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Why I Wear a Riding Helmet

I'm a big proponent of wearing riding helmets. When in my 20s, I was an Emergency Medical Technician and firefighter. During warmer weather, we responded to many motorcycle accidents causing serious head injuries — some were DOA. In addition, I owned several motorcycles myself at that time and these experiences, plus a fall of my own motivated me to always wear a "brain bucket". It took place at 50 MPH and I was lucky that all I did was slide down the road until I came to a stop. My helmet had deep scrapes and gouges that would have otherwise been in my skull. Except for some additional scrapes on my bike and the need to buy a new helmet, I was otherwise unscathed.

Coming to horseback riding later in life, there was no question I would wear a riding helmet. While the photo of me on the "About How-To Horse Guy" Webpage shows me with a hat, that was for the purposes of the photo. Except for one weekend each year at which most attendees wear western garb for a "cowboy rendezvous" weekend at the ranch where I board, I ALWAYS wear a helmet when riding.

I occasionally ride the trails alone, but 90 - 95% of the time, I ride with others, both for safety and social reasons. My horse is a little bigger than average (~16 hh) and I'm a little taller than most (almost 6' 3"). When I'm following "the pack", they'll often "scoot" cleanly under small branches and I'll bend my head down so the twigs hit my helmet rather than my face. My fellow riders don't do this on purpose (I hope), they just don't realize that I "stick up higher" than they do.

On a Sunday in May 2008, I was on a 6 hour trail ride with a friend and farther from the ranch than usual. We were at a slow canter on a trail and I was in front. When we rounded a corner, the butt of a one inch branch was facing my head. The branch had broken from some upper level and settled on a lower branch just above me and pointed at my face. I immediately faced down, ducked, and yelled "BRANCH!" — the branch end hit my helmet and glanced off — that helmet made a potentially dangerous event nothing more than a minor thud. (I've checked my head and there are no splinters sticking out. And my riding partner said the branch was above her head.)

Now readers may say, I shouldn't have been at a canter, even a slow one, or we should have been walking our horses because, while I'd ridden the trail before, it wasn't recently, and branches drop from time to time due to heavy winds — I would not disagree with this advice. On the other hand, we can't think of every possible situation, there is some modicum of risk in just being around horses, let alone riding them, especially at speed. And we still have to remember, we're on very powerful, 1,000+ pound beasts that have their own minds and can deviate from our instructions — we've already accepted some risk.

If it wasn't for my helmet, I don't know what would have happened. It's protected me from head scratches, through my tumbles that have contused or scraped my lower body, and now a direct blow to the head. Because I see many people of all ages on the trail without helmets, some of them close friends (yes, I bug them about getting helmets), I just wanted to share this experience in the hopes that at least some of them, and any readers like them, will reconsider.

Addendum
Several years after I wrote this article, a horse bucked me off and I landed on my shoulder and head. The helmet cracked, but I suffered no head injury. I replaced the helmet at the time, but have often wondered since then what might have happened to my skull if it had taken the force of the impact instead of the helmet. If the force of the fall cracked the helmet, it likely could have more easily cracked my skull — I get an uncomfortable feeling every time I think about it. However, I definitely find it comforting that I wore a helmet on that ride.

If you're reluctant to wear a riding helmet for any reason, perhaps you should consider what might happen to your head if a similar accident were to happen to you while not wearing a helmet. A helmet is a great idea for riding!

Besides being an avid trail rider, Jerry Tardif is a technology consultant and a horse and nature photographer in SE Connecticut — see his work at: www.jerrytardif.com. He is also co-founder and President of QueryHorse.

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