When Hung by the Neck On the Saddle Horn of a Bucking Horse, Helmets Can Make you Nervous

I don’t ask why often enough.

If I am open and curious, the answer to why is frequently eye-opening, and if I’m lucky, humbling.

I asked Kimber, a highly experienced horsewoman, why she chose not to wear a helmet when riding.  When I heard her answer, I asked if I could share it with you.  Very generously, she said yes.

Because wearing/not wearing a helmet is such a hot topic, this is a risky thing for her to do.  I’d like it if we could not debate her choice, and use her answer as a springboard to ask each other more whys. Why do you choose to wear one?  Why do you choose to go without?  When would the scales tip for you?

I’d like to see if we could suspend judgement, or feeling ‘right’.  I’m not being holier-than-thou.  I’ve had a rigid position on helmet wearing, (if you missed Jane’s Decree: Everyone Should Wear One All The Time) and broadcast it ad nauseam.  I’m a bit ashamed of that. Not because I changed my mind on my personal preferences.  But because it totally shut up all dialogue with rational, interesting, experienced, and decent people. And I was a judgmental moron. (Sorry to my long-suffering, rational, interesting, experienced, decent friends and readers.)

I realized in her shoes, I might make the same choice.  I don’t know how you ‘get over’ something like this.

Kimber’s story:

One summer, I was working for a reining horse trainer, helping him with his green colts.

He was careful.  Everyone that worked for him had to wear a helmet.  This was no big deal to me.  My mom always made me wear one when I was little.

We were working in the big arena one day.  There were about six horses being worked, all at the same time.  I was on a new colt that had been there about a week.  He was a little fresh, but nothing out of the ordinary.  One of the other riders, a little way away from me, was working on the rail doing roll-backs on a mare that had a reputation for having a bad attitude.

At some point, the little mare started bucking and raising a commotion, and she bolted in my direction.  This was the last straw for the colt I was on. He went to bucking. Nothing too bad at first.  But as I got him away from the fence, and toward the center of the arena, he really went to bucking.

Now please let me clarify – this trainer hired me because I am good at working with green horses – I can handle a bucking horse better than most – but there are always horses that can unseat their rider.  When I finally got out of rhythm with the colt’s temper tantrum, I came off.  Unfortunately I was not thrown away from him.

I ended up with the chin strap of my Troxel helmet caught on the horn of the reining saddle.  Not good.  I was hung up there by my head.

I don’t think I could have repeated this if I’d tried.

Thank God for the cheap plastic buckles on those helmets.  The buckle broke after three or four bucks.  The whole time I was scrambling to stay on my feet and not end up under the colt, or being dragged around by my head.

After this, the trainer did not want us wearing helmets.

Now please do not get me wrong: I am a true believer that helmets are important!  All of the kids that I work with who are just starting must wear them.

I think for some sports, helmets are a must (racing, jumping, etc), but I also believe that they are not always the best.

The words that I said in the comments section: helmets are always a safe choice when riding, haunted me after hearing her story.

My brain, scared, started throwing miscellaneous stuff at me: like Kimber said, it would probably be impossible to repeat, it was a freak accident, etc.  I caught my brain, red-handed.  If, in the moment of hearing her experience, I started rationalizing why or why not this didn’t apply to me, it meant I stopped listening.

I shut my brain off, so I wouldn’t lessen what she was telling me about what happened to her.  I closed my eyes, imagined hanging by my neck like a rag doll, hoping the nylon strap, and not my neck, would break.  I honestly asked myself how would I feel about putting a helmet back on.

My answer: it would feel life-threatening.  Clearly, witnessing this, the trainer felt it so dangerous he changed his entire policy, which I’m sure affected his insurance rates, and many other areas of his professional life.  Saying “no” to helmets is not usually a positive move for a professional trainer.

I respect Kimber’s decision, and I admire her ability to weigh the big picture, and still decide yes, there are situations and riding sports in which helmets are imperative.

So, without judgement, what went into helping you decide wearing/not wearing a helmet was the right choice for you?





