A Brain Worth Protecting


Riders4Helmets is holding their annual International Helmet Awareness Day on Saturday, Sept. 17th. Helmet manufacturers and retailers all over the world are offering discounts to encourage all riders to invest in protective headwear.

I’ve developed a bit of a reputation when it comes to being a hard head (pun intended) regarding helmet safety.

I wear a helmet for several reasons:

  1. For myself. I love riding, so why would I take an additional risk that might make it so that I could never ride again? I am happy to gallop around bareback in just a halter and go out cross country, and realize that riding involves risks, but why add yet another one when it is so simple to just put on a helmet?
  2. For my family. I do not want them to get that phone call. I do not want them to have to deal with the pain of losing me or be tasked with making crucial medical decisions that simply wearing a helmet may have prevented.
  3. For my horse. What would happen to her if I weren’t there? My family wouldn’t just pay her board for me forever. My horse gets excited as soon as I pull into the farm or walk to her stall. She loves working and she has a safe, forever home with me…as long as I am alive. For her sake, I wear a helmet to ensure that I can be with her as long as possible.
  4. I trust my horse. But she can trip. She is a living animal. She makes mistakes. And sometimes we have miscommunications on cross-country. Trust has little to do with helmets. Someone can fall off of and severely injure themselves off of the most bombproof schoolmaster.
International Helmet Awareness Day
Falls can happen off of the most dependable ponies. I wear my helmet so that I can shrug it off and laugh about it after! Jj Sillman Photography

I fell off of a horse for the first time when I was 9 years old. It was my second week ever at horse camp, meaning I had perhaps ridden a horse ten times before. I had spent the winter reading books about riding, so clearly I was now a pro. I was also now an expert in safety, and proudly told the riding staff that my mother’s 30+ year old, elastic chinstrap riding helmet was more than sufficient. I reported that I knew how to trot, and they put me in the ‘intermediate’ group. I was assigned a saint of a horse, but when it was time to trot, it didn’t end so well. The horse picked up a canter (perhaps added in a teensy buck? I have no idea.) and I slipped off. And so did my helmet. The instructor called the nurse, and 9-year-old me told them that I was perfectly fine and remembered what happened perfectly. Since I had read that after a fall the only answer was to get back on, I insisted that they let me continue the lesson. It wasn’t until twenty minutes later, when I dismounted, that I noticed that the horse they had me on had gone from an appaloosa to a chestnut. I got lucky. The side of my face was quite scraped up and I most definitely had a concussion, but I walked away otherwise unscathed.

Even at 9, however, I managed to take this as a wakeup call. I retired the old helmet and used a camp-owned one for the rest of the summer.

Eight years later I was finally allowed to lease my first pony. He was green, but he was making fast progress. On Thanksgiving, my mother came to the barn with me and after watching me trot him around and pop him over a little crossrail, she asked if she could get on. The pony picked up a trot before she was prepared, took two steps of a canter, turned right, and my mother turned left. It was the simplest fall—the type where normally you laugh, pop up, and all is fine. But for her, it was not. She hit her head in just the wrong place and the rest of the day was spent in the emergency room. I spent that Thanksgiving being very thankful that she was wearing a helmet. Otherwise, the doctors said the story might not have ended the same. My mother spent a week in the hospital, was on medication for months, but thanks to her helmet recovered fully.

International Helmet Awareness Day
Six and a half years after her accident, my mother finally got back on a horse- but only after being sure she had a properly fitted helmet!

My stories are not at all unique. I asked people on Facebook to share their reasons for wearing a helmet. Within half an hour I had a plethora of responses.

International Helmet Awareness Day

Jenn O’Neill, Advanced Level Eventer, Owner/ Trainer at Lucky Dog Eventing:

I am a professional event rider and have competed through the advanced level. I’ve ridden many tricky horses during my career but my worst wreck happened in a western saddle while trail riding. When I was a teenager I did not have my own horse. Lucky for me a friend of the family had a small herd of horses in his back yard.

One morning I snuck out of the house early to ride with one of my barn buddies. We saddled up and hit the trails. I borrowed a western saddle for my mount that morning, and luckily also strapped on my hard hat. Away we went, and when we came to the big field we decided to canter around the perimeter. The last thing I remember about that day is yelling to my friend “Isn’t this FUN?!” Apparently, right after I uttered those words, my cinch ripped just enough to let the saddle slide under my mare’s belly. The horse panicked when her normal upright rider was under her. My foot was stuck in the stirrup. She galloped off, dragging me along like a rag doll. She kicked me in the head multiple times. My helmet held together for most of the trauma. Eventually, my foot came out of the stirrup; the saddle slid the rest of the way off of her. A path of destruction lay in the field: saddle pad, saddle, shattered helmet, and rider.

