Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Helmets Do NOT Keep You Safe

                                    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?


jenj said...

I wear a helmet, every. Single. Ride. I feel naked without one. Having said that, I event, foxhunt, and do other crazy at-speed things with horses. Even more fun, I currently have a green 6 y.o. OTTB. I have no illusions that what I do is safe!!! However, by wearing a helmet, I increase the chances of walking away from a fall if my head is involved. In fact, I came off just last week and hit my head (not sure if it was the ground or a horse hoof) - I was lucky to walk away with a minor headache. I don't think I would have walked away if I hadn't been wearing a helmet.

Of course, a helmet only protects certain parts of your head. That's all. It doesn't make it a safer sport. Horses are inherently dangerous, and although there are lots of things you can do to lower your risks (ride broke horses, don't do speed events, etc.). At the end of they day, they are still 1000 lb prey animals with minds of their own. I do think they may be moderately safer than motorcycles, however. At least horses have some sense of self-preservation, most of the time! ;)

Laura Crum said...

jenj--So glad you were wearing a helmet when you came off Echo. I agree wholeheartedly that by wearing a helmet you vastly increase your chances of walking away from a fall if your head is involved. That is precisely why I now wear a helmet despite my western horse background, a lifetime of safe riding without one, and the fact that none of my real life horse friends wear helmets. Helmets just make good sense--like seat belts. And I also agree that horses are safer than motorcycles (!)

F.J. Thomas said...

I ride hunter and western. I wear a helmet at certain times but not every ride. When I break colts I wear one. When I barrel race on my big horse I wear one then too because he rates so hard and I have come close to dash boarding. In both cases my reasoning is based on the horse. In the end it is a calculated risk. I think you've made some excellent points. People lose sight of common sense. A helmet won't keep a person safe any more than a safe horse won't keep your head safe if it accidently falls and you come off.

Laura Crum said...

FJ Thomas--I totally second your last point. I ride a very safe horse these days and the main reason I wear a helmet is that any horse can fall. If my safe horse falls and I hit my head, that helmet may save my life.

AareneX said...

"All it takes is one bee sting at the wrong moment," said my mentor to me.

And she's right. I came off the sainted Story when she was the second horse in line and the first one stirred up a bee's nest. Fortunately, I held on while we beat feet away from the bees and THEN I fell off!

A few weeks ago I came off a perfectly reliable horse in an arena lesson (no other horses in the arena). Why? Bandit saw something that made him dodge (not a full spook, just a hard jolt to the left) and since I'd only ridden him for about 2 minutes and was still figuring out stuff, I came off. That one butt. Because that's what landed--hard--first. My head and helmet never touched the ground. I got back on and finished the lesson, but dang, my bum hurt for about week!

Helmets keep you saf(ER). Nothing wrong with that. They aren't magic, but they are a damn sight better than nothing.

Anonymous said...

I think it's all a matter of common sense - and some people just don't have any or assume because something bad hasn't happened to them yet that means nothing ever will. And then there are people who know nothing - like non-riding parents with beginner children - who have to trust others' judgment - and you better pick well as some of your bad examples show. And people do get killed or severely injured in ways a helmet wouldn't help - a teen at my barn when I was young fell and was stepped on by her horse and died of a ruptured spleen, and a woman at my college was kicked in the face by her horse in the stall and had to have major reconstructive surgery, including for a skull fracture and broken jaw.

And helmets don't add to people's intelligence or common sense. People do dumb (e.g. don't use basic good judgment - your first two fatality examples fall into that camp in my book) things whether they're wearing helmets or not - and this can happen to experienced as well as uninformed riders. People also get seriously injured on the ground.

As you know I wear a helmet all the time, and that may have saved my life back in 2011. I think of a helmet as a backstop - it provides extra protection against certain - but not all - types of injuries. In certain situations, I now also wear a body protector which provides some protection to the torso and spine, including the lower spine - and this sort of protection is now required in eventing, which is one of the most hazardous horse sports - jumping + speed.

I think failing to wear a helmet - it's easy and cheap - falls into the category of lack of common sense - and I don't really care if you come from a "tradition" where people don't wear helmets. Any horse can fall or badly spook at any time - even the safe gentle ones.

