Editor’s Note: Dr. Steve Peters, co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, writes this guest column on the research and science behind equine-related brain injury, with a personal account of cognitive dissonance and his new outlook.
By Steve Peters
I love my cowboy hats. My tack is Western and Vaquero and I take great pride and joy in its quality and historical traditions. The cowboy hat was just the crowning glory for the whole look and feel of this way of riding.
I am also a clinical neuropsychologist. When I moved to Utah, I began work at a sports medicine clinic, assessing sports concussions as well as seeing patients with traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s). I am well-versed in the literature and knowledge surrounding brain injuries.
Cognitive dissonance is a theory attributed to psychologist, Leon Festinger in the 1950’s. It’s the feeling of psychological discomfort that comes from holding two strong contradictory beliefs. Relief from this disharmony only comes from returning to a consistency in our inner belief system. Read about life-long learning and cognitive dissonance.
I rode horses in my cowboy hat, just like all the cowboys I know and whose riding styles I tried to emulate. But they almost all had stories of being kicked in the head or sustaining concussions, many with lasting impact. It did not surprise me as it is my job to know that recurrent TBI’s can lead to chronic neuropsychological impairments. It is also scary to note that due to the unpredictability of horses, even the most experienced are prone to injury while handling or riding them.
Then, I sustained my first horse-related concussion. I have started my own horses and put the first rides on neighbors’ horses. I have been bucked off more times than I’d like to admit but until last fall, I’ve avoided injury to my brain. Somehow, I had relied on ignoring or justifying my behaviors to avoid the
conflict with reality and my true inner belief.
Even as co-author of the book titled Evidence-Based Horsemanship, I was ignoring clear evidence-based research.
Horseback riding has been identified as a higher risk activity than automobile racing, motorcycle racing, football and skiing. Read the research here. In these sports as well as cycling, participants wear helmets. Ironically, it is the younger generation that is more apt to wear a helmet. On many ranches, however, young cowboys and cowgirls are raised without a culture of using a helmet for brain protection.
Head injuries are the most common reason for horseback riders to die or be admitted to a hospital. My concussion was the first time I went to the Emergency Department for a horse-related injury. Clinically, my symptoms were confusion, amnesia, delayed verbal expression, inability to maintain focus and concentration, double vision and migraine-equivalent headaches. As a professional in the field, I am also aware of the evidence of microscopic axonal injury, cytotoxic edema (swelling) and the release of excitatory neurotransmitters adding to the injury.
Talk about strong feelings of cognitive dissonance!
Everyday I was seeing patients and recommending helmet use. In the past 20 years, hospital admittance for equine-related head injury has declined by over 40%. This statistic is directly associated with increased helmet use and improved, state-of-the-art helmet design to protect against blunt force trauma (horses hooves, fixed objects, the ground). I was like a smoking doctor counseling patients on carcinogens and lung cancer.
I could no longer deny the importance of helmet use for brain safety. I could no longer ignore or justify my actions. I had to change my behavior to align my actions with my true beliefs as a person and a scientist.
The undeniable bottom line: The use of sport-specific helmets have been shown to significantly reduce the possibility of brain injury in all equine-related activities.
After my injury, I felt embarrassed and dumb. I also lost confidence in my riding and did not want to ask anything of my horses that would bring out a need for negotiation (if you know what I mean). When I needed to be firm, I did it half-heartedly. Riding was not enjoyable.
I researched and bought a helmet. I got one rated and approved by the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI). The helmet I bought had a tan leather cover that I liked immediately. It has great ventilation, comfortable fit, and is lightweight.
Putting it on, I felt like any athlete preparing for action. I felt smart again and much relieved on a deeper psychological level as I felt my cognitive dissonance disappear. I rode with new assertiveness and better rapport with my horses.
Not only was I finally being true to myself, but I got my confidence back. And I still have plenty of great cowboy hats for wearing around while doing chores.