The Horses and Helmets Rant


This is such a controversial issue, I'm almost afraid to talk about it.

It seems strange to say, but bringing up riding helmets and horses sparks all kinds of emotions among experienced riders. One issue is tradition. Many of the most dearly held images in equestrian life include our hair flowing in the breeze while we ride like the wind across the beach.

I get it. Heck, I lived it. But if age and experience doesn't teach us anything, what's the point? And the more risk we can reduce in our beloved sport, the longer we can ride. I want to be like the Queen of England still riding into my nineties. But that wont happen if I ignore the simplest safety measures. . And helmets are the most important tool we have to increase rider safety. 

As we explore the topic of safety, I'd like to begin by clearing up a common misconception.

Equestrian sports are less likely to result in head injuries than a bunch of other sports, like cycling, football, baseball, basketball, soccer and skateboards to name a few.  And I recognize all of the reasons people choose to ride without helmets, because at one time, I did too. However, if I plan to enjoy riding for the rest of what I hope is a long life, making that happen means not taking foolish risks. Life is a risky enough endeavor in general without actively making the odds worse.

I fully accept that some of y'all are going to disagree with me and that's okay. I still love you. And with that said, here's my take on helmets:

All children should wear riding helmets whenever they ride horses.

And adults who expect children to listen to them should also wear helmets. Children have developing brains and it's the duty of adults to protect them. Also, any adult who wants to reduce the risk of serious injury while participating in horse sport should choose a well fitted helmet above every other piece of necessary gear. That's my opinion, but it's supported by experts far above my pay grade.

That said, I don't believe scolding adults makes believers out of them, so I have no desire to nag anyone. Citable data, current medical research and respectful dialogue may or may not change minds, but it's the best way to try in my opinion. According to the New England Journal of Medicine head injuries in equestrian sports can be reduced by 85% with helmet use. That kind of data speaks for itself.

Like I said, I learned the hard way.

I've been falling off of horses for around 50 years and as a kid, no one in my circle wore helmets outside of the english show arena. I once thought I only needed to wear a helmet when I was jumping. In a delightful period spent with cow horses I didn't wear helmets at all. A head injury that left me seeing double for 4 months changed my thinking on this topic for good, though. I'm endlessly grateful that injury didn't permanently change my life. If just one person reads this post and stops taking that risk, it will be more than worth the time it took to share these thoughts.

The best way to encourage safe behavior is to require it and model it in the spaces you control.

At The Riding Club of Austin, where Barn Dog Tack is headquartered, helmets are required of all riders without exception. We have a large lesson program and a variety of rider and horse levels and abilities. This "best practice" approach also makes insurance underwriters happier, while instilling good habits in our riders. We also have the benefit of an on-site tack shop to make finding, fitting and buying a helmet easier. 

Helmets are tools. And we all know we're supposed to use the right tool for the right job, agreed? For example, would you let your kid play football in a baseball  helmet? Then please don't expect your child to ride horses in a bike helmet. Additionally, helmets have a best by date just like milk, so please don't send them for their first riding lesson wearing an older sibling's 6 year old hand me down. 

Fit matters. Safety certification matters. And yes, affordability matters.

A fascinating survey publish at Future Medicine offers some insight into the use of helmets by riders. First and foremost, over 75% out of 2598 responded that they wear helmets every time they ride. Among the reasons riders cite for not wanting to wear helmets include:

  • Comfort
  • Fit
  • Too hot
  • Forgot

I promise all of those things are addressable if you buy from an experienced tack retailer and encourage you to find one and get fitted in person, at least at first, to figure out what works for you or your child's specific characteristics. 

It's our sincere wish to introduce all riders to their best horse life. Safety is a critical part of that mission. Please feel free to reach out to me personally if you need to find and fit a new helmet.

 

 


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