30 thoughts on “When Hung by the Neck On the Saddle Horn of a Bucking Horse, Helmets Can Make you Nervous

  1. Thanks for posting this! There are so many strong points of view… and sometimes they come from really unique circumstances.

    In my case, I am deaf. I need to use my hearing aid (long story short, balance is governed by the inner/middle ear – changes in normal “hearing” will make a rider like me very likely to fall off), yet a helmet causes it to squeal.

    I ride an absolute peach of a horse – yet the arab in her is not a fan of the whistling and squealing. I ride helmetless around other riders/horses so as not to upset them with something unexpected to react to. I occasionally use the helmet on my own when working on something unfamiliar.

    Truth be told, you can suffere catastrophic injuries in many different ways around horses… and I’ve seen where helmets have hurt and helped. Glad for how respectfully you posted this to allow others to share 🙂

  2. When I was a teen and feeling immortal, I regularly rode without a helmet. My regular trainer came down one day and caught me jumping 4′ fences in a lesson without a helmet. She gave me a good talking to. I put on a helmet. During the next course I jumped the horse landed wrong and fell.

    Since then, I’ve worn a helmet every.single.time. I’ve gotten on a horse.

    While a helmet will not prevent every injury, it has definitely kept a few falls from having worse consequences. I’m very pleased that the USEA has now mandated helmets be worn whenever someone is mounted at a recognized event. It’s a good start in the direction toward making eventing safer.

    I’m always secretly shocked when I see people out hunting with old velvet hunt caps with no strap and no padding. In fact one of the worst offenders was a man who fell off at least once every time I saw him hunt!

  3. When I was growing up, no one wore helmets unless jumping – and not always even then. It just wasn’t even really a consideration. We showed in hunt caps with the straps tucked under, and only used the harnesses when jumping. I was thrown with one that way once, and it stayed on – so the hunt cap definitely fit properly, at least!

    In college we were required to wear helmets. I was often put on the new horses they were trying out for suitability for our program, or who needed some extra work to be more suitable for other students. I was on a new horse to the barn who did his best motorcycle imitation on turns. He was clearly very unbalanced, so we were working on trying to get him to bend correctly and hold himself upright… and he hit a deep spot at a canter, and fell. I remember thinking “push away, because you don’t want him to roll over you” and I remember looking up and seeing him across the arena. The ER doctor asked if I had blacked out, and I responded with “I don’t remember?” I had a minor concussion and little bit of a headache for a few days, but had I not had a helmet on it would have been worse. Since that day, I always wear a helmet, and it’s no longer required for me anywhere. I was wearing a helmet at a horse show when the horse I was on decided to buck after the second jump of a combination. I landed face first on the ground, and had a bloody nose. That tiny little brim on the helmet appeared to save me from a broken nose. Another good reason for a helmet – instead of the hospital, the next day I was at another show winning my over fences class. 🙂

    My rule is my horse, my place, you wear a helmet. The exception is my trainer, who I know is insured, and doesn’t always wear one. She knows I would prefer she does, so she normally does even if it’s not needed. She’s actually trying to retrain herself to always wear a helmet, too, because she knows that logically it’s the safest route to go.

  4. I have been in one situation where NOT wearing a helmet saved my life. I was riding a nasty gelding who had figured out he could get me off by rearing and falling over backwards. Unfortunately the second time he tried it I didn’t get off in time and ended up under him. When he got up he rolled towards my face, nicking my nose with his hoof. If I’d have been wearing a helmet his hoof would have caught the brim and he would probably have stepped on my face. Fortunately all he left me with was a scar on my nose and a healthy fear of rearing.

  5. The horn seems more of the culprit than the helmet, IMHO. She could have been caught on a scarf, a necklace, a jacket (this happens often, I hear). Does she now limit her use of saddles with horns to events that require it? I understand the nightmare that event presented, and I probably would make the same choice, frankly. But terror often teaches us the wrong thing.

