Riding at My Own Risk

Minding my melon at a Ralph Hill eventing clinic at Woodloch Stable, 2013. Photo by Jackie Metelak Minding my melon at a Ralph Hill eventing clinic at Woodloch Stable, 2013. Photo by Jackie Metelak

July 12 is Riders4Helmets International Helmet Awareness Day, and I’ve been spending some time thinking about how my views on horseback riding headgear changed over the years, and how I came to mind my melon.

Going commando at my first summer horse camp, 1997. Photo by Jackie Metelak

Going commando at my first summer horse camp, 1997. Photo by Jackie Metelak

I grew up riding horses at a family-friendly boarding and training facility in the Twin Cities. From an early age, horseback riding was my passion and obsession, and I saw myself as a cowgirl: indomitable and thirsty for new challenges, whether it was adding extra oomph to my barrel patterns or tackling trail obstacles.

While helmets were optional in riding lessons, there was often a not-too-subtle pressure from my peers and role models to nix helmets altogether. To this day, I’m not sure if it was willful ignorance or a knock on overly-cautious people who don’t allow themselves to ever take risks.

At best, helmets were considered unnecessary; at worst, there was open scorn. “Pretty soon, people will be wearing helmets at the grocery store!” Teenaged me didn’t want to be on the receiving end of disdain from equestrians I admired, so I proudly donned my baseball cap and enjoyed my riding adventures, bumps and all.

…Until the bumps became bigger. My first horse was, in the nicest possible terms, a bit of a weenie. While I learned to stick with the spins, bolts, and bucks that he threw my way, there were some days that fast reflexes and a good seat just didn’t cut it..
One time, snow sliding off the barn roof resulted in a bolt, tossing me off sideways to skid neck-first into the arena wall. Another time, an aggressive goose surprised my horse, and I ended up getting dragged behind him until I could untangle my wrist from the reins.
And then there was the time that a mailbox “jumped up out of nowhere” and my tailbone squarely met the gravel road with an audible crunch. And yet, despite the countless close calls and injuries, my head miraculously remained dent-free.
Older generations of riders may have used that as a sign that helmets were unnecessary, that horses are unpredictable by nature and that taking bumps is just part of the package.
Thank goodness it wasn't a TBI!

Thank goodness it wasn’t a TBI! Photo by Jackie Metelak

I wasn’t so sure anymore. At this point, I was a college student and had chosen to major in Psychology. I was drawn to the discipline due to theories of learning and behavior that I could translate into training horses, but learning about the biology and chemistry of the nervous system also fascinated me.
I saw how fragile the brain is, and how it doesn’t take a catastrophic accident to cause permanent damage. As I became more active in the horse community and began to network for my art and halter-making businesses, I met many riders of all ages who had suffered from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), and saw how a small moment in their lives still affects them to this day.
My first time rocking a helmet at a game show in 2006. Photo by Steve Kahn

My first time rocking a helmet at a game show in 2006. Photo by Steve Kahn

As a close friend and role model (who, notably, was one of the few riders I knew who always donned a helmet before she rode) told me, “I’ve invested so much time and money in this brain, it’d be stupid not to protect it as much as I can.” I began wearing a helmet just in time, because the jumping bug bit me during my college years.
Now, I always strap a helmet on before every ride, whether I’m riding my easygoing geldings or hopping on green horses.
My trainer Kim Hiller, Onyx, and I at Woodloch Stable, 2013. Photo by Jackie Metelak

My trainer Kim Hiller, Onyx, and I at Woodloch Stable, 2013. Photo by Jackie Metelak

Since then, I have started teaching riding lessons at the very same barn I first started riding at during preschool. While helmets are still technically optional, I actively encourage my students to wear approved equestrian helmets, and I love seeing the fun styles and patterns that are available now.
If I’d had the chance to buy a turquoise helmet with galloping ponies printed on the sides when I was a kid, I would have been all over that! The biggest step forward is seeing Smart Tie LLC, my barn’s equine safety equipment business, recently become an authorized dealer of Troxel Helmets.
The equestrian community is becoming more safety-conscious, and I’m proud to be part of the movement, sharing my knowledge with the next generation of passionate, thrill-seeking cowgirls, trail riders, and future eventers. Now that I have become a role model for younger riders, I want to set an example of habitual helmet-wearing and give them positive feedback for minding their melons.
Yes, horses are unpredictable by nature, and taking bumps is part of the package. But there is so much that I want to learn and experience in my lifetime, and I will try my best to maintain the physical and mental abilities to accomplish those goals. Go helmets. Go Eventing.

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