horse with a proper helmet I cannot say enough in support of ASTM/SEI certified helmet use. Thus far there has been limited ability to affect recreational & Western 5riders but we keep trying. Remember, one only has one brain & it is not always fixABLE!

  20. I truly appreciate all comments in favor of safety gear. It sounds more convincing if someone who actually fell on his head tells a story. It is still anecdotal evidence and not hard data. I fell from a bicycle at nearly full speed as my front wheel locked from a defect. I immediately performed a judo rollout and was in better shape than my bike. I had scrapes on my elbow and bruised my ankle. This happened years ago, before anybody ever thought of riding with a helmet. But thinking back, I’m glad I didn’t wear one. You can tell me whatever you want, the extra weight on ones head can adversely affect one’s balance when there are only fractions of milliseconds to decide which way to fall. You don’t see tumblers wearing helmets, do you. I say it again, safety begins with preparation, understanding horse psychology and having the necessary balance and agility to either stay in the saddle or get off in the most ideal way possible. I see far too many people on green broke horses who themselves don’t have good skill and are out of shape on top of that. Giving them them a helmet will make things worse. With kids it’s the same thing. They shouldn’t be riding or even competing if they’re not ready. As I mentioned on another I’m also opposed to safety gear in other sports like football, because it teaches unnatural reactions. Who in his right mind would run head first and full force into someone else. Humans have been riding horses for 4000 years. There is a way to do it safely and it doesn’t require a helmet.

  21. I truly appreciate all comments in favor of safety gear. It sounds more convincing if someone who actually fell on his head tells a story. It is still anecdotal evidence and not hard data. I fell from a bicycle at nearly full speed as my front wheel locked from a defect. I immediately performed a judo rollout and was in better shape than my bike. I had scrapes on my elbow and bruised my ankle. This happened years ago, before anybody ever thought of riding with a helmet. But thinking back, I’m glad I didn’t wear one. You can tell me whatever you want, the extra weight on ones head can adversely affect one’s balance when there are only fractions of milliseconds to decide which way to fall. You don’t see tumblers wearing helmets, do you. I say it again, safety begins with preparation, understanding horse psychology and having the necessary balance and agility to either stay in the saddle or get off in the most ideal way possible. I see far too many people on green broke horses who themselves don’t have good skill and are out of shape on top of that. Giving them them a helmet will make things worse. With kids it’s the same thing. They shouldn’t be riding or even competing if they’re not ready. As I mentioned on another I’m also opposed to safety gear in other sports like football, because it teaches unnatural reactions. Who in his right mind would run head first and full force into someone else. Humans have been riding horses for 4000 years. There is a way to do it safely and it doesn’t require a helmet.

  22. i have been riding horses for about 13 years, im 18 now and in 4h we were required to wear helment. i wasnt to happy i knw the consequences of ridomg with out a helment but i, willing to take the risk if it should happen. its my head my choice. this really reminds me about the abortion rule “your body your choice” this si complete non sence if you know what your doing and know how to ride horsse you shouldnt have to wear them 🙂

  23. My daughter is 19. She’s a championship Hunter and just yesterday was bucked, her head slamming the ground. Yay, she had on a titanium helmet. She’s had knee and shoulder injuries, but this was scarier. You may be 18 and only worried about your body, but there are people out there who care about you and think how your choice, should there be a freak accident, would affect them.

  24. i agree that wearing a riding helmet is a safe idea, but i have a cousin who has been bucked off of horses many times and she has never been hurt bad atall. plus wearing a riding helmet isn`t western, so i would much rather wear a simple stetson. but then again , the answer to this helmet argument is that it simpley depends on the rider and the horse. if the horse or rider (or both) are green then there`s a bigger risk involved.

  25. I work in a profession that sees patients all the time for head injuries due to not wearing helments. My comment: Would you rather be pretty and not wear a helment or be dead or paralyed for life. It’s your choice and you can’t make that choice AFTER the accident. Be smart and wear a helmet.