    I wear a helmet because of the nature of head injuries. They are so devastating versus other injuries. I could still do my job with most injuries (with some recovery time) – but a head injury? Chances are not so good. I worked on an event for a cyclist who went from being an international lawyer to institutionalized. I just can’t forget him.

  6. To balance out all the pro-helmet comments (including my previous one) I’ve got a bad helmet story…well sort of. I was riding a green/unfamiliar horse for someone on short notice. I’m a cyclist too, so I just happened to have my bike helmet in the truck and threw it on. Well, the horse decided to drop a shoulder and buck hard from a canter and I flew off. I landed on the small of my back which, with the momentum of dear ole gravity, whipped the back of my head into the arena sand. If anyone has ever compared helmets, you’ll notice most riding helmets have relatively smooth backs that have fairly low coverage (that’s to protect your reptilian brain stem :-). Bike helmets however curve around one’s noggin to meet in little aerodynamic points in the back. I’m pretty sure smacking my head right down onto those points is what accounted for the significant concussion I sustained. The reason I believe this is because I cracked the back of the bike helmet in a few places, but those points were still completely intact; hadn’t crumpled a bit like styrofoam is supposed to. So there’s an example of where the wrong type of helmet actually made things worse. That being said, I still stick with helmets (it could be construed as a statement of my riding skills) but I stick with helmets made for horse-back riding.

  7. Good Lord! that is terrifying! I can’t even imagine the fear that must have caused….
    I always wear a helmet as that is how I was trained but I do always envy those beautiful girls with their hair flying behind them that go without.

  8. Hmm. I think we might be veering a bit. Not surprising, given this is an important and heated topic.
    Kimber very clearly said she believed helmets are necessary and have a place. She’s weighed out what is right for her, and decided with what she is currently doing, does not wear one.

    I am most certainly not saying we shouldn’t wear helmets, or holding this up as an example of why helmets are bad. They’re not.

    I may have done this badly: for me, the idea was to take a step back and listen, to withhold judgement, and have a conversation. I wanted to know how you felt, what was underneath your thinking, etc. I thank you for the great sharing you are doing! The intent of the post, for me, was 10 % about helmet wearing, and 90% about listening to and respecting each other. I see a lot of that happening, which gives me hope in continuing dialogue.

    We can agree to disagree with each other’s opinions, without dismissing each other. This is almost intolerably hard on issues I am passionate about. (Remember Jane’s Decree?)

    My original idea was, when we don’t cut each other wholesale out of the conversation, there is a chance for us to be useful and meaningful to each other.

  9. I recently started wearing a helmet. There are several reasons. First, to set a good example for my daughter. She has been wearing a helmet longer than I have but I felt it was important to show her that Dad wears on too. Second, when I am doing lessons at my trainers place her insurance requires a helmet. Its nice to have your own helmet. And this weekend I had an experience that made me appreciate my helmet a bit more.

    I have an 8 year old Morgan mare that is a bit green. Technically, she is much more horse than I am really qualified to handle and I have come off of her three times, all with out a helmet. I never hit my head but I don’t like pushing the odds. I was riding and it was very windy so she was a little skittish. She gave a couple of massive spooks and I almost came off twice. Fortunately, I didn’t but given the terrain we were riding in, coming off may have resulted in hitting my head on a rock. We were riding in the area of Rocky Flats in Colorado.

    I agree that a helmet cannot protect you from every possible head injury and there are a few freak accidents that are possible where a helmet can cause a more sever injury. That said, given the way I tend to come of my horse, a helmet is far more likely to prevent a head injury. So I strongly recommend helmets and I wont let folks ride my horses without one.

  10. I agree with the idea of wearing a helmet goes with the probability of risk. I wear a helmet from the time before I take the horse out of his stall to the time I put him back in. Sometimes they are hot or uncomfortable; sometimes they are fine. I hate buying a new one because finding one that fits is challenging.

    Here’a my analogy: car seats for children.

    Correctly fitted, they do wonders for protecting a child from most serious injuries BUT they are notoriously hard to fit correctly. Every car has different seat designs so the car set fits differently. Every child’s body is shaped a little differently so that a seat that fits one may not fit another. It can be a hassle to get it right but it’s important enough that many local governments provide a “car seat checker” who looks at how your car seat fits in your car.

