Safety vs Tradition

Can y’all believe we’re still debating helmet usage in 2020? I thought we’d moved past the aversion to helmets thing in the past decade or so, but then I saw the article on Dressage News about all the top level dressage riders who had signed a petition in response to FEI’s upcoming 2021 rule requiring helmets for all disciplines. The petition was these riders’ attempt to get the FEI to continue allowing them to wear top hats in competition if they so choose.

My first response was an eyeroll. The h/j world went through something similar almost 20 years ago when they started requiring helmets instead of hunt caps. Things were a lot different then in regards to helmets and how widely-used they were. Back in those days a lot of us wore those hunt caps with the snap-on harnesses, and as a junior it was kind of a right of passage to finally be able to unsnap that harness and show without it (juniors had to have a harness on their ridiculous hat). The approved helmet rule went into effect the year I moved into Adults, and I definitely remember how salty everyone was about it at first, myself included, even though I can look back now and say that it was 110% the right thing to do and I’m glad they did it. Within a couple years pretty much everyone had quit their bitching and look at how far that world (and eventing) has come in regards to their views on rider safety. Honestly I don’t think it would have evolved on it’s own nearly as much if people had the option. Plenty of folks would STILL be out there wearing those silly hunt caps. How many people have been saved from injury by now because of that rule?

That hunt cap with a clear plastic harness. I thought I was so cool. I was not. I looked stupid.

Still though, I didn’t get much past my initial eyeroll until I clicked into the article and read the actual petition.

“There has never been a serious accident at an international dressage competition, and the riders believe there is no reason to change that for senior competitors at CDI4*/5*, Games and championships on Grand Prix level.”

Huh. This is an interesting argument. We know of several big time dressage folks that have been seriously injured at home in very silly accidents, but I guess since it hasn’t happened YET on the world stage with everyone watching and bearing witness, it’s fine. I have not yet been in a car accident serious enough to deploy my airbags, thus there’s no real need to put them in the car. Sorry but “not yet” is a ridiculous argument.

“The top hat is an essential part of the identity of dressage.”

I feel like Charlotte Dujardin managed to nail down the “identity of dressage” just fine without it? If an essential part of your identity as a sport is based on a hat that makes you look like a butler from the 1800’s, it miiiight be time to re-assess priorities.

“It should be noted that there are other disciplines that are not required to wear helmets, and we feel that this inequality is not warranted”

Ah yes, the classic “but THEY don’t have to, it’s not FAIR!” argument. Good one. Although the only sport that will be exempt from the new helmet rule is vaulting, so…

We believe it is the right of each individual rider to choose between the use of a top hat or protective headgear. This right cannot be revoked.

Honestly this one kind of just made me crack up when you think of it in regards to rules. They tell you what color boots you can wear, what kind of coat, which tack, what bits, how long your whip can be, how big a logo on your saddle pad can be… but a top hat is THE “right” that cannot be revoked? Of all the absolutely ridiculous and asinine rules that DO exist already, the FEI finally passes one that attempts to increase safety and that’s the one people are petitioning about? The butler hat is really the hill they want to die on (no pun intended)? I also have a problem with the whole “personal choice” argument when the person wearing said top hat isn’t actually the only person that could be affected by their choice. What about all the people close to you, your friends and family, that now have to take care of you and everything else in your life after an accident because you just had to wear a top hat? What good does it do for the sport if you fall off and crack your skull open in the middle of a big event packed with spectators, televised or on a live stream? How does that story circulating in the media help anyone at all?

By the time I made it to the bottom of the petition I was embarrassed for the people that wrote it. It’s bad. It’s cringey. I thought “omg who in their right mind would sign this?”. Turns out, A LOT OF PEOPLE. OMG SO MANY PEOPLE. People I had a lot of respect for. Carl Hester? Kasey Perry-Glass (this one was extra confusing to me, because she’s been pretty pro-helmet)? Many of the 150 people on the list are sponsored by helmet companies, even. Not a good look, y’all. These are the people that our young riders look up to, the people who set an example for others. What kind of message do you want to be putting out into the world at the moment when all eyes are upon you?

I think it’s odd how equestrians are always so desperate to be taken seriously as a sport, especially on the world stage such as the Olympics, but attempts to modernize us a bit or even just make us look more like serious athletes is met with such resistance. I have a hard time imagining other sports being so anti-safety equipment. The football player saying “No, please don’t give me this fancy new helmet with the latest safety technology, I want to wear that weird leather cap thing because tradition!” would never happen. Can you imagine a NASCAR driver writing a letter with “my daddy didn’t run moonshine in a car with a HANS device, I ain’t gonna use one neither!”? In the cycling world (which I have had one foot in for a while) they’re crawling over top of each other to acquire and wear the latest safety technology – MIPS is old news to them, they’ve been utilizing that technology for over a decade. It’s a source of pride any time there’s something new and better, and something the media loves to talk about any time these sports are in the spotlight.

