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Doctor dons helmet, sheds denial

Published: 4/22/2015
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Editor's Note: My partner, Steve Peters, recently had a change of heart and mind. The co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship and a guest columnist, he writes here of the new life of riding helmeted.
-- Maddy Butcher

Other articles by Peters: The Clothes Horse, The Anatomy of a Wreck.

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.

At right: Steve starts Jodi, 2011.

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.
Check out this science-y video of what happens to your brain after a mild traumatic brain 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.  

View Reader Comments:

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4/23/2015 Wendy Murdoch
Thank you for addressing your cognitive dissonance on the subject of riding helmets and not only wear one but also to write this article! How many times have I heard a well-known clinician ridicule a student for wearing a helmet?! And then to hear other lesser instructors, in an attempt to be like guru, do the same?! How many injuries are a direct result of the student feeling too embarrassed to stand up to the clinicians and wear their helmet when getting on an unstated colt? I have always wondered how the clinician got away with it and didn't get sued for head injuries that occurred in those clinics. It's about time we realize that while fashion and style are great off the horse, we need to protect the most important part, our brain when on the horse. Thanks again for speaking out.
4/23/2015 Debra Sherwood
I rode English for many years. When I started riding western, I could not help myself, I wore my helmet. It was the right thing to do. It shows children and adults that safety is more important than looks. Even when I was working cattle, I wore my helmet. I want to live to ride another day! Thank you for your article. Everyone who rides should read this!
4/23/2015 Jan Smith-Marconi
I sincerely hope that you are giving all the riders who won't wear a helmet more 'fodder' for their thoughts. I feel that you not only have a responsibility to yourself, but to your loved ones to protect your head. So glad that your injury wasn't any more serious.
4/23/2015 Kathy Hess
Great article but wearing a helmet does not stop concussions we still need to be careful. I've had 2 concussions while wearing a helmet but I shutter to think what could have happened if I had not been wearing one. Thanks for putting this out there. All the western riders at our stable hardly ever wear a helmet.
4/23/2015 Becky Taylor
Excellent article and wonderful admission of a change of heart..and head. Wearing helmets have always been something both my husband and I do in all sport activities (especially riding or horse driving) as a way to model that for our kids. Didn't feel right telling them they had to wear them if we didn't. Great article and I appreciate the links to research to support it.
4/24/2015 Inspired Horsemanship
Thank you for addressing this - As a teacher and trainer, this issue comes up all the time. My students all wear helmets. I wear a helmet every ride and when I train. It is passionate discussion on both sides - and it can get pretty ugly when trying to defend both the pro and con of wearing riding helmets. I believe all clinicians, trainers, teachers need to be a role model in wearing helmets. Because accidents happen to everyone. As someone wise said, it's not "if" but "when". Thank you for sharing this. Blessings and joy!
4/24/2015 Char Cottrill
Excellent article. If you're committed to the western hat, check out Mary Miller Jordan. This amazing trainer, horsewoman, wife and mom always wears a western hat that is built over a helmet. So does her daughter, FKJ. They wear their hats (and helmets) whenever they're with their horses...on the ground or in the saddle.
4/24/2015 Ute Philippi
I cringe every time I see a friend ride without a helmet even though I know they know better. I can not make them. They have to want to. Thank you for trying and sharing your story!
4/24/2015 sally spoon
Could you please now get together with some engineers and design a good helmet that has a decent sized brim for use in the Australian outback where the sun and heat can be very cruel. Perhaps a kevlar or carbon fibredesign the fits inside the hat.
Thank you for your article; it was confirming my mindset for many years. I am a mother of five who has required all the children and others on our property to wear helmets when ridding. I have suffered from two previous concussions caused while ridding horses. One with a helmet one with out. The second accident my foot did not come out of the stirrup and my body was perpendicular to the horse slamming into the round pen. Wonderful wearing helmets! My children have been ridiculed many years for wearing helmets within the Western Horsemen world. Today with the oldest in their twenties just brush it off. I am so proud.
4/25/2015 Nancy Stephens
I have sustained concussions even with my helmet on over the years from horse accidents, but what if I had NOT had my helmet on. Everytime I think about how it looks I remind myself how many times it has saved my life. Sometimes I have gone to the ER and sometimes not. While I recommend a trip to the ER, for times when that was not possible in short order, but I was still foggy after several hours, a few drops of therapeutic grade Peppermint Oil on the back of my neck cleared up the fog in minutes. Peppermint oil is always on my saddle. Wear a helmet!
4/25/2015 Anita
Love my brain, I alwys wear a helmet....even added a western hat brim to it. So I gave a cowboy style helmet. Thanks for a great article.....
4/29/2015 Melissa Mathes
As a committed helmet rider, I struggled for some time with taking the next step to a safety vest. I recently took that step, wearing a very comfortable rodeo bull rider's vest despite the raised eyebrows of my helmet-wearing spouse and friends. Cognitive dissonance...gone.
4/29/2015 Amy
Yes- I'm with Wendy - I have heard many top name clinicians ridicule a rider for their choice to wear a helmet. I wear a helmet now since my own concussion recently, but I always encouraged anyone young or green to wear a helmet. I hate to admit I didn't wear a helmet many times just because I knew I would have to hear something about it from someone, as well as my own cognitive dissonance. Good article.
5/11/2015 Leilani Clark
I attended a show where I met one of the contestants who was a doctor. He was the only participant with a helmet on. It got me thinking: Did I want my husband and friends to see me drooling and incapable of caring for myself? Jerry Seinfeld had a discussion re mandatory use of seat belts in cars. He asked if we should return to cars w/o windshields too?
6/20/2015 Mark
I wear a helmet because I know sh_t happens, I can hit a tree limb chaseing cows which has happen, I can take a fall and wack the old egg. I do not wear a helmet for the sake of feeling safe as that is relieing on a False Security of my riding ability, the helmet will not prevent broken limbs or a broken neck. Yes the helmet can safe your noggen but use it for the right reason not for that you Think it makes you feel you will be safe on an unsafe horse or a horse bey?nd your ability.
8/21/2015 Sue
You don't have to be mounted to get a head injury in the barn either. I tease young non-helmet wearers at our barn about how unsexy they will look drooling in a rocking chair at the rehab facility after something unexpected happens. Then we set out to solve the problem of getting them at least a bike helmet to start and then a riding helmet. And we take pix of how sexy they look in each helmet along the way.
8/17/2017 Bonnie Martin
I too like the vaquero look and my helmet doesn't really fit it. I wear one anyway, but when I found directions for how to make a helhat (helmet/hat) using the brim cut off a hat and decorated to suit you, I was very pleased. Still not exactly a vaquero look, but closer!

"No one can teach riding so well as a horse" - CS Lewis