    Buying a helmet is the same thing. Not every helmet fits every person correctly, and not every person wears their helmet correctly. Many of the accidents I hear about where people’s heads got injured are often related to the helmet not fitting their head correctly or them not wearing the helmet correctly. One person in my barn got bucked off a horse and she lost part of her ear because her chin strap was so lose the helment rotated around her head.

    I get a lot of help and guidance when I go into a bike store to buy a helmet but not much when I go into the tack store. I personally find it a little frustrating to have to do research about the proper placement of equine helmets (which are slightly different than for bikes, etc.) rather than being able to rely on the advice of my local tack store.

    I agree that wearing a helmet should be a personal choice for any adult, but I wish we had the information we needed to find an appropriately fitting helment and the willingness to wear them correctly all the time.

    1. In the interest of helmet-fitting, notes from a professional fitter: a helmet should sit firmly and straight on your head. It shouldn’t be able to slip back. It should be tight enough that when you raise your eyebrows, the helmet moves with your skin, but not so tight it gives you a headache. The ideal helmet should fit well enough that even if you wore it without a chinstrap, which you should not do, it would be unlikely to come off. It should be comfortable. Helmets that fit well blend into the background of your riding experience, just like boots. Make sure you get a brand that is certified for safety.

      I chose one that is the highest rated for safety in the US and UK both. It fits so well, and is so comfortable, I’ve accidentally left the barn with it on, and (oh the shame) worn it into the grocery store. (I’m used to wearing baseball caps) Don’t let air vents be your main criteria. I warily changed my very vented SEI rated helmet for a completely unvented one, and I am quite cool, and no longer have sweat dripping in my eyes. Go figure.

  11. I love my hornless western saddle so much. No, you can’t do any western competitions in it, but it’s got that secure feeling for long hours on the trail, without the awful horn. I only ever hooked my bra strap on the horn, but I did that plenty thanks.

    I started off without helmets, because I learned to ride with a bunch of rednecks. (If you asked any of them they’d concur; they’re proud rednecks.) I got interested in endurance, which is a very helmet-oriented (but not helmet-mandatory) sport. Looking at pictures of riders with helmets became the norm. And I had two good friends who occasionally, tactfully, reminded me that while I might not care, my poor hubby would have to take care of my vegetative butt if I broke my head.

    Troxels are ok, but I can’t overstress the importance of getting something that really truly fits you like a glove. I bombed around in my dorky Troxel Sport for a year before I had a little extra horse money and decided to invest in something cooler looking. Yes, I wanted cooler looking, with a possible side effect of better ventilated. What I got was something that weighs so little and fits so well it’s like it’s not even on my head. I’m not naming brands, because the brand that works so well for me might not fit you – but you should definitely invest in a helmet that feels like it’s not there.

  12. I learned most of what I know about horsemanship in Pony Club….and in Pony Club one wears a helmet at all times. It became second nature to have one on my head. But, the event that sealed the deal was a nasty fall that I experienced. We were approaching a jump in a fence line. The top rails had been removed, so we were only jumping the bottom rail, probably only 18″ in height. For whatever reason my horse took exception to the jump, stopped abruptly and gave some sort of hop that propelled me head first into the post. My helmet had a dent in it. That dent was a powerful statement about the safety of wearing helmets.

  13. I started riding at 50, and was never very good. I was well past the “It can’t happen to me” stage of life. Once, I came off and fell against the fence. My tail bone still hurts, years later, but my head, which hit the post, was fine. Another time I flew off Cedric, over the fence, and WAS able to tuck and roll, but my helmut was still cracked down the center. I would never ride without one. ———–Marge

  14. holy moley that’s a scary story isn’t it? I am so glad it turned out ok. I think we all have “our” spook points and I can absolutely see why helmets are the point for Kimber. Because I’m not confident and because if/when I come off I’m likely to end up close to feet I will wear my helmet. I’m sure I would never be able to stay on the bucks like she did!

