If helmets are no brainers, why don’t we all wear them?

Culture and vanity vie against common sense and science in plenty of our personal decisions. Take tanning:

This year, the World Health Organization added tanning booths to the list of the most dangerous forms of cancer-causing radiation. People get skin cancer and die from frequenting tanning booths and eschewing sunscreen. But there are lots of tans folks out there. Society chooses tan over pale nearly every time.

Likewise, evidence overwhelmingly supports wearing a helmet to protect oneself from head injury while horse riding.

emergencyHere are nuggets from several research projects aimed at riding and hurting your head:

  • Head injuries make up 23 percent of riding injuries resulting in Emergency Room visits. Read more.
  • You’re four times more likely to die while riding if you don’t have a helmet. Read more.
  • Most injuries happen in younger and less experienced riders; many occur when working with a young horse. Read more.
  • Most traumatic brain injuries result from falling or being tossed off a horse, but some happen while on the ground (like being kicked in the head).

Helmet wearing seems to be a no brainer.

Yet millions choose not to wear one and suffer no ill consequence during a lifetime of riding. Insurers increasingly mandate helmets at events and facilities. For the rest of us, the freedom, risk, and choice is personal.

And like many personal choices, folks can get downright emotional about it.

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Emily Thomas Luciano with helmet

The usually sensible Rick Gore has a long YouTube tirade against wearing helmets: he says they give riders a false sense of security, empower riders to take greater, ill-advised risks and that only helmet companies are advocating for helmet use. It’s silly stuff, but serves to illustrate how polarized the argument for and against helmets has become.

NickerNews and BestHorsePractices are more concerned with providing perspective and less concerned with taking a position. But here’s a middle of the road stance from our Marketing Director, Emily Thomas Luciano. She writes from her home in Florida:

I’ll be the first to admit that I probably should wear a helmet every time I saddle up, but frankly, sometimes I just don’t want to. Maybe I’m having a good hair day or maybe it’s hot. Whatever the reason, I’m not always the poster child for safety.

I do, however, have a few hard-and-fast times when I’m a stickler for wearing one:

  • If I’m putting the first handful of rides on a horse.
  • If I’m hitting the trail alone.
  • Emily Thomas Luciano without helmet

    Emily Thomas Luciano without helmet

    I take the horse into consideration as well: my mustang gelding who can be a bit unpredictable, so I always wear a helmet when riding him. On the other hand, I leave it off when riding my quarter horse mare that I’ve owned for all of her 15 years.

  • Lastly, I try to be a little smarter about helmet usage when my husband is deployed. With family 12 hours away by car, I couldn’t manage a head injury with him gone.

But really, is a head injury something that any of us can afford to manage?

The risk and choice is yours.

Read Anatomy of a Wreck.

6 comments


  • Jessica

    When I was a kid learning to ride I never wore a helmet, and I longed for the days when I would be over 18 and could could run a barrel race without a being forced to wear one by the show staff. As a kid, I equated no helmet with adulthood as the only ones I saw wearing them were kids! I got my start at a cowboy up, western barn, so they just were not a common sight! This view all changed in one day…

    When I moved my horses home, my parents mandated that the helmet was always to be worn when mounted. I hated the rule, but I complied.

    I was cantering my seasoned show horse one afternoon in an open field, he took a miss-step and my saddle, which could have been tighter, rolled a bit off to one side. I ended up falling right under him and he ran right over the top of me, kicking me hard in the head as he tried to jump over me. After it was over I got up and I was OK, but when I looked at my helmet it had a huge gouge out of it where he had kicked me. After that day I have become a bit religious about wearing a helmet. I will not ride without it even in a western pleasure class as a 30 year old woman, and it is now just one of those things I don’t even think about unless asked.

    I could have ended up in the hospital with my head split open if my parents had not made me wear that helmet, and I was not doing anything unusual or stupid. It was just a basic accident that could happen to anyone. I know that my helmet does not make me invincible but I am happy to embrace anything that can make me safer. And I know that by wearing one and showing with it as an adult I can set an example that it is OK to wear one to those kids that are like what I once was.

    February 03, 2016
  • Jim T

    I have never heard anyone say that they can do or want to do more dangerous things on a horse because they feel safer wearing a helmet in the many decades that I have been around horses. My daughter was hurt in a fall from her horse a few yew years ago. The helmet was split wide open. Had she not been wearing her helmet she would have been seriously injured or worse.

    WEAR A HELMET. 🙂

    September 20, 2015
  • Clare James

    Firstly, can I say that bullet point number 2 at the top of the article may be a little misleading. You are probably four times more likely to die if you fall off whilst riding & not wearing a helmet, rather than four times more likely to die whilst riding & not wearing a helmet.

    Secondly, I tend to sit on the fence about this.
    Having visited & ridden quite a bit in the USA, I have a habit of forgetting to put my riding hat on from time to time, despite the fact that in the UK it is seen as bad practice not to wear 1 & is second nature to most riders.

    On the other hand, as a health & safety professional, I advocate the highest standards of safety practice.

    However, in safety practice PPE should be the last line of defence. Whilst horses are, in the grand scheme of things, unpredictable domesticated animals, there are a number of things that you can do to reduce, if not eliminate, the risk of falling off.

    Use natural horsemanship and truly understand your horse would be my greatest piece of advice.

    I have come across soooo many horse owners who are like parents – they don’t like being told how to bring up their children because, in effect, you are criticising them in the most personal way possible.

    Horsemanship has made me stop & think greatly about how I handle horses both on the ground & in the saddle but because we try to humanise our pets & seem to believe that they think & react in the same way that we do, that we know it all. We DON’T!

    So horse owners, please please PLEASE stop & listen to some of the great horsemanship practitioners out there, listen to friendly advice when it is offered & please start to listen to your horse & try to understand what they are trying to tell you.

    In this way, we would have far fewer riding accidents in this world.

    July 27, 2015
    • Maddy

      Great comments, Claire. Thanks for taking the time to spell them out!

      July 27, 2015
  • Julie

    Years ago, I was riding a fairly green horse who happened to spook, he reared, lost his footing on crushed stone, he fell back and to his side pinning my leg. I don’t remember much except knowing he was rising and I was leaning forward to balance…all within a split second. My riding partner filled me in on the rest after I became conscious (about 10 minutes later). I was wearing a helmet; it apparently hit a rock imbedded in my gravel driveway, and I don’t think I would’ve recovered from the concussion without my helmet. In my early training, I became certified with the Horsemanship Safety Association and their motto is “every time, every ride” for helmet wearing. I do understand it is a personal decision, but accidents happen, and my life is worth more than worrying about whether I look cool in a helmet or not. I ride “western” (I hate that term, but “western” riders are notoriously non-helmet wearers) and I choose safety over a chance of concussion, especially repeat concussions, which have life-long effects. Plus the risk of death from a head injury is just too high and if there is a simple way for me to lessen that risk, I’ll take it. Wearing a wheelchair for the rest of my life because I wasn’t wearing a helmet would forever change my life. If the result was death instead, my family would bear that sad burden the rest of their lives.

    December 11, 2014
  • Shona

    A simple no brainer.
    For those who say they “would not be seen dead wearing a Helmet”….may well be seen dead without one!

    December 11, 2014

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