Have we not learned a lot by now? Have we not progressed in our view of the sport as an actual SPORT, one that requires safety measures? Have we really not figured out the importance of helmets by now? There’s a point at which clinging to tradition is detrimental – not just for the safety of the participants but also for the forward progression of the sport itself. I think we’re at that point. Put down the top hat, put it in your display case or something as a memory of a bygone era, and let’s move forward to better things. The loss of one antiquated item of apparel seems a small price to pay for all there is to gain.

(Also, your butler hat looks ridiculous in the modern era. Especially you male eventers with the really really tall ones that make it look like you’re compensating for something. There, I said it.)

35 thoughts on “Safety vs Tradition

  1. Preach. What a major WTF moment and so embarrassing. Tangentially related, Samshield replying to Stacie’s question on when they would ever get MIPS saying they had no plans to add it because their helmets were super safe already…my brain exploded. Just…keep up with the latest safety standards, people, this is not hard. They will always change over time, that’s how science and technology works.


    1. Yeah Samshield has been saying stuff like that for a while. Their other argument is that riders buy their helmets because they’re so lightweight and comfortable, and they’re unwilling to make any changes that might affect that. That’s why my current one (which I almost never wear anyway) will be my last. No thanks Samshield!


    1. I mean I wasn’t gonna name names but yes 😂 and also coughWFPcough. I cannot stop staring at those ridiculously tall top hats, it’s so distracting these days.


  2. I know she wasn’t injured during competition, but the first name that comes to mind for me is Courtney King-Dye. Aren’t injuries like that enough, whether at home or competing, to make everyone think that wearing a helmet is something we should all just do? I mean I understand when approved helmets first became required, there were some butt ass ugly helmets. But safety standards and design have come such a long way that for me it really shouldn’t even be a question. Also, the really tall top hats look really stupid.


  3. I dabble in dressage but grew up (and still show in) the Morgan world. I started showing at the breed shows again last year and I was the only adult in my classes that wore a helmet. Everyone else wore hunt caps and I stuck out like a sore thumb. None of the trainers ride with helmets either unless they are jumping. I have witnessed horses flip over on trainers without helmets. Thankfully they’ve never been severely injured or died, but that certainly doesn’t make it ok!? I didn’t think anything of it as a kid, but now that i was away from that “world” for a while and come back a few year’s wiser…yikes.

    I really hope this sticks despite the foolish protestations of people who should be leading the way in our sport. I was shocked and saddened to see both Carl Hester and Kasey Perry-Glass on that list. Just makes you wonder what goes through people’s heads when they make these arguments or decide to attach their names to them…


    1. I’m right there with you, Katie. I’ve dipped a toe in the local QH world and show at the Club level. Many adults doing English events wear a hunt cap. For those who go approved, of which I’m one – we’re all the “old folks,” like 40+. Older and wiser?

      The juniors are required to wear harnessed helmets, so they do, and they’re supposed to keep them on for Western, too – but I see some cowboy hats. There literally is one (1) individual over 18 who wears a helmet for Western. I’m friends with her now so one of these days I’ll ask her why, but at least she still wins!

      Overall virtually NO adults wear any kind of helmet for any warmup, ever, unless they’re just about to go in the ring. I watch them throw on a cap, stuffing up a ponytail, 10’ from the in-gate. The face says, “This is such a stupid nuisance.” I think there literally is one gal older than myself and me, period, who always has on an approved helmet.

      I attended a big-deal QH show just to watch and out of all the many HUS/Equitation riders, I saw one approved helmet. Everyone else in a cap. I wasn’t surprised.

      I just bought a new helmet specifically for my shows. Plain black velvet, unobtrusive harness, inexpensive and APPROVED. IRH makes it. It can be done. But like all horse shows, God forbid anyone bucks a fashion!


  4. This just boggles my mind. I’m a dressage rider (very, very low-level and at heart I’m really a trail rider that does dressage because it’s something I can do in the winter in an indoor arena), and I have never, ever aspired to wear a top hat. Literally ever. I can’t understand it. I also can’t imagine riding without a helmet, ever. I forgot mine ONCE on a trail ride, and while I continued my ride, I was definitely a little more nervous! I felt so naked.