  15. Cat is 100% right. It’s about probability. Sure, freaky things can happen. You can drive your car and get hit by a train, in which case a seatbelt won’t do you a damn bit of good. But I’m still going to buckle up because there is a MUCH higher chance of me being in an accident where it WILL help me.

    Anyone who thinks a helmet is a panacaea for anything that can happen to you on a horse needs to rethink. No, it will not protect you from everything. You can still break your neck, your back, get a concussion, break all your limbs, get internal injuries….. But it’s a smart move to REDUCE YOUR RISK of head injury, something that statistically, is very likely around horses. Because it will protect you from skull fracture, massive brain damage, and all those other lovely things that can happen if your horse falls, kicks, or any number of other likely scenarios. Yes, your friend had a weird thing happen. I’d be willing to bet it will never happen to her again. But her falling off a horse sometime in the future? I won’t bet against that one.

  16. I feel like clapping. 🙂 Barbara’s wish came true: I see y’all sharing experiences and discussing things without it being good vs. evil, my way or the highway. I’m seeing “this is my reasoning, and why I do what I do, how about you?”.

    It makes for very interesting reading, and I suspect we all have an impact on each other in a much more open and positive way.

    I spent half my life riding without a helmet. I didn’t know they existed. I saw hunt caps in jumping rings, but at that time, very few had chin straps. I thought it was part of the required fashion turnout. (My bulb could use a little polishing, not very bright when younger.)

    Then I broke my neck. I was in an arena on my own elderly arabian gelding, riding bareback. He wasn’t a jumpy guy. I was sort of drowzing in the sun, not paying much attention. A low flying helicopter spooked him (or so he claimed), he crow hopped, tossed in a half-hearted buck, and off I came. I was thrown clear, but without much momentum: I wasn’t able to tuck and roll. It was the most awkward fall I’ve ever had.

    I landed on top of my head with my feet straight up in the air like a cartoon character, pile driving down into the arena sand. I fell backwards, luckily face up. I head a crack but didn’t feel any pain. Didn’t even get a bump on my head. My head was fine.

    Another boarder, just a kid, saw the whole thing. She yelled for help, ran into the arena and sat on my chest to keep me from moving. I kept trying to get up. Had I moved my neck it’s likely I would have been paralyzed. Luckily, she had been taught to never ever let a rider up without an adult or medic clearing the situation.

    This is the #1 reason I wear a helmet. Strange maybe, since a helmet would not have made any difference to my neck. But once the vertebrae were fused and I could ride again, I went out and bought a hunt cap with chin strap, and wore it faithfully.

    The broken neck was awful. I didn’t want to risk head injury along with it.

  17. I ride hunter-jumper, so it’s helmet all the time, every time, whether I’m on my own horse or someone else’s, and whether I’m schooling on the flat or jumping. Helmet while grooming and handling too–some of the worst accidents I’ve seen have happened on the ground. I had a very quiet but green horse lose his balance after jumping a little crossrail. He basically fell on his face and rolled over me. My helmet shattered like an egg–that would have been my skull. I had a separated shoulder, a concussion and a very sore neck–but I’m incredibly lucky that’s all that happened. Your friend’s accident sounds like a million-to-one occurrence, whereas people fall or get thrown off horses every day. Sothe risks of not wearing one, to me, far outweigh the chance of a freak accident happening.

  18. I wear a helmet when I am riding other people’s horses, or on other people’s properties, or at competitions where it is required for insurance purposes or whatever. Wearing a helmet doesn’t bother me that much, and so I take my own along wherever there might be a chance for riding. If I am riding my own horse in my own space on my own time, then I don’t wear a helmet… so I guess I only wear a helmet to make other people feel safe. I don’t feel any safer with a helmet on, and am much more comfortable without one.
    That said, if a kid wanted to ride my horse, I’d make them wear a helmet, and if an adult wanted to ride my horse, I’d suggest they wear one, but leave the choice up to them.

