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Hi Bob,

I am concerned with many of your photos of your students where not one of them is wearing a protective riding helmet. This particular subject is very serious to me as my mom (an extremely experienced and strong rider, as well as instructor) was severely injured in December '99. She was wearing a riding helmet which the doctors have told us and her saved her life. She was riding English at the walk when her horse spooked and started bucking, she went off the horse but not before colliding her face with the top of his head (the horse was very well trained and seasoned also). As a result of this collision she had a broken nose (which was totally flattened), she broke both of her upper jaws and fractured both orbital floors. The X-rays of her bones in her face resembled a box of corn flakes. She had to be airlifted to the University of Michigan where she underwent 10 hours of reconstructive surgery. She was unable to even walk alone for at least two weeks after she returned home from the hospital. She also had to have another surgery in March to reconstruct a crushed tear duct in her left eye. Happily, she is now almost totally recovered outside of needing a surgery to remove the lower lashes that continually strike her cornea. As I said earlier, the doctors told her had she not been wearing an 11 ounce rider helmet she would have been killed.

So please, require all of your riders to wear a helmet, every ride, every time.

S. D.


I will give qualified support to your words of warning about helmets. If I were teaching English riding, I would require helmets. But I'm working almost entirely with Western riders, in which case helmets usually are at best unnecessary, and at worst downright dangerous.

I will say, as I did in one of my other Question and Answer pages, that in some extreme situations (such as a rider who is susceptible to seizures) a helmet may be useful. In fact, I've never seen an English competition that didn't require helmets.

In your mother's case, I'd guess she wouldn't have suffered more than a bad scare if she had been riding a Western saddle. Also, it sounds like your mother's injuries were the result of a blow to the face, which a helmet doesn't protect.

For a Western rider, a helmet puts a lot more stress on the neck and can even tend to throw you off balance. (If you don't believe me, put on a helmet and sit for 5 minutes with your head tipped slightly back - the normal "brake" position. Unless you have a helmet that's so light as to be useless, you'll have a very sore neck as a result. A cowhand will have his or her head off-balance a lot more than a total of 5 minutes during the course of a day.)

With the young folks I work with, in addition to the fact that a helmet would defeat the purpose of the balance exercises I put them through, I find that kids tend to be a little over-confident. Giving them a helmet conveys the message: "Go ahead and push the limit. If anything goes wrong, you won't get hurt, because you're wearing a helmet." That's a very dangerous attitude. I emphasize total control of every situation. Even if a horse spooks under me, my style is to keep both the horse and myself under control -- and at times like that, I certainly don't need any extra weight on my head throwing me a little off balance.

Let me stress that helmets are not a panacea. I'll compare them to seat belts in motor vehicles. In passenger cars, seat belts do generally save lives. So we should require them in all school buses, right? Wrong! Study after study has proven beyond reasonable doubt that children are MORE likely to be injured when wearing seat belts in school buses. Likewise, helmets may keep you safe in some cases yet increase the risk in others.

Do you remember the opening scenes in the movie, "The Horse Whisperer"? I know it's a fictional portrayal, but it does a good job of showing how not to ride safely. In fact, Judith and Grace broke just about every rule in my book.

  • They were riding English saddles, despite the fact that they were riding cross-country on snow and ice-covered surfaces.
  • Winter riding is always hazardous, But they were inattentive and didn't even know there was a tractor-trailer rig headed their way. I've spent many miles riding on roads very like the one in the movie, and on a quiet winter morning like that you can easily hear a truck coming more than a mile away -- if you're not making a lot of noise yourself.
  • They were fooling around and joking rather than paying attention to their mounts and practicing the sort of quiet, careful attitude they should have wanted their horses to mirror.
  • Rather than sticking to a relatively safe route, they foolishly took an off-trail shortcut up a steep, slippery hill.
  • Even after the situation turned deadly, they continued to joke around and kept trying to force their horses further into danger.
  • As a result, Judith died and Grace lost her right leg.

    ...And both girls were wearing helmets.

    So much for fiction. As I write this, there is a young girl in critical condition in a Duluth hospital. She was thrown from her pony while waiting for the start of a Fourth of July parade in a town not far from me. She was wearing a helmet -- which was crushed into her head when her pony rolled over her. I submit that if less attention had been given to the false protection of an artificial device and more attention had been given to control and correct reaction by the rider, the accident either would never have happened or wouldn't have amounted to much -- and that kid would be riding her pony today instead of lying in a hospital bed.

    A bronc rider bites the dust at the Effie North Star Stampede RodeoDon Andrews, a Pro Rodeo sports medicine expert, had this to say about helmets:
    "The solution isn't as simple as it appears. If everyone wore a helmet, we might reduce head and skull injuries. But what we've found in other sports is that with helmets, we see a greater rate of spinal injuries. Whenever there's a force delivered, it has to be transmitted to another area. The helmet takes the force, but it transmits it to the spine." [ProRodeo Sports News, Sept. 14, 1988.]

    Andrews also noted that adding the weight of a helmet to the snapping motion of a rider's neck on a bucking horse magnifies the snapping motion. "When you increase the load on the end of a lever," Andrews observed, "the head in this case, you're asking for a neck injury." Based on Andrews' comments, there seems to be a possibility that Christopher Reeve might not have suffered his spinal injury and might still be alive today if he had NOT been wearing a helmet. (In the photo at right, the safety-conscious bronc rider is wearing a protective vest... and a cowboy hat.) As a result of both careful research and long experience in the arena, most rodeos actually prohibit competitors from wearing helmets.

    Rodeo poster notation: No Helmets in Any Event Come to think of it, over the years I've seen dozens of rodeo cowboys (and cowgirls) come head-first off of broncs and bulls, and I can't recall a single one who suffered a serious head or neck injury -- despite the fact that none of them wore a helmet. In fact, in all of the cases where I've had direct knowledge of a serious head or neck injury, the rider WAS wearing a helmet. Another case in point: Last weekend I took some friends' horse for a test drive. As we walked along, a horse in an adjoining field came galloping up behind us, kicking up its heels like a rodeo bronc. That started the horse I was riding into a similar bucking spree for a few jumps. I rode it out easily -- no harm done. As I thought about the episode later, however, it occurred to me that, had I been wearing a helmet, the whiplash effect from the extra weight on that lever called "my head" could have caused anything from a sore neck to perhaps even leaving me paralyzed from the neck down! I'm really glad I was wearing a cowboy hat instead of a helmet!

    Summary: Yeh, wear a helmet if you're riding one of those dangerous English saddles and sitting with your neck straight up and down. But never assume it will protect you from anything. Ride aware, and ride in control. Because a broken rib puncturing your lung or heart will kill you just as dead as having a crushed skull. An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of helmets (and a whole lot easier to wear!).

    I hope you don't think I'm being critical of you for raising the issue, and I truly appreciate your concern about those deadly equines we love so much. You just keep on thinking about anything that will increase safety! And keep on telling me if you think I'm communicating the wrong message. I need folks like you to keep me aimed down the strait and narrow!
    Which of these young riders do you think arrived safely? They both did! The key is to ride in control and alertly. A helmet made absolutely no difference to the protection of the young lady on the right, but it created a lot of discomfort over the course of four days. I thought it was interesting that she chose to wear a cowboy hat on the next year's ride! Two young riders, one with a cowboy hat and one with a helmet

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