Heads are sweet. I like mine. It gives me so much and asks so little. That’s why I wear a helmet when I ride. How many riders can honestly say that? Not as many as I would hope.
When I was growing up and just learning to ride, I wore just a hunt cap. Remember those velveteen-covered shells that were like ½” thick and probably made of heavy-duty cardboard? I’m not sure when it became required in showing to have an approved helmet, but I must have been just on the cusp. I remember taking many a fall on that hunt cap and nothing seems to have done too much damage (yeah, I left myself wide open on that one, I know). But by the time I was 10, I think that safety standards were in place and my mom bought me one of the early egg-head helmets that were just the least attractive item of clothing ever invented. Yet it wasn’t created to be pretty – it was protection. I remember the women I rode with at the barn, though….they would never wear one of those helmets (protective or no). I can barely remember being around a single person who wore a helmet to ride. The excuse was always that they were heavy or hot or that they would mess up one’s hair. And I’ll admit it right now: I couldn’t wait until the day that I was old enough to be as cool as they were and not wear a helmet. It wasn’t until I started riding at 12 with my beloved Dressage coach that I started seeing helmets in a new light. She always rode with a helmet, and this was a tough lady who had been riding for years and years – I’d never seen her get unseated. She told me that no matter how good of a rider you are, you’re never too good for a helmet. And that stuck more than anything.
You see, I get it. I really do. Helmets kind of suck. I will readily admit that I still get that twinge of jealousy every time I see my compatriots training, hair flowing free behind them. And then I realize that really bugs me. If I still get excited about belonging to the cool group who doesn’t wear helmets, what does that say about all of the kids and teens who are at the barn (any barn) day-in and day-out, soaking it all in? They’re surely feeling my desire to join the cool kids times ten. You know what’s really underlying those feelings though? I think I do, and it’s pretty disturbing.
There are really only two reasons that people don’t wear helmets:
1) They never had to wear a helmet in all their experiences riding and have trouble changing their ways now. This includes many Western riders, Saddleseat riders, trail riders, and older riders (in many other disciplines) who had been riding and competing for years and years before safe helmets were marketed and recommended. I can understand and dismiss these people. Why fix something that isn’t broken, right? And in the case of Western riding, it’s going to take years to ever change from Western hats to helmets. If that can really ever happen at all. If statistics don’t motivate change, then who am I to argue.
2) But other reason people don’t wear helmets? The one that makes me load up Vice City and just go on a violent spree? Here’s the dirty truth: They think they are simply too good to wear a helmet. Anybody who argues this point is simply a liar or in denial. By taking your helmet off, you’ve removed all doubt from people’s minds that you’re not ultra-confident. I’m not saying that you are, in fact, a better rider. Puhleeeze. No. But you seem tough and carefree and undaunted by any challenge. The perception of you changes. Every time you work around a horse there is danger. All people are aware of this in even a rudimentary way. Seeing those people work with a horse and not wear a helmet – well, that’s just ballsy. You’re so tough that the thought of getting hurt doesn’t even give you pause. This is the subtext, folks. No matter what your primary argument is: that you need to practice without a helmet because you show without one; that you haven’t fallen in years; that you don’t own one; that your horse is so quiet….the list goes on. And hell, in America at least, old-fashioned machismo trumps caution and skill any day. It’s absurd and dangerous. But mostly, it bothers me because everyday at a barn somewhere a little boy or girl is watching a really amazing rider and picking up on the subtext that being a top rider somehow equates with nonchalance about risk. And if that doesn’t disturb you, it should.