by Laura Crum
I’ve heard it once too often. Something along the lines of “Stay safe—wear a helmet.” I just can’t let it pass any longer. People, helmets do not keep you safe. They protect your head in certain specific ways. The rest of you is just as vulnerable as ever. The last three horseback riding fatalities that I personally knew about would not have been changed by wearing a helmet. In fact, in one case the person WAS wearing a helmet. And that child was just as dead as if she hadn’t been wearing one.
So let’s start over here. I come from a western background. I’ve trained and ridden cutting horses, cowhorses and team roping horses; I’ve worked on commercial cattle ranches and for a Sierra pack station. I’ve ridden many, many miles through the coastal hills and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And in over forty years of pretty much non-stop riding, neither I, nor anyone I ever rode with, ever wore a helmet. And in all those years, no one I knew was killed or seriously impaired due to head trauma.
Before you go all helmet Nazi on me, you should consider that virtually everyone you will ever meet who comes from a background like mine will be helmetless. Check into your favorite cowhorse training blogger and observe. No helmet. Ropers, western horse trainers of all sorts, ranch cowboys…etc. No helmets involved. It sort of goes with the territory.
Does this make it right? Uhmm, no. Over the last few years I realized (thank you horse blogging, helmet wearing friends) that helmets just make sense. They’re like seat belts. My seat belt has caused me plenty of minor discomfort and it has never helped me one little bit. But it might save my life some day. It’s dumb not to wear it. The downside is nothing compared to the possible good it may do. So I wear it. And last year I bought a helmet and now I wear it, too. And my son wears his helmet every ride—ever since he began riding independently.
However, I do NOT believe my helmet keeps me safe. And those who think that helmets keep them “safe” are putting themselves in greater jeopardy than if they weren’t wearing the helmet at all. Because doing foolish things and imagining you are safe because you are wearing a helmet is the path to a serious horse wreck.
Let’s talk about those three horseback fatalities that have happened in the last few years that I personally knew about. But first off, let’s all agree that horseback riding is inherently dangerous. My husband says that horses are like motorcycles. It’s not a matter of whether you’ll get hurt, but when, and how badly. And there’s some truth to that. But once this basic fact is acknowledged, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of serious injury, and yes, wearing a helmet is one of them. But it’s not the most important one.
The single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of being hurt is to ride a solid, gentle, well-broke, older horse that is experienced in your riding event of choice. Sorry, but that’s true. I’ve spent a lifetime around horses and I’ll stand on that one. Second most important thing is to make good, conservative decisions when you ride. Third would be to avoid horseback events with speed involved.
Now I know that a lot of people choose to ride young horses or problem horses and choose to compete in events with speed involved. I did this myself for years. There’s nothing wrong with it. But you need to acknowledge to yourself that you are upping your risk of getting hurt. Plain and simple. If you REALLY don’t want to be hurt, you’re probably better off ditching the young horse and giving up eventing (or barrel racing or team roping or insert sport of choice here) with a helmet on in favor of gentle trail rides or dressage or western pleasure on a tried and true steady Eddie sans helmet. Yeah, I’m serious. Your risk would be less. If, that is, you followed my second principle. Which is, make good, conservative decisions when you ride.
So lets get back to the horseback riding fatalities that I actually know about. In all three cases I was not there, but good friends of mine that I trust were there and told me what happened. The first two cases happened at team ropings. Right off the bat you have upped your risk. Team roping is an event that takes place at a dead run and is stressful for horses and riders. The first horseman was very experienced but got on a horse he didn’t know that had “problems in the box.” The horse began rearing and they “shortened the tie-down.” Those of you who know this world will know that this is a standard roper’s answer to a horse that throws his head or comes “up” in the box. But it can really backfire. In this case the horse went over backward in the box and landed on the guy and killed him. His head was fine. It was trauma to his body that caused his death. Helmet wouldn’t have changed a thing. Making smarter decisions definitely would have helped. Riding a reliable horse and avoiding speed events would have changed the whole picture.
The second fatality, also at a team roping, involved an inexperienced roper who couldn’t ride very well, mounted on a horse that was too much for him. This person had come near to having a major wreck several times in this roping arena, and one experienced roper had told the man that he had no business roping on that horse. He then told the arena operator that he should bar the guy because “He’s gonna get killed in your arena.” The next week the horse came unglued in the course of the roping run and bucked the guy off hard. He later died of injuries to internal organs. Again, his head was fine. Helmet would not have changed a thing. Making smarter choices, riding a reliable horse, and avoiding speed events would all have changed the picture a lot.