    There’s a local youth (western) drill team organization near me. I actually participated in it as a kid (with a helmet on). They do not require and almost even discourage helmets, despite many parents and alumni speaking up! It blows my mind that a YOUTH organization in 2020 doesn’t require helmets. C’mon guys, even the AQHA youth events require helmets. Stop blaming it on “Western tradition”. Require a simple black helmet, reach out to your parents and alumni to start a fund for kids who may not be able to afford one (the organization is actually a GREAT way for low-income kids to ride as it’s only $15/ride with no requirement to own a horse, so many of their kids are definitely in that income bracket that might struggle to afford even a $30 helmet), and call it good. What’s made it even worse this year: They require every kid to wear a face mask when riding (because, as a drill riding organization, the kids ARE within 6′ of one another even on horseback), but still don’t require helmets. I’m pretty sure these kids are more likely to suffer lasting effects from falling without a helmet on than they are from catching COVID, in most cases (note: I’m not begrudging them requiring masks, but I wish they’d ALSO require helmets).


    1. I think the Sierra style made by Troxel would be something that Western riders can get behind. It comes in the brown leather or in the brown/denim style, both very Western-y in tone. If I were money’ed enough for the excess, I’d get one just for looks while trail riding. lol

      And/or, with the lower-profile helmets these days, it wouldn’t be hard for a clever designer to put a Western hat around a helmet and have it look roughly the same. Especially to watchers in the grandstand.

      Although I grew up around genuine ranch riders, these days watching Western & games disciplines, I’m frequently horrified at the chances that parents allow their helmet-less children to take. They are riding faster and doing more risky things, often without much experience in the saddle.


        1. I’ve seen those brims! They’re neat.

          The kids that DO wear helmets, of which there are more today than there were 11-15 years ago when I participated, so have to make them into cowboy hats for shows. It’s a bit of crafting, but it works pretty well! It just makes me say that it’s not a requirement.


  5. I actually finally snapped yesterday and unfollowed an Instagram account I truly enjoyed bc the person went all self-righteous whiny about people in the comments who were urging her to wear a helmet. “Oh no, I guess I’m a HORRIBLE PERSON for not wearing my helmet, whatever will I DOOOOO?” Performative victimhood bullshit.

    That petition is just the icing on top of a stupid cake. Talking about your inalienable rights in the context of a competition with rules is…really stupid.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I always wanted to get to the level where I could finally wear a top hat. I think they look lovely. That said, I realized some time ago even if I could I wouldn’t feel safe so I wouldn’t do it. I think this letter is an embarrassment to the riders that signed it. I completely agree with your post…


  7. I will echo the inability to understand this. I know that I am not perfect – I will hop on my horses without a helmet. I grew up waiting to hit the magical age where I too could choose to ride around with my ponytail perfectly flowing behind me. HOWEVER, I am not a professional that is supposed to represent a sport. And if I ever had anyone watching me for guidance I would wear a helmet EVERY RIDE. To not do so in a professional public environment is crazy.

    Another point is that if equestrianism wants to be taken seriously as a SPORT then we need to act like one. That means updating safety regulations and rules that adapt as data is collected. Once again, if NASCAR is doing a better job than we are, what right do we have to call ourselves a sport?


    1. Agree about being professional… and this is why the ONE THING I dislike about my current wonderful trainer is that she doesn’t ever wear a helmet, except at Dressage competitions because she has to (I have a weird barn, it’s half Dressage and half Western). I absolutely hate it. For multiple reasons…

      1) The horrible example. The minute barn kids turn 18, off come their helmets. So the young riders (we have a couple in their early 20s) set a bad example for the little ones, too.
      2) She runs her whole operation by herself. If she’s hurt/incapacitated, it’s all over. Her life’s work, gone. No family except parents 3,500 miles away. 3) She frequently rides alone, on some volatile horses. Recent OTTBs, WBs who would rather not do as she asks, etc. I have stayed late just to keep an eye on her sometimes.
      4) Lesson kids are permitted to wear bicycle helmets. There’s one mother/daughter pair who BOTH do (and incorrectly shoved back on their heads!) Okay, it’s W/T Western, but still. Not okay. I personally caused one little kid’s dad to purchase him a Troxel, after telling Dad bike helmets don’t offer the correct protection for riding. Go, me!
      5) Even the kids who wear riding helmets often have ill-fitting, ancient POS ones. I got one child boarder to ask for, and receive, a new one. Does my heart good every time I see her wearing it, even though she thinks proper care is dropping it on the tack room floor near her saddle after she rides.

