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  • Writer's pictureKatrin Silva

The Helmet and I: A Complicated Story

I was born in 1970 and started riding horses when I was seven. In those days, at least in Germany, no one wore a helmet, except for jumping. Even then, the velvet-covered hunt caps with their elastic chin straps, or no chin strap, were more for looks than for safety. I remember hitting the ground, then collecting my helmet from wherever it had rolled after bouncing off my head. 

As a teenager, still in Germany, I rode horses and ponies no one else wanted to ride, at a barn that catered to trail and Western riders. We tried to look like what we thought real American cowboys and cowgirls looked like, so we wore stonewashed skinny jeans, cheap hats with feathers, and packs of cigarettes in our back pockets. But no helmets, because, well, that would have looked ridiculous. 

In my early twenties, I moved to the US and became an assistant trainer in Western show barns. With my first paycheck, I bought my first pair of dark blue Wranglers, a pair of Justin Roper boots, and a braided horsehair belt. The Western Merchandise store did not carry helmets - of course it didn’t. I started lots of colts, without a helmet. I rode lots of horses with the reputation of being “difficult” - but putting on a helmet never crossed my mind. On weekends, we watched rodeos, where cowboys got bucked off horses and bulls. They (the cowboys, not the bulls) were not wearing helmets either.

In my late twenties, I went out on my own. Naturally, the horses I got to work with as a young professional were not always safe to ride, or even safe to be around. I started lots more colts. I thought I knew what I was doing, but of course I didn’t - not really. It’s surprising I built a clientele. It’s even more surprising I never got seriously injured. No one asked me to wear a helmet. Hardly anyone I rode with wore a helmet. It just wasn’t a thing, not yet. 

In my mid-thirties, I wanted to become a serious dressage trainer. I bought a helmet for competition, because the USDF rulebook said I needed one, not because I felt I needed one. 

Then, Courtney King-Dye suffered a traumatic brain injury that shocked the dressage world. Helmets became the rule at my barn. Suddenly, not wearing one made me an outcast, an easy  target for condescension, lectures, and shaming. I started wearing mine every day - not because it made me feel safer, but because I desperately wanted to belong, into that world, into that barn.  In my heart, I resented the discomfort my helmet caused. I finished every day with a red mark across my forehead, a pounding headache and a couple of Advil. In my heart, too, I knew I didn’t belong, with or without a helmet.

In my forties, I tried to quit horses, then realized what a terrible idea that was. I started over - without a helmet, most of the time, because of the headache, and also because I rebelled against the rigid standards of the dressage world. But by then, wearing a helmet had become the norm, not just for dressage riders. I knew I was being a hypocrite, someone who told her students to wear their helmets but did not wear hers. I knew I was not setting a good example. 

Three months ago, I developed blood clots in my lungs, which meant massive doses of blood thinning medication. I was told I could resume normal daily activities as soon as I felt up to it. I was also told to avoid any high-risk sports, like riding horses. Since riding horses is a large part of my normal daily activities, I negotiated a compromise: I promised my doctor, and my husband, I would not ride any broncs, babies, or behaviorally challenged project horses - and I would wear a helmet. 

It wasn’t a hard decision. I’m wearing the helmet now. Not 100 percent of the time, but most of the time. Fear is a powerful motivator. I don’t want to die from a minor bump on the head. I also don’t want to end up back in the ER. And, on a more philosophical level, want to stop feeling like a hypocrite. 

In just a few days, I will (hopefully)  take my last dose of blood thinner. Will I stop wearing the helmet then? I don’t know. I hope I’ll keep wearing it, at least some of the time. New habits have a way of sticking with me after a couple of months. On the other hand, I’ve been riding mostly without a helmet for forty-six years. It’s a pretty deep groove to break out of, minus the fear factor. 

A helmet does not guarantee rider safety. I’ve seen people come off horses while wearing a helmet and end up concussed. I’ve seen people with helmets and safety vests get seriously injured when falling off a horse. I’ve come off horses dozens of times and walked away. I know this isn’t a good argument. Many of my role models - very skilled and experienced horsewomen and horsemen my age or older - have never worn helmets. Does it mean they - we - are immune to head injuries? No, of course not. Does it mean they - we -  are stupid, or reckless, or lacking common sense? No, it doesn’t. It just means old habits are hard to break. It also means we take other precautions that are harder to see, like really knowing our horses, like really feeling our horse’s next move. 

The new generation - by this I mean horsemen and horsewomen in their forties and younger - does not have our hang-ups about helmets. It’s a trend that has spread across every tradition of horsemanship, all the way into the rodeo arena. Thank goodness, it’s normal for younger riders  to put on a helmet every time they climb onto a horse. They are smarter than I was, smarter than we all were. I am trying to set a good example. I am trying to not be a hypocrite. But please don’t try to shame, blame, or lecture me about wearing a helmet. I won’t promise to wear one for every ride on every horse. I feel like I’ve earned the right to make that decision, even if it’s not 100 percent rational. 

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