The third fatality was different. A child riding at a local riding school in a ring with other children. All beginners, all wearing helmets. This is something that most people would take for granted as a safe situation. But I can tell you for a fact that no child of mine, or no child I was in charge of, would EVER be placed in such a circumstance. Why? Because riding with several beginners together in a ring is a recipe for disaster. Particularly when they are mounted on school horses that they may or may not know, and that may not be the most trustworthy horses in the world.
In this case one child, mounted on a small horse/large pony rode behind/near a child mounted on a larger horse. The larger horse kicked out hard and caught the child on the smaller horse in the neck, breaking her neck. She died of this injury. The helmet did no good at all.
Smarter decision making in this case would be something that not everybody will understand. As I started out saying, helmets do NOT make you safe. Do not assume that because your child (or you) puts on a helmet that he/she/you are magically “safe” when you ride a horse. The truth is far otherwise. People, I know this is a hard one, but don’t let your child ride any horse that a knowledgeable horseperson that you really trust hasn’t vouched for. Do NOT assume that a “riding school” knows better than to mount kids on unsafe horses. A friend of mine has been working at a local riding school and recently quit because too many kids were getting bucked off and hurt. The last one ended up in the hospital. My friend and others repeatedly told the owner of the school that certain horses were unsuitable for beginners and this advice was just as repeatedly brushed off. The owner continued to mount young children on these problematic horses and the wrecks kept happening. My friend quit.
Only mount kids/beginners on truly safe, reliable older horses. Avoid letting them ride in the ring with other beginners. At our own roping arena one day three young kids (not my kid) were put in the round pen to ride. (This was before I owned Henry.) Two of the horses, though lazy, were not really reliable kid’s horses. The third horse was Henry. None of the adults responsible for these kids were paying much attention to them. One horse spooked, started loping off, and became panicked by his beginner rider pulling wildly on him and screaming. He ran until he dumped the child (into a metal fence). The second horse was alarmed and started bucking until he bucked his kid off. The third horse (Henry) remained calm and well-behaved. (One of the many reasons I chose to buy Henry). The little girl who hit the fence was very sore and severely traumatized. But neither kid was seriously damaged, thank goodness. Nonetheless, this disaster could have been avoided, not by putting helmets on the kids (none of them were wearing a helmet), but by not mounting them on horses that were less than reliable and by the adults showing good judgment by carefully supervising the kids while they were riding together.
The only time I let my child ride with beginners is when I put my kid on Sunny (my own horse) and the beginner kid on Henry and then I pay close attention and supervise the whole time.
Also, I am very careful to teach my son that when you must ride up behind another horse (and this does happen on trail rides), stay directly behind the other horse. Do not ever ride up behind and alongside. This is how you get kicked. If you stay directly behind another horse, if that horse does kick, the blow will fall on your horse rather than you, unless you are riding a very small pony. These precautions are what I mean by making good, conservative decisions.
I know not everyone has the goal of staying as safe as possible while continuing to ride horseback. And I totally respect that others have different priorities. As I said, I once had different priorities myself. But ever since I started trail riding with my young son, my highest priority has been to keep us as safe as possible while still sharing the joy of horses. Yes, my son has worn a helmet every ride ever since he started riding independently. No, that is not the main thing I have done to keep him (and me) safe. The most important thing I have done is to buy two safe, solid older horses that are both very good outside. I’ve tried, every step of the way, to make good choices every time we ride. I stay alert; I pay attention. I consider the risks in any given situation. And I haven’t encouraged my kid to take up horse events that occur at speed. If he wanted to do these things at twelve years old (take up team roping for instance), I would support him, but he would learn slowly and with much supervision on a very steady, reliable horse.
Boring, you say? Overkill, you say? All I can answer is that death, or serious injury, is a devastating downside of horseback riding. It is worth it to me to do my best to keep my son (and me) safe, while we enjoy riding together. And though that DOES include wearing a helmet, the helmet is just a small part of good decision making in order to improve our chances of staying safe and undamaged—emotionally and physically.
OK, I’ve said my piece. I want everyone to notice that I support wearing a helmet. I just don’t think it’s the most important thing we can do in order to stay safe with horses. Any thoughts on this?