  26. I’m not in the US but in New Zealand, where we have a far more sensible outlook on helmets (mainly helped by the fact we’re mainly English riders over here). I’m also an horse event photographer (and a first aid first respondent) and the amount of times (on hunts in particular) that I’ve seen people come off and smash their head is terrifying. One girl came off over a spar and even with a good quality safety helmet on was pretty concussed (waiting for the ambulance she had constant memory loss, wondering where she was, she couldn’t identify key facts like the PM of NZ or even her favourite song and every now and then she would just start asking questions, sounding like a lost puppy) and I can’t imagine how much that would have damaged her if she wasn’t wearing a helmet.
    Sure, they can eventually get expensive (though I have no doubt you lot in the US get them far cheaper than in lil ole NZ) but they are worth it. I wouldn’t feel safe without a helmet on, whether hacking out in the paddocks, on the hunt field or competing in a local ODE, especially now that I’ve gotten a modern helmet – splashed out a bit for a very light ventilated helmet and it’s been a joy to ride in.
    To Sarah17492, there is NO comparison between abortion and wearing a helmet. Abortion is a medically safe process – why do you think in most of the world there is barely an outcry about it? The main reason why the US has such a problem with it is due to their religious beliefs – no matter how many times opponents may claim it’s for the safety of the woman, there is very little risk with a legal abortion (back alley being a different story).
    On the flipside, wearing a helmet is a simple safety precaution. There can be veeeery serious effects from not wearing a helmet, mainly around brain damage (which isn’t always as apparent as a broken arm, Amy – as a first respondent who follows up on patients, the amount of times that somebody has looked fine but turned out to have concussion or brain bleeding is terrifying).
    I suppose this is a long rant, but I can’t believe that it’s so common that people don’t wear helmets in the US. Even with the prevalence of Western, I can’t imagine a single significant reason not to wear a helmet (especially as even in New Zealand, there are Western-themed helmets available in nearly all saddleries).
    For a country that seems so incredibly safety-focused, it amazes me that it’s still common to ride without helmets. Maybe we should introduce some way that if you fall off without a helmet you get sued – maybe that will jolt you into alertness.

  27. Well said…thought hard about how to respond, but Nynka took the words right out of my mouth…
    “I used to think that I had a right to choose, and certainly I do, however, my brain is my greatest asset and accidents can and do happen. It doesn’t matter how good you think you are or even how good you actually are, you can still fall off or have your horse come down. As adults, it is also our responsibility to set appropriate examples to those who look up to us. I do not drive without wearing a seat belt and I do not ride without wearing a helmet.”
    -Nynka, Canberra, OH

  28. I didn’t even read this article,but I only have one argument:All riders should wear helmets!I am a Western rider,and always wear a helmet…it’s not that hard and they aren’t to hot or heavy at all.I have the new Troxel Rebel helmet in the Rocker design.It’s fun,light-weight,and comfortable!I trust that my horse would never do anything to hurt me,but you can never be sure!After being bucked off,getting a concussion,heavily bruised ribs,and a huge fear of that horse and of going faster than a trot,I always wear a helmet!Of course,none of those things scare me anymore,but that is a reminder to any Western riders who think they are too cool for a helmet…(by the way:the horse who bucked me off was a lesson horse who had done the same routine just before I got on)

  29. I guess I don’t care what issue it is, why do people have to constantly judge & complain about the way other folks do things? If someone wants to wear a helmet, fine. If not, fine. It is sad to me that we feel the need to police each other instead of respect each other.

  30. The safety standards are in place to protect the novice or beginner rider from unexpecting head injury. The intermediate and advanced rider is very aware that a startled horse can do something unexpected and will wear a helmet. Why not wear a helmet to protect yourself? Helmet hair, hot head, etc can be easily remedied. A brain injury cannot.

  31. I agree but having it as a mandatory rule isn’t right…. I’ve been riding my whole life and never once used a helmet and just like a month ago i was forced to wear one my horse would even listen right when i did signals he didn’t know who i was with it on…. i believe it should be the parents or adults decision and a ride at your own risk….

  32. In response to Kimberly’s comment – I may not be a fan of helmets, either, but if your horse is not paying attention and correctly responding to your aids, that’s on you and your training and riding, has nothing to do with a helmet.

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