THOUGHTS ON HARD HATS by Gincy Self Bucklin

When I was a child growing up in the nineteen thirties, the only hard hats available were lined with cork, hardly effective protection against anything but the mildest blow. They were used solely for hunting. For ordinary riding—and jumping—a soft round hat with a little feather in the brim was de rigueur for ladies, or a tweed cap for gentlemen. I don’t remember any one ever having a serious head injury.

During the same era, the available protection against disease was extremely minimal as well, compared to present day antibiotics and immunization shots. I also do not remember knowing any one who died of disease.

However, when polio shots—for instance—became available, every responsible person made sure that his children, and himself, were immunized as soon as possible. The fact that they had never had polio up to that time did not stop them from taking advantage of the maximum protection that was offered.

It seems to me that we have the same situation with regard to the modern hard hat. People who appear to know what they are talking about say that this is the best protection available. It has also been shown that head injuries are the primary cause of death from riding accidents.

If serious, proven protection from either disease or injury is available, it seems only sensible to use it. A hospital stay with a head injury can be pretty long, and death is even longer.

Ever since hard hats have been around, people have complained about their looks and discomfort, especially when changes are made. As far as looks are concerned, the same thing happens when fashion changes. A new shoulder line or skirt length is greeted with “I wouldn’t wear it to a dog fight,” but a year later, when one’s eye has adjusted to the novelty, what was worn two years ago now appears awkward and old-fashioned. With reference to discomfort, hats may be hot in the summer, but for real misery, try stretch breeches and boots at a New England show in January. Yet no one suggests different attire for winter shows, despite the danger inherent in cold, stiff bodies.

The professional has tended to stick with the macho image of ‘I know what I’m doing, therefore I know when I can safely ride without a hard hat’ which for many pro’s is most of the time. I have been a professional for forty years, and riding for nearly sixty. Except for an incident I will mention later, the last time I left a horse involuntarily was some six years ago. (I ride my share of horses that buck, bolt, rear, etc.) I’d like to tell two stories to illustrate why I feel that everybody, whatever their level of riding, should wear a hard hat, just as even good drivers should wear seat belts.

The first story begins some twenty years ago, back when I thought that I was too good to need a hard hat. So I didn’t wear one. Of course, we had a rule that any junior riding on the property had to wear a hat, and any one riding one of our horses anywhere, as well. So one smart young lady, who owned her own horse, developed the habit of removing her hat as she rode through the gate of the property to trail ride, and leaving it on the gate post until she got back. We told her parents, but nothing was ever done. Several years later, after she had left us and become a young professional herself, she was killed by a head injury, trail riding without hat.

At the time I thought, well, she brought it on herself. Now I think; perhaps, if I had given her a different message, she might not have died. The message I sent was ‘good professional riders don’t wear hats,’ which she interpreted as ‘if I don’t wear a hat, that makes me a good professional rider.’

Developing junior riders have enormous respect for their teachers (and for noted professionals as well.) Maybe, just maybe, if I had been mature enough to put aside my dislike of hats, she would have been given the message that responsible good professional riders wear hard hats. And she might be still alive. I don’t know, but I think about it sometimes.

The second story took place only about a year ago. In the intervening years, I had learned that indeed, responsible good professional riders do wear hard hats, and furthermore, they wear the best one they can get, and they wear it all the time, not just when jumping.

Another trainer had sent me a nice five year old to try because he wouldn’t make a field hunter. The only thing I knew against him was that when other horses moved off quickly, he panicked. I had already ridden him once, and except for being a little quick at the walk in the beginning, he was very quiet and sensible.

I brought him out the second day, let him run around for a few minutes, then went to mount. It was a pleasantly warm August day, one or two other horses were around, altogether an excellent time to work a young horse. I checked the girth and tightened it a notch. I thought he reacted a little tensely, but I am not a big girth tightener, and by any one else’s standards it was fairly loose.

I then led him up to the mounting block where my husband, who is a very experienced horseman, was waiting to hold him for me. When everything was set, I put my foot in the stirrup and swung quietly on, sitting down lightly and reaching for my off side iron. The horse moved a step and swung a little.

At that point, all hell broke loose. As he moved, the horse brushed his stifle against the mounting block. It panicked him; he leaped forward and up so high that my husband, who is six foot three, had to let go of him. I was thrown up another couple of feet—I remember realizing that the saddle was well below me—and from that height, about twelve feet, I slammed down on my back onto the stone driveway! I was knocked out for about thirty seconds, because when I came to the horse was long gone, but that’s the only way I know I hit my head, because that hat did its job. My butt didn’t fare so well, and why I didn’t crack my pelvis I will never know.

The moral of the story, of course, is that you can be a very good rider, and take every other safety precaution, but you still had better wear that hat. After a while, you even learn to like it!

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