Have you considered ditching your Western hat for something more protective than felt or straw? But something’s holding you back. You’re concerned that a heavy, bulky helmet will be hot and uncomfortable on the trail. Or you’re worried what others might say if you enter the show ring sporting a helmet. Or maybe wearing head protection seems silly for someone like you—you’re an experienced rider, or you know your horse well, or you don’t jump or compete in high-speed events. Maybe you rarely travel at a pace faster than a jog. How could you be at risk?
We’re not here to tell you whether or not you should wear a helmet, and unless mandated by your breed association’s rules, it’s ultimately your choice. But we talked to a handful of riders who choose to wear a helmet every time they ride. Here, they’ll share their stories and offer insight to help you decide if a helmet might be right for you.
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Fallon Taylor, Collinsville, Texas.
Riding résumé: Taylor stole the spotlight when she qualified for her first Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in 1995 at 13 years old. The barrel racer finished third in the standings that year and went on to qualify consecutive years through 1998. She returned to the WNFR in 2014, captivating fans and winning the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racing world championship, and she qualified again in 2015. She now competes on the Elite Rodeo Athletes circuit.
Why she rides safe: In 2009, a riding accident left Taylor with a fractured C-2 vertebrae, followed by a lengthy recovery. Concern about another head injury led her to try a helmet, and she liked it.
“I found comfort in riding in a helmet, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t done it sooner,” she shares. “At the 2014 WNFR, I decided to wear a helmet in the third round. I wanted to use my status to raise helmet awareness. That same year I won a world championship, so my platform had an even larger audience.”
Taylor has made it her mission to help other riders, young and old, feel comfortable and even proud to wear helmets.
Best helmet advice: “Don’t let the helmet keep you from being you,” Taylor shares. “Yes, a helmet can feel bulky at first. But use it to express your style. Pick one in your favorite color or with a funky design. Or go conservative if that’s your personality. There are no rules about how you should or shouldn’t look in a helmet.”
Taylor also says wearing a helmet doesn’t mean you have to forego your Western style. “I wear a cowboy hat outside the arena—anyone who knows me knows I won’t give up my glam cowboy hats. But when it’s time to go to work, I put on my ‘thinking cap.’”
‘Hater beacon’: “Wearing a helmet can bring out people who want to find something to pick on,” Taylor shares. “But I don’t dignify that negativity with a response. I just pray that the person making the comments doesn’t end up in an accident with injuries that could’ve been prevented by a helmet.”
Joyce Esernia, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Riding résumé: Esernia competes in reined cow horse in AQHA and NRCHA events aboard her 9-year-old Quarter Horse gelding Oaks Dual Rey. She began her life with horses at the age of 10 working as a trail guide in northern Virginia. After high school, she took a break from horses to attend college and pursue a career, but resumed riding in her mid-30s. Upon relocating to Carmel Valley in central California, Esernia started riding at a barn with a reined cow horse trainer. “She introduced me to working cows, and I quickly became infatuated with the sport,” Esernia recalls.
Why she rides safe: About 20 years ago, Esernia’s husband was perusing a health newsletter and came across an interesting claim: Horseback riding without a helmet was considered just as dangerous as riding a motorcycle sans helmet. “It was hard to argue with that,” Esernia says. “So I started wearing a helmet back then, when I was trail riding.” When she began learning to ride cow horses, however, she didn’t wear head protection. “I was practicing for a gymkhana competition, got bucked off, and ended up in the hospital with concussion syndrome. If I even slightly turned my head, the whole room spun. It was hugely disorienting—as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope with only slivers of vision. I couldn’t turn my head or stand up for a week.” Doctors assured Esernia the spinning sensation would subside, but if her head ever took another blow she’d likely suffer permanent damage. “And that was it for me. I feel extremely lucky for my recovery, and I won’t take that risk again.”
Dirt-wise: “A lot of people assume it’s safe to ride in an arena without a helmet because you’re on soft dirt. Take it from me, it’s not so soft when you’re pile-driven into it,” she advises.
Best helmet advice: Get past worrying about how you look. “I know that’s sometimes hard,” Esernia says. “When I see my show pictures, I cringe—I think I look like a geek in my helmet, but that’s just the way it is. But helmet shapes and styles have improved in recent years; they’re not as bulky as they used to be. You might be surprised that they’re lighter and a lot more comfortable than people think.”
Clever comeback: “On vacation I rode at a rental stable where a couple of wranglers teased me for wearing a helmet,” she recalls. “One even made a crack that wearing a helmet is a sign of an insecure rider. I just smiled and said, ‘You only need to wear a helmet if ya got brains to protect!’”
Ellen Mesaros, Salida, Colorado.
Riding résumé: Mesaros trail rides with friends aboard her 17-year-old Arabian mare Tika, and she enjoys groundwork exercises that benefit trail riding. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Mesaros learned to ride out on the trail and participated in 4-H, but sold her childhood horse when she left for college. After a 30-year hiatus, she got back in the saddle and hit the trails.
Why she rides safe: At age 15,
Mesaros took a bad fall off her horse; she fractured her skull, broke multiple bones in her face, and had a large contusion on her brain. “We were just being kids—cantering through the woods at dusk and not wearing helmets.” The injury left her eyes positioned unevenly, causing her to lose her depth perception. “But when I came back to riding as an adult my mentality was, ‘Yeah! Helmets exist! We have helmets! I’m going to wear one!’”
Lifesaver: While trail riding with friends in October 2014, Mesaros’ brain took another blow after a fall—this time, however, she was wearing a helmet. A CT scan revealed that she had multiple brain bleeds. “The doctors told me if I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, I probably would’ve died,” she recalls.