But as you say, staying safe involves a lot more than wearing a helmet, and there are plenty of people wearing helments who make stupid choices. I particularly like your advice/comments about beginners - I've seen a lot of beginners over horsed or in unsafe situations, and it's just a matter of time before bad things happen. Part of the problem is that many parents just don't have a clue about horses or good horsemanship.

Good post.

horsegenes said...

Amen Sister! It is like any other piece of protective equipment. It should be considered "in case of emergency" Just because you have a fire extingusher doesn't mean you should set things on fire!

I don't wear one, but that is just my preference. I know the risks involved and it is my choice. I ride with lots of people who do wear them and I respect that and at some point I may change my mind and wear one.

Nothing annoys me more than one of the good ole' boys making fun of someone wearing a helmet. I just think to myself... Better watch out, Karma is a bitch!

Laura Crum said...

Aarene--I agree that helmets keep you safer than no helmet. And bees are right up there with a horse falling in the list of reasons to wear a helmet riding a "safe" horse. Landing on the butt is not fun. I got a cyst on my tailbone that way that bothered me off and on for years. Hope you avoid that minor but annoying problem(!)

All very good points, Kate. And you are one of the people whose thoughts (and experiences) convinced me to buy and wear a helmet.

horsegenes--Oh yeah, the ropers make fun of me. Fortunately I'm old enough and tough enough to know that's not the bottom line.

Joyce Reynolds-Ward said...

Like I said over in Facebook, I'm another Western rider who's gone to helmets except when showing Western. Not so much to prevent death but to prevent head injury. I hit the ground and whacked my head enough as a kid that I don't want to trust a bare head any more--and after a bad ski fall where my helmet liner cracked at the harness tie-in point but I walked away with only a little bit of disorientation and a minor whiplash, I called it good.

Traumatic brain injury avoidance is the primary reason for wearing a helmet. The one time I hit my head around Mocha was when she spooked (young mare in heat) when I was passing a snaffle rein over her head and she knocked me down. You can bet we schooled and reschooled that...and the helmet got replaced. Remember, replace after every fall or every 5-7 years (liners age and become less effective over time, and you don't always see fall damage).

I've worked with one student with Traumatic Brain Injury. You really, really don't want to be in that position. Personality changes, loss of cognitive abilities...nah, not worth it. Preventing TBI is a bigger deal to me than preventing death--as you point out, there are many ways to get killed on horseback (or while skiing) that helmets don't prevent.

Shirley said...

I started wearing a helmet last year,mostly because of falling off Gussie- I didn't hit my head, but I might have, and it got me thinking that it's never too late to get smart. I worked for years around trucks and heavy equipment, and one of the things that safety officers always stressed is that every accident is, at some point, preventable. This is true with horses too, like you said, to make smart decisions. Also, know your own limitations, and listen to that little voice that advises you - it's that little voice that I ignored the day I fell off Gussie.
Great post.

Laura Crum said...

Joyce--I agree--avoiding that TBI is very high on the list of reasons to wear a helmet.

And Shirley--You are singing my song. I haven't come off in many years (knocking on wood) but there is a little voice telling me that I'm far more vulnerable now than I used to be. My riding skills are not what they were. Just like you, I decided it was time for that helmet.

Gayle Carline said...

This post reminds me of the drivers I see at Mammoth Mountain during the ski season. They put snow chains on their four-wheel drive vehicles and think they can now drive fast again because they're somehow protected.

I don't wear a helmet. There, I've said it. I only ride in the arena, only slowly (I do AQHA Trail), and only when my horse is not acting like an idiot. Fortunately, he is not often an idiot, but if it's super windy or there is too much to distract him, it's not worth the risk. I've come off three times in my 15 years of riding and always landed on my butt. At the time, I wished they had made a helmet for that end.

That being said, when I'm working with kids in the arena, they MUST wear helmets. Our lesson horses are all upwards of 20 years old, and the only group lessons are the ones with at least two instructors in the arena. It's been awhile since any of our kids fell off, because we're all about safety first.

Laura Crum said...