  19. This story terrified me. I grew up riding English and have never, in my life, been on a horse without a helmet. Any time I even think about it I hear my British riding instructor yelling at me and my blood runs cold.
    However, I just started riding Western on a free-lease horse. I won’t get on him without thinking about this. Maybe I will tighten my chinstrap just a little bit more now…

    1. It’s a scary story. Some reassurance: it’s unlikely to repeat itself. I was drilled on the importance of this when riding: no jewelry, no scarves, no stuff hanging around your neck. Hoodies should have their strings removed. Zipper jackets should be zipped up, no button jackets.

      Bella and I were talking about western horns today. Reining and barrel racing saddles have taller, skinnier horns. Roping saddles have fat horns wrapped in rubber. If you are pleasure riding, you can always fatten up your horn with roper’s dally wraps: you can see how here at National Ropers Supply

  20. Points for you, Jane, for being a big enough grownup to have such a dialogue *grin*. I actually grew up wearing a helmet without fail (although to be honest I did not always faithfully buckle up, and then what’s the point?) but have not worn one since I got back into horses about 6 or 7 years ago. It’s one of those things that is on my list but not at the top (although it probably should be). Of course I’m not jumping or riding those dangerous green dudes with the ‘tudes anymore either.
    While I never thought about the kind of scenario that Kimber experienced, it sounds alarmingly like something that would happen to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve managed to hook a door handle with my sleeve or otherwise get hung up on something; half the time narrowly missing some major calamity (and causing one the other half ;o) Excellent post!

  21. Yikes! I totally respect her decision not to wear one. For myself, I’m just a ‘regular’ rider. I know that at any time, any horse can be spooked into doing something completely unexpected, but as a pleasure rider, it makes more sense to me to wear my helmet at all times. Had I been doing Kimber’s work and gone through her experience, I would probably decide not to wear one too — certainly while working with green horses like that!

  22. As Annablakeblog points out, this is just an opinion, but from my perspective the choice to wear a helmet, or any other safety gear for that matter, has to do with the chance of something happening. In my opinion, the chance of me falling off my horse and hitting my head are WAY more likely than having the chin-strap catch on something (particularly b/c I don’t own a saddle with a horn, but that’s a different matter). Weighing the risk of hurting my head vs. the risk of the helmet catching on something balances out on the “hurting my head” side. Fact is, seat belts can cause broken ribs and punctured lungs but I’m pretty sure seat belts save more lives than take them. Freak accidents caused by harmless (or even protective) objects happen, and I don’t think there’s a way to plan or protect against every thing. However I do understand if someone has had a bad freak accident like Kimber, they might choose to weigh the chance of that freak occurrence a little more heavily in the scales of “risk” balancing.

  23. Let me preface by saying, just my opinion and everyone has one. What I notice during my life with horses is that we are afraid of that thing we know, meaning if you ever had a horse bang up a leg badly in a trailer, than that is your issue and you wrap your horses legs like mad when you haul. Hence your friends experience defines how she feels about helmets. I am an ex-reiner, I love that sport. I got a jacket hung up on a saddle horn once and scared myself big! I have some sense of how she felt getting her helmet caught. I also know someone who got impaled with a saddle horn and didnt make it. So for me, I probably have stronger feelings about western saddles being dangerous than anyone wants to hear. There are exceptions to every rule, nothing is perfect (the first rider I knew to sustain a coma wore a helmet). I am a big fan of personal choice, and FOR ME- no western saddles. But that wasnt the question, was it?? Thanks for open conversation…

  24. I wear a helmet. I grew up not wearing a helmet. I think parents of minor children should take responsibility for their child and put a helmet on them. Other than that I could care less who wears a helmet and who doesn’t. I don’t even get too excited about the kid part because I never wore one. I think that helmets with dangling chin straps, helmets on the back of the head, helmets that don’t fit are no better than no helmet, more like wishful thinking. I like that associations encourage or require helmets for competitions, but I wasn’t born yesterday and this is more about liability than anything else. I do wish that in this country we could discuss things (or not) without it being like a religion, good vs. evil, my way or the highway.

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