Best helmet advice: “If your helmet takes any kind of direct impact, replace it with a new one right away,” cautions Mesaros. “Even if you don’t see any surface damage, the interior support mechanisms may’ve been compromised. Also, make sure your helmet fits properly and that you’re wearing it in the correct position. Get help from a professional if you’re not sure. When I bought a new helmet after my wreck in 2014, I learned I’d previously been wearing my helmet too far back on my head—the visor should be parallel to the ground, not tipped up or down.”
Safety mantra: “All the women I trail ride with wear helmets. We do it for ourselves and for others,” Mesaros says. “It comes naturally when you’re in your 50s—you just don’t care about looking cool anymore. I don’t care what I look like. I’m safe. I’m well. I’m happy. And I’m living the dream.”
Callie duPerier, Galveston, Texas.
Riding résumé: duPerier won the 2015 WPRA barrel racing world championship aboard her 16-year-old Quarter Horse gelding Rare Dillion. duPerier grew up trail riding on her family’s ranch in Medina, Texas, and participating in 4-H. While attending a local playday, she discovered barrel racing and was determined to give it a try. High school and college rodeo led her to make a career of it.
Why she rides safe: At the 2014 Tucson Rodeo, duPerier was bucked off her horse Jewel in the practice ring, and although she doesn’t remember the incident, her dad later told her she landed on her head and suffered a severe concussion. “I don’t know why I didn’t start wearing a helmet right after that,” duPerier laments. “But I did start wearing one at the ERA Redmond Rodeo in March. My mom worries so much and reminded me what was at stake. I gave in and wore one for her. But I also did it for my husband, the rest of my family, and for myself.”
Fallon fashion: “I texted Fallon Taylor and asked her to bring a helmet for me in Redmond,” duPerier laughs. “She said the one I requested was out of stock, but she’d bring me one that wasn’t too crazy. I was terrified she was going to bring me the mohawk one! Thankfully, she didn’t.” As irony would have it, the first night duPerier wore Taylor’s gift, her horse reared in the alley. She barely avoided slamming her head into a low bar.
Helmet advice: “Don’t fall into the false belief that it’s never going to happen to you because you’re in a Western saddle with a horn,” she says. “It can happen to anyone. Jewel was notorious for bucking. I’d keep one hand on the saddle horn just in case, but the day she bucked me off, I think she could feel it when I took my hand off the horn and took advantage of it. I realize now that if I’d had a helmet on that day, I probably would’ve been fine.”
All about attitude: “I think a lot of people, especially in the Western industry, don’t wear helmets because they’re worried about what other people are going to think about them,” duPerier says. “I thought I was going to take a lot of flak about it. It hasn’t been that bad, but some people do comment about it. But I don’t care. I’m doing this for me and for my family. If someone says something, I just smile and say, ‘Well, we’ll be safe.’”
Elise Backinger, Salida, Colorado.
Riding résumé: Upon moving to Salida eight years ago, Backinger rediscovered her equine passion, and now at 71 enjoys trail riding throughout Colorado’s majestic countryside with her 20-year-old Quarter Horse gelding Pep and her dog Charley. While living in Northern California as a young adult, Backinger began her riding career in dressage. “I feel so fortunate to have had such classic early training,” she says. “More than 30 years later when I got back on a horse, I felt completely at ease.”
Why she rides safe: “When I started riding again, I was surprised that so many riders wore helmets. And I thought that seemed like a really good idea.” During her break from riding, Backinger suffered a severe concussion and brain bleeding in a car accident. “I experienced a lot of memory gaps, confusion, and terrible headaches,” she recalls. “I knew the consequences of a head injury, so the idea of wearing a helmet when I ride seemed like a great idea. I’d never get on a horse without one.”
Helmet advice: “Go to a store where you can actually try on a lot of different helmets,” she advises. “Even if you have to drive a little. You have to find a helmet that works for your head shape and is comfortable so you’ll wear it consistently. I keep an extra helmet stashed in my truck just in case I accidentally leave my regular one at home. And while on the trail, I always keep a card taped inside my helmet with my name and emergency contact information.”
Western-wear trick: “Because there’s a lot of sun here in Colorado with our high altitude, I found an attachable, extended visor for my helmet. It’s perfect for full sun protection, but I also discovered it makes your helmet look like a Western hat.”
Charley and Case Cox, children of Chris and Barbara Cox, Mineral Wells, Texas.
Riding résumés: While both kids love trail riding, Charley, 7, excels in cutting on her 8-year-old Quarter Horse gelding Bruce, and Case, 6, enjoys roping on his 14-year-old Quarter Horse gelding Custer.
Why they ride safe: Besides the fact that Mom and Dad say so, Barbara explains that because both children have been around horses from a very young age, they understand that safety comes first. “Charley especially understands,” Barbara says. “She had an accident when she was young and knows how important it is to protect her head. It also encouraged both kids when Chris explained that he wore a helmet as a young child and showed them pictures of him riding in Pony Club wearing a helmet.”
Positive reaction: “Neither Charley nor Case had any problem with wearing a helmet because they were too young to feel self-conscious,” Barbara says. “And for the most part, they’re still quite confident about it. Recently, Case has been trying to sneak out of the barn in his Western hat to look more like his daddy—a ‘real cowboy.’ It was actually perfect timing that Resistol came out with the RideSafe helmet, so Case can feel like a cowboy but also be protected.”
Parental pointers: “I can’t stress how important it is for children to wear helmets,” Barbara says. “I think what really helped our kids is that we never made helmets a big deal. It was just part of the routine—they put their helmets on and we immediately focused on the fun of riding. Make sure any helmet fits your child’s head correctly and that the chinstrap is properly adjusted—if it’s too loose, the helmet could slip back. And make sure the helmet is comfortable; if it’s too tight or the wrong shape for their head size, it will deter kids from wearing it.”