Gayle--Yours sounds like a GOOD riding school. Unfortunately, the one my friend was working for was/is not so good.

TBDancer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TBDancer said...

Sorry for the delete above. I left off part of a sentence.

Riding helmets. Seatbelts. Nothing will protect us from severe injury or death on horseback (or off) or in a car.

I wear a helmet when I ride. There are days I swear I should put on the helmet before I get out of bed, but luckily those days are few and far between. I am, however, getting older, so perhaps that will change too.

Most of the riders I know who do not wear helmets have had head injuries but think they look stupid with protective headgear. Perhaps their traumatic brain injuries have caused them to lose the ability to think clearly--and I've read that if the first TBI doesn't kill you the second one will because the brain doesn't take well to repeated trauma.

At any rate, I do what I think is best for ME (helmet when riding) and if someone else's place doesn't have those rules, I STILL do it for me.

I wear a seatbelt (always--I live in CA and state law says I must, and I don't want to pay the fine for breaking the law. The state gets enough of my money as it is without my giving them extra).

Laura Crum said...

TBDancer--I actually don't personally know anyone who has had a traumatic head injury caused by a horse. And I know quite a few horse people. So the ones I know who ride without helmets (lots) are not doing it because they've had a previous injury. And I agree that we all need to do what we feel is best for ourselves--when it comes to wearing helmets, anyway. And I, too, feel that California takes plenty of my money without my donating more in the form of seatbelt tickets. I wear my seatbelt every time I get in the car.

GunDiva said...

Thank you!

There's a picture on Facebook of a little six year old girl competing in a barrel race - she's amazing and is doing very well. The majority of the comments regarding that picture are people upset because she's not wearing a helmet. The helmet is a tool, designed to protect a very specific part of the body, it is NOT a magic shield that will protect riders from every little incident.

Glad you spoke some sense, here, Laura.

Laura Crum said...

Gun Diva-- None of my team roping friends put helmets on their kids when they ride. I never wore a helmet when I was a kid. The way I see it now, its a lot like wearing a helmet when you ride a bike or a motorcycle, and wearing a seat belt when you ride in a car. It just makes sense. But in the circle I run with, I am the oddball--people look at me funny because my kid is the only one in an arena full of people that is wearing a helmet.

Dom said...

I always wear my helmet, but I agree that alone doesn't keep me safe. Helmet didn't save my leg... that's for sure.

Andy Snow said...

Well I once had a helmet, when I was racing bicycles, and I wrote on the inside (just to remind myself evey time I put it on) "This hat is no cure for stupidity"

Laura Crum said...

Dom--I wear my helmet now, too.

And you know, Andy, that's one of the (many) reasons I love you--you have such a good way with words.

Anonymous said...

Agree with all the comments here. My experience is a little different, because I know SEVERAL people who've had injuries that were or would have been prevented with a helmet. And I'm a dressage rider!

#1 A friend who came up behind her horse in the cross-ties after a ride. She'd just taken her helmet off and didn't realize he was napping. She startled him and he kicked out, catching her right in the temple. She was in a coma for 4 days and it took almost a year for her to relearn how to talk, walk, etc.

#2 A close friend and I were trotting around the arena on our steady-Eddie horses. Hers stumbled and dropped to his knees, popping her off. In his struggle to get up, he kicked her several times and her helmet had a large hoofprint in it.

#3 Courtney King-Dye. Say no more.

#4 Dressage trainer Ricardo Amaya. Schooling a horse in the arena and got dumped. Hit his head on the rail and was found dead.

Like you said, the risk has nothing to do with age, skill or talent. Wearing a helmet just makes sense.

Laura Crum said...

Anon--Those are very interesting points. As for the horse in the cross ties, I know several people that have been hurt by gentle horses that were caught by surprise when napping. Sadly, that isn't a circumstance in which even helmet wearing people usually wear helmets. Unless you wear your helmet while you groom/interact/catch your horse, these wrecks are not affected by a helmet.

Your second two points fall under the category of horses falling--and I think that is the best reason to wear a helmet.

Last point--it never hurts to wear a helmet--other than minor discomfort--and it might help (a lot).

