When I was young, helmets weren’t used in riding unless you were competing in English flat or jumping events. So it was that many youngsters fell or were thrown off their horses as I was and suffered untold brain trauma. With the advent of neuroscience, the public has been educated about just how injuries sustained in childhood activities—be it football, wrestling, motocross, or equestrian—can affect cognitive skills and even contribute to mood disorders.
One event in particular stands out for me: I was 11 and had been riding my mustang mare for nearly a year. Since the day we bought her off a truck from Montana, I’d been feeding this mare grain to help her lose the emaciated condition she’d acquired in the wild. Being new to horse ownership, I didn’t realize she was gaining energy as well as weight.
One day, we were cantering bareback over some large mounds of manure at the boarding stable where I kept her and suddenly she was airborne in series of rodeo bucks. I was airborne as well, finally coming to land on a soft manure mound, but with my head just inches from a cement block. A few inches closer would have meant a life-changing, perhaps life-ending event. As it was, even though I blacked out for a few moments, I walked away from the crash otherwise uninjured. The fall was kept a secret; I knew that I could never tell my parents or my horse might “go away.” I’ve gotten to spend a lifetime wondering how that lucky but unprotected fall and others may have impacted my mental processes.
I hold no illusions that wearing a helmet would have prevented me from going off the horse or that a helmet would have prevented me from breaking my neck, back, ribs, or limbs in the fall. I simply know that neuroscience has proven the value of head protection in falls related to riding, snow skiing, cycling, and any other sport where your skull could come in contact with a hard surface.
Wearing a helmet doesn’t lull me into a sense of false security any more than wearing a seat belt does in a car. Both can be argued to be “uncomfortable” and a nuisance. Helmets can be an additional expensive. However, just as we purchase cars with safety features and insurance policies for what we hope never happens, we need to consider the costs of not doing so.
My favorite comment about helmet wear came when I was riding a frisky 4-year-old gelding through a state park in California. By then my helmet was a firm fixture on most rides, thanks to the discovery of the sport of Endurance. A hatless gentleman in a large cycling group wheeled up next to me and asked, “What’s with the salad bowl on your head, lady?” The group got a good laugh from his reference. I smiled back and said, “I guess I just value my brains more than you value yours,” then trotted off still grinning.
BOTTOM LINE: As an instructor, I consider helmets mandatory for students under 10 for riding and groundwork; under 18 years while riding. Those students over 18 get to make their own, hopefully informed, decisions. Helmets in all sizes are available at T.H.E. Ranch for student use.