Helmets are part of many major sporting events, and they are a childhood necessity for riding bikes and playing sports. Football and baseball require helmets from the smallest of children to professional athletes. So, why is it that equestrian events are so slow to adapt the practice of wearing helmets when horseback riding?
For some, it’s the tradition of wearing a cowboy hat that stands in the way of safety. For others, it’s the perceived discomfort in wearing a riding helmet. For casual riders, there is a lack of perceived risk in ambling along on a leisurely ride. And for many, it’s the same disinterest that many motorcycle enthusiasts share: it’s just not “cool” to wear a helmet.
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, horseback riding head injuries accounted for more than 14,000 emergency room visits within the United States in 2009. Horseback riding is the 11th most likely sport attributing to head injuries in the United States. While it’s just outside of the top 10, horseback riding still causes more injuries than trampolines, gymnastics, cheerleading, and hockey – all sports that generate an overwhelming amount of injuries each year.
Head injuries comprise of about 18 percent of all horseback riding injuries each year, and while that doesn’t sound like a very high number, the Center for Disease Control reports that horseback riding resulted in 11.7 percent of all traumatic brain injuries from recreational sports between 2001-2005. That was the highest for all athletic activities!
It’s not risky maneuvers, jumps, and obstacles that create the risk for injury. The greatest risk is simply from the height at which the fall occurs. A fall from just two feet, according to the Ontario Equestrian Federation, can cause permanent brain damage. Most riders are elevated to eight feet or more when on horseback. That puts riders at risk when casually riding trails, warming up in the arena, or even riding in the pen. The statistical data suggests that wearing a helmet is just the best bet any time a rider is on horseback, whether it’s a competition or not.
Some riders prefer cowboy hats over helmets because they are sun-shading, comfortable, and a tradition. As a western wear company, we have always appreciated cowboy hats as much as western snap shirts and cowboy boots. Cowboy hats are part of the lifestyle we choose to live, so we understand and respect this viewpoint.
Two other common reasons for not wanting to wear a helmet include preference to make their own decision on what type of headwear to choose, and not being comfortable in a riding helmet. For competition, some riders are concerned that wearing a helmet instead of a cowboy hat will hurt their score with the judges.
When few riders wear helmets in certain competitions or arenas, being the odd man out could cause judges to penalize the rider for not wearing a more traditional cowboy hat. For riders who prefer cowboy hats while training and casually riding, it can be uncomfortable to switch to a riding helmet. Getting an appropriate fit is important to making helmets feel more comfortable, but it is still an adjustment to switch to helmets for competitions.
Riders with a lot of experience tend to disprove of riding helmets because they feel they have the proper training to make an emergency dismount or properly control a horse to avoid risk of injury. While children ages 10-14 are the most likely to sustain a head injury, there is risk involved in riding for competitors of all levels. An article in the Florida Sport Horse Magazine explains that experienced riders are more likely to take a bad fall compared to a novice rider simply because they tend to hang on much longer, ride faster, jump higher, and ride greener horses.
Helmet vs. Hat is a hot topic for equestrian sports. Helmet requirements vary by location, age of rider, and event, but there continues to be a push to make riding helmets a requirement for riders of all ages and disciplines. Previous rule changes have met resistance, but after some time, the rule becomes accepted and the confrontation seems to die down.
We don’t take a stand on which side of the argument is correct, but since we sponsor competitive riders and riding organizations, we do follow the subject. We are simply interested in hearing your opinion.