Riders are showing their hands and choosing safety (helmets) over tradition (top hats) in ever-increasing numbers.  In fact, the era of the chimney sweep at Rolex may have come to an end.  And I won’t be the sadder for it.

The chimney sweep look rules no longer

Philip Dutton, always the worst offender, wore a helmet during his dressage test this year.  Phillip’s timing is impeccable — whether it’s the touch of a crop just before take-off or running into a barn that’s ablaze to save a horse — but his taste in chapeaux hasn’t kept pace.  Until now.

When it comes to taste, it’s hard to go wrong with a riding helmet these days (well, there are always those Jenny Oz monstrosities).

Bring me my smelling salts!

My grandmother used to say that someone looked “smart” with gloves and a hat.  She meant “smart” as in “classically elegant,” but I think riders now look “smart” in helmets because they look as if they’ve made an intelligent choice.

riders4helmets reports that a total of 12 riders chose to wear helmets for their dressage tests at Rolex, and to that I say “Bravo!”  Soon, the top hat in dressage may be as much a relic as my grandmother’s dove grey gloves.

Some of the women in The Women


Yes, it will be sad to say goodbye to the elegance but I feel exactly the same way about top hats in the saddle as I do about the clothes in George Cukor’s The Women.  I have a few gowns hanging in my own closet.  I love them.  But I don’t wear them in the barn.  If you need to wear a top hat, why not do so for a formal affair, a la Marlene Dietrich?

Since we live in the land of the free (or think we do), maybe you think that wearing a helmet should be an individual choice.  Or maybe you think it should be mandatory to wear a helmet, to reduce health care costs which have risen because of traumatic brain injuries resulting from riding accidents. On this one, I’m with the first group (although I have serious problems with the health care system, I believe that helmets are a relatively small part of the problem — certainly smaller than marshmallow-flavored vodka or the desire to add shareholder value).

I think that wearing a helmet should be an individual choice.  But I also think that riders who choose not to wear helmets should be ready to hear that people think the choice they’ve made is a stupid one.  

To those who say that a helmet ruins their hair, I say, “if you think your hair is more important than your head, you’re probably right.”  That’s easy for me to say because a helmet saved my life.  I was wearing one when I was 13 and a horse that I was riding flipped over with me on his back.  I was trapped between my horse and the fence and I was kicked in the head.  I believe I would have died had it not been for that helmet.  So I wear one every ride and so do my students.  And there will never be anyone on my farm at any time on a horse without one.

A sign at my barn. If you're up, you're in a helmet, hacking or not

I have a friend who grew up riding Western and nearly took home a championship ribbon at Congress.  Today, she wears a helmet every time she rides — even if she’s at a clinic where she’s the only one wearing safety equipment on her head.  She’s never had a head injury — much less a traumatic brain injury — she just realized that riding was a dangerous enough sport without being reckless.  She doesn’t care how many cowboys or cowgirls laugh at her.  And she has the most beautiful blonde hair, so she, as much as anyone, has a reason to put her hair before her head.

For people new to helmets, it’s important to remember that the proper fit of the chinstrap is as important as the fact that your helmet conforms with approved safety standards.  It distresses me to see Shawna Harding on the cover of this month’s Dressage Today with a chin strap completely loose and hanging inches below her chin.  It makes me wonder if the hat was a prop for the photo shoot.  The last thing we need is a helmet “for show” that’s being shown incorrectly fitted.

Of course, the hunt cap I was wearing that saved my life when I was 13 had no chin strap at all.  But it had virtually no padding either and didn’t move much once it was pulled down on my forehead.  It survived that kick in the head and several other incidents.  I miss how flattering that hunt cap was (so much more than today’s helmets) and I miss its red satin lining but I feel much safer in my Charles Owen skullcap (I love the fact that I can see everything, even the birds flying above me).

I’m also happy that the USEA, the USEF and the USDF have all recently instituted a helmet rule for anyone riding on show grounds.  That 40% decrease in event rider injuries between 2007 and 2011 is mighty impressive.  Understandably, FEI rules take precedence.  But we’re seeing more and more FEI riders wearing helmets these days.

Hopefully, some day, wearing your helmet will be like wearing your seat belt — you’ll look hipper with your helmet on than without it and really silly if you decide that you’d rather play the odds.

If you’re still on the fence about helmets, it’s probably worth your time to watch this video, from the woman who put helmets in the spotlight, Courtney King-Dye: