Safety should always take priority with any high risk hobby we enjoy. In reality though, our priorities tend to be less focused on safety and more about style and comfort. And nowhere is that more apparent than horseback riding.
Between western riders, trail riders and even casual at home riders, life saving helmets are a rare sight. That leaves many people assuming that horse riding accidents are rare and helmets are only needed when performing more dangerous activities like jumping. And obviously helmets aren’t required by law, right?
Well, not so fast. Horse riding accidents that result in traumatic brain injuries or death are not as rare as we might like to think. Plus, laws requiring helmets are slowly taking hold as are public demands for safety regulations in all riding disciplines.
It’s time to learn why you should start wearing a helmet while riding a horse. More importantly, we need to discuss why most riders still refuse to protect their melon. If you are among the few who already use a helmet, good for you. For those that don’t, let’s begin.
Is it ever safe to ride a horse without a helmet
Anytime we get on a horse’s back we are taking a risk. For one thing, sitting on an average sized horse places your head about 8 feet above the hard ground. That’s a long ways to fall. In addition, most riders make the assumption that they are in control of their horse. While you may certainly have a trusting relationship with your horse, they can still be an unpredictable animal.
The truth is, riding a horse without a helmet is never completely safe. A horse’s unpredictability, fast rate of travel and your elevated position are a dangerous combination, often resulting in serious injury or death when something goes wrong. That’s why you should always wear an ASTM/SEI certified helmet anytime you are on a horse.
Even sitting astride a stationary horse is a dangerous proposition. You may have the most mild mannered horse around but if he decides to rear up or quickly side step for any reason, your head is in a perilous situation.
I have personally suffered the trauma of loosing a close family friend to just such a scenario. He was the most experienced horseman I knew but his casual take on helmets ultimately lead to his untimely death. He mounted his trusty horse in a stable when without warning, the horse reared, slamming his head into the wall.
Mounting a horse in tight spaces is never a good idea but a helmet surely would have saved his life.
Do you need to wear a helmet on a horse by law
Helmet laws are common place for bicyclists but seem to be wildly unpopular among the majority of equestrians. So, naturally riding safety has not made it far in county or state legislation.
In most areas of the US, adults 18 years and older are not required by law to wear helmets when riding a horse. Youth riders 18 and under, however, are generally required to wear helmets at shows, events or on public lands. Laws vary by state or county so check before you ride.
Even helmet laws currently in place are poorly enforced. However, accidents occurring at regional horse riding events that result in liability lawsuits have set legal precedents worth paying attention to. That’s why most clubs, arenas and stables make you sign waivers before riding.
So, while laws may not make you wear a helmet, we are starting to see a trend towards mandatory helmet wearing at a majority of private and public horses riding events.
Why don’t western riders wear helmets
Every western rider I have asked tells me the same thing regarding helmets… “It’s not the style.” Imagine going to a rodeo where cowboys and cowgirls are roping cattle and charging around barrels all without wearing a single cowboy hat. “It just doesn’t feel right,” my fellow riders say with a shrug.
They know a helmet could save their life but looking the part is a major reason for helmet hesitancy among many western riders. Those comments are generally followed up with claims that helmets just aren’t comfortable either.
As more kids participate in western events, regulations enforcing helmets for youths are taking hold. But you can see just how engrained the cowboy hat style is among riders by looking at those helmets. Modern western helmets are made to resemble felt hats and I must say they do a good job capturing the authentic look.
The problem is, not enough adult riders are jumping on the band wagon. That leaves youth riders with the expectation that once they are old enough, they can cast aside the helmets and get a real cowboy hat.
Unfortunately, until all major western shows and regional events mandate helmets for all riders, helmets will be something shrugged off by a majority of riders. Most of whom participate in some very risky riding.
When is a helmet required
As we touched on earlier, laws may not force you to wear a helmet (except for youth riders) but more and more equestrian events are mandating that helmets be worn by all riders.
Regional rodeos are starting to take safety seriously and helmets are beginning to make a stronger appearance. In addition, hosts of other western events like barrel racing, pole bending and roping are opening their eyes to the possibilities of legal ramifications for accidents occurring on their premises. As a result, show sponsors and venue owners are having all riders sign waivers agreeing to wear helmets any time they mount a horse while there.
In general, expect to see more and more rules enforcing helmets at major horse shows, events and riding clubs. Private stables are also jumping on that band wagon to avoid legal liability issues. In almost every riding discipline, all children under 14 are required to wear helmets.
Trail riding, either privately or with an outfitter, seldom comes with the expectation that riders wear a helmet. In my experience, most outfitters have you sign a liability waiver but don’t encourage helmets, except for kids.
English riders have long been required to wear helmets during shows and events. So much so that helmets for English riding disciplines are styled as part of the riding outfit and anyone not wearing a helmet looks odd and out of place.
The style and comfort dilemma
The two biggest obstacles standing in the way of helmets gaining wider adoption is fashion and comfort related. These are also the most likely reasons why you won’t wear a helmet when riding a horse either.
We have fairly romanticized expectations of what riding a horse should look like. Things like a lady with a flowing dress billowing behind a galloping horse on the beach or a tough cattle wrangler wearing a masculine cowboy hat comes to mind. Wearing a helmet absolutely kills that free spirit image that horseback riding inspires.
That long standing style expectation alone discourages a majority of adult riders from wearing a helmet. Not to mention the idea of helmet hair. Yikes!
On top of all the fashion concerns, comfort is another major factor of helmet hesitancy. Part of the safety built into a helmet includes a sturdy and heavy core that absorbs powerful impacts. By it’s very nature, a helmet will rub and reduce breathability on your head, resulting in sore spots and plenty of sweat.
I have also found riding helmets to be a kill joy while horseback riding. But I have to say, that was years ago and helmet technology has surprisingly come a long ways. Modern helmets offer better fitment, style and breathability than ever before. As a result, the age old excuse of fashion and comfort is slowly eroding.
Should kids wear helmets on a horse
I certainly hope it’s not the case, but even after reading this article, most of you still probably won’t wear a helmet for the majority of your riding. However, at least most adults recognize the importance of helmets for kids when riding a horse.
You can argue that adults are more experienced riders. They can handle a horse better (sometimes) and they have a lot more riding wisdom to keep them safe in the saddle. Kids, on the other hand, lack experience in the saddle. A helmet is cheap insurance to keep them safe.
Kids should absolutely wear helmets at all times when riding a horse at home, on the trail or at any riding event. Not only is it the law in most areas, it is most likely a requirement to participate in any equestrian event.
While good parents encourage their kids to ride horses with helmets, it doesn’t take kids long to realize that their parents don’t walk the walk. Because of our general lack of concern towards horse riding safety, kids quickly ditch their helmets once they are beyond the age of the law. Adults set the example here. And it’s no coincidence that adults make up the majority of head injuries on horses. If you think your kids should wear helmets on a horse then so should you.
Curious about other riding attire? Then check out this article next to find out what you should and shouldn’t wear horseback riding.