My fifteen-year-old friend was in a state of panic thinking that she had just witnessed my death. Back in 1997 we did not carry cell phones with us so there was little she could do. After 10 long minutes I woke up, obviously concussed, but alive. We collected the tack and found the mare and hiked back to the barn. I was able to call my mom (who wasn’t amused that I had snuck off to ride) and she collected me and took me to the ER. The doctor took one look at my helmet and told me it saved my life.

Sarah Neville, Amateur Rider:

I was riding a two-year-old Choctaw Mustang cross and he ran into the mounting block and took off bolting and bucking around the ring. After six bucks he threw me off and I was thrown ten feet in the air over a fence and landed on my stomach. Luckily my helmet brim took most of the beating before my face did. I only obtained a mild concussion but the doctors told me that if I had not been wearing a helmet I would have been brain dead. My helmet saved my life that day!

International Helmet Awareness Day

Kate Jenson, Owner/ Trainer at Dark Horse Farm:

The last fall was the most serious by far. I was jumping in a clinic on a new pony. He bolted at the very last stride and all I remember is flying off sideways. I was knocked out and kept repeating the same things for about 30 or so minutes. The paramedics came and said I needed to be airlifted. I remember being freezing when I went out to the helicopter and feeling like I was going to puke as we took off. I remember being in the hospital and started to remember things distantly. It almost felt like I was remembering things that happened weeks ago. I was lucky nothing broke but I had a serious concussion. This was in November 2015 and I still feel the affects to this day with memory issues and headaches. Had I not been wearing my Charles Owen helmet I’d be in much worse condition.

Hailey Gawinske, Amateur Rider:

When I was a working student, I was given a 14.2 hand pony to ride. She was one of my simpler rides and I definitely had other mounts I would consider more ‘risky.’ I just had a productive ride on the pony, and was riding her back up to her field, which was up the hill from the arena. There was a line being dug throughout the property and while there was no way around it, it was only a couple inches wide, so I did not think much of having her walk over it. She ended up jumping straight up over it, and took off towards a nearby fence line. Upon stopping at the fence, I was thrown off and hit my head on the fence. I don’t remember hitting the fence (although a nearby friend said he thought he was going to have to untangle me from it) and felt a bit off, so I went to urgent care and was diagnosed with a concussion. This happened in August, and I was still feeling the effects of the concussion until about April (look up post-concussion syndrome, it’s no joke). No pony is “too safe.” I don’t even want to think about how this would have ended had I not been wearing a helmet!

There were also these gems:

Dionne Benson:

My brain is the most expensive thing I own.

Brooklynn Scholze:

I wear a helmet to set an example for younger riders and the students I teach. I want to teach them to value health and a bright future over short-term aesthetics. I want to help change the view of helmets as too many people see them as a pain and something extra instead of an opportunity to continue doing something you love.


International Helmet Awareness Day

Chrissy Knight:

I like my brain inside of my head.

I reached out to a handful of helmet retailers and manufacturers to get their take on why they keep helmet safety at the top of their heads:

International Helmet Awareness Day

Merance Adams, owner of Adams Horse Supplies, Inc.:

Adams Horse Supplies has always been a proponent of helmets, but that has not always translated to our customers wearing helmets. We think Helmet Awareness Day is invaluable because it brings attention to the importance of helmets by actively sharing testimonials where helmets have either saved a life or prevented serious injury, as well as sharing personal experiences that highlight the devastating consequences that can occur when a helmet is not worn. These stories drive home the fact that accidents are unpredictable and often unavoidable. Accidents happen to all equestrians from the seasoned professional on a green horse to the amateur on a packer.

Since the start of Helmet Awareness Day, we have noticed that more and more of our customers are wearing helmets. In response to the new demand for comfortable, attractive helmets, the manufacturers have really increased their selection and improved the features of their helmets making it easy for customers to find a helmet that looks nice and fits them well. In this new era of helmet awareness, we are finding that helmets are quickly becoming a fashion statement as well as an important piece of safety equipment.

English Riding Supply:

All helmets are designed to meet the same safety standards, whether you are looking for the all-day comfort and stylish look of a One K, or a lightweight, ventilated and budget-friendly Ovation. As a responsible horseperson, the most important thing you can do is to strap on an approved helmet, and encourage others to do so, too, for every ride. No matter what discipline you choose, it is not a question of IF, but of WHEN, you will fall. Shouldn’t you do everything you can to protect yourself, both for you, and for the sake of your loved ones?

Rebecca Goss, Vice President of Business Development for SmartPak:

As a company full of riders, many of which ride various disciplines, we understand that helmets are an essential piece of safety equipment. Helmet Awareness Day is a great opportunity for riders to purchase a new helmet, and SmartPak has the selection, expert advice, and great policies in place to help make finding the perfect helmet easy and hassle free.

So, the moral of the story? If you’ve got a brain worth protecting, put on a helmet.

Visit www.riders4helmets.com for more information about the organization and a list of participating helmet manufacturers and retailers.



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