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Laura, it is good to read an honest article on this elephant in the room: there is far more to being safe than wearing protective equipment. Oh, the "heresy" of it!

There's clear evidence from bicycling that helmet wearing increased the accident rate because cyclists felt safer therefore took more risks. There's nothing surprising about this. The point isn't that helmets are good or bad: it's that human nature is complex and behaviours tend to happen at an individual level without conscious thought.

There is also clear evidence that other road users are giving cyclists less space on the road and generally taking less care around them when they wear helmets. I'm talking about being measured passing closer, not just anecdotal evidence. It makes me wonder whether less scrupulous riding establishments take chances with beginners "because they are safe wearing helmets".

I've seen some nasty wrecks and injuries caused by unsuitable riding school horses. Most often the horse in question was bought cheaply and the proprietor knew perfectly well that a problem lurked. But riding business is an exercise in providing an intrinsically expensive product cheaply. Corners will be cut. Usually it's the horses that suffer. Occasionally the people do.

My experience running a trail riding business was that sound planning and preparation cut out the vast majority of risk before protective equipment came into play. That included buying and raising calm, good-natured horses and working them sympathetically. Most of the injuries that did occur were minor and almost impossible to protect against. My experience today, in a heavily regulated construction industry, is similar.

Incidentally here's a literary association - it was Kranz Kafka who introduced safety helmets to industry in Europe. His day job was at an insurance office.

Laura Crum said...

WHP--Yes, that is exactly what I meant. "There is far more to being safe than wearing protective equipment." And I think that making good choices and riding solid, sensible horses comes first on the list, when it comes to horseback riding. Thanks for an interesting and insightful comment, as always.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I do suspect that the main point of the helmet debate for many of the protagonists isn't about whether you or I stay safe, it's about their "right" to be able to tell us what to do. It never ceases to amaze me that so many residents of the "land of the free" are so quick to don socialist garb and tell everyone else what they "should" do. Of course "socialist" is by no means the worst "insult" I could trade.....

The linguistics are fascinating. It's fine to call someone a "helmet Nazi". But when I referred to the "safety Taliban" a while back some people were offended. (And I am not referring to Muslims.) Have readers forgotten what the Nazis got up to? Or don't you have any Jewish readers? (Perhaps the latter. One thing I learned in Eastern Europe was that, pre-WW2, it was easy to determine who was Jewish in rural areas. A Pole / Romanian / etc knew how to saddle a horse whilst a Jew almost by definition didn't. That isn't a judgement, just an observation.) So it's fine to call someone a "Nazi" and to tell them what they "should" do. But it's also OK to do whatever we want out of sight. And don't compare anyone's views to modern- day "fundamentalism" because the comparison causes discomfort. We really do have "fundamentalists" in the equestrian world and don't like to be reminded of it.

Val said...

Your third example with the group lesson and the child being kicked is bone-chilling. I began riding in just such a venue. There was very little instruction going on and aside from developing raw balance, I had to unlearn most of the bad habits I picked up (like gripping with my legs) probably out of self-preservation. As a child I was in a lesson when a girl's horse bolted and threw her. She screamed the entire time, which upset the other kids and some of their horses. Thankfully, I happened to be on an unflappable horse, but that was just luck, because we switched horses nearly every lesson.

Your advice about only allowing your child to ride a horse that an experienced horseman vouches for is priceless advice especially for parents who are not also horseman.

Susan said...

Thank you for putting together those very useful tips on buying a helmet. My daughter wants to learn horse riding and we were actually planning on borrowing one from some friends to start with. Right now I think it is just a passing phase for her and I was reluctant to invest in a brand new helmet for a hobby that may not last long. I figured if she was really serious we could then buy a new helmet. I can see now that that was not a smart decision at all. I definitely wouldn’t want to compromise her safety in any way. Thank you again for the very timely advice. Sports Injuries.

Unknown said...

ok, so I started out thinking, this is stupid, this lady knows nothing, but i kept reading, and I agree, some people think a helmet will totally save them, it wont, glad i kept reading, it was a very good article, but, yes, it is exactaly like seat belts, there are some things it cant protect from, but we wear one anyway incase it might do us good, thanks!