      The other adult lady boarders at my barn (who all ride Dressage) have newer, good, well-fitting approved helmets and they wear them. So I do have company. It’s the oddest thing that Trainer is the way she is, almost like a deliberate blind spot, but there you go.


  8. OK, some dark sarcasm here, so don’t get in an uproar when you read this. I’m kidding…I think. Here’s the plan–Carl Hester and the others who signed the petition but are actual helmet supporters are hoping that all the top-hat riders will be dead or incapacitated and then they won’t have to compete against that pool of elite riders. This is a logical stance, right? 🙄


  9. I haven’t been aboard a horse without a helmet in decades. That includes in places where a helmet is not normal attire, such clinics with western riders. I feel nekkid without it now, and don’t want to tempt the TBI gods with my bare head. I actually LIKE wearing my helmet and will wear it all day if I’m riding multiples. (I mean, who wants to take it off and then have to put a sweaty helmet back on again? Ick!). People always get in a huff about helmets. I find it stupid. Protect your noggin and your family from having to care for you.

    FWIW – cyclists did not go easily into the helmet wearing club, either. I was a super fan back as the transition was taking place and they were very against them. They wanted to stay bare headed for longer races and would concede to the little leather stripped ‘helmets’ for criteriums or time trials. Greg LeMond started to change that perception with his 1989 Tour de France time trial :aerodynamic” helmet.

    FEI just needs to stand it’s ground and they will give up. Honestly, I think the top hat looks dumb now. 😀 I am so used to seeing a helmet, that is what my eye wants to see.


    1. Cyclists were some of the first to really be faced with the idea of mandatory helmet-wearing when it comes to sports, they went through all this back in the day before we really had much safety technology at all in ANY sport, or a mind towards safety in general. It was a new and burgeoning idea at that time, unlike now where safety is widely discussed and pursued in all sports and has been for quite a while. Helmet-wearing certainly isn’t a new or revolutionary thing in equestrian sports by this point, even if dressage riders haven’t as-yet been forced to wear one in FEI competition. This response 20 years ago would be more understood, but these days, knowing all we know now and having all the available resources that we do now? It’s silly.


      1. I agree that it’s silly, but it’s really about a resistance to change, not about safety. The reaction fits a pretty standard change management curve. Stick with it long enough, they will get onboard and in a few years it will just be considered normal, if not beneficial.


        1. It’s not really a change though, most already wear a helmet at home and/or have to wear a helmet while showing at lower levels. Not a new concept, just more reach to an already existing one.


  10. I am a dressage rider all the way. Ever since I started riding as a child, I always have worn a helmet with a fixed harness. Even when it looked like you were wearing a mushroom on your head. While I will always be a lower level rider, I completely agree with the FEI’s requirements for helmets.
    There are so many nice helmets out there! If the FEI tried to phase out shadbelly’s, then that is when I would argue about the loss of “tradition”.
    Just because a serious accident hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t. I am highly disappointed in the riders whom have signed the petition.


  11. I was so bent out of shape about the helmet rule back in the day. Not so much because I was against approved helmets in theory. But I had JUST worked all summer to buy one of those custom Patey helmets (with a harness though!) and was so sad to not get to show with it for more than that one year. So dumb looking back. It is a beautiful helmet though. It’s decor in my house now. Also back then there were awful choices for approved helmets, especially that fit me. I remember cramming my oval head into a GPA for several years because I wasn’t going to wear something more ugly. Oh the headaches. So glad we have nice options now! And I agree, it’s ridiculous that people fight safety.


    1. I follow the foxhunting world over in England a little bit (mostly because I love the photos of the English countryside with the horses and hounds), and I’m simply SHOCKED with how many “traditionalist” fox hunters ride out with those non-harnessed Pateys. Yeah, it looks nice, but holy cow. Foxhunting is up there with Cross-Country as THE most dangerous equestrian sport, why on earth wouldn’t you protect your noggin!

      More modern hunts over in England now require jockey skull cap helmets, just like Eventing over there. Now that I can support!


  12. The craziest thing of all is that, statistically as a group, dressage people are some of the best-educated and therefore perhaps the smartest in all equestrian sport. And yet the bass-ackwards thinking, from sneaking rollkur moments into warm-up, to planting a flag on a hill over top hats, is astounding.

    I think people should have the choice to ride dressage wearing an athletic-type riding outfit, more like what riders wear on cross-country (doesn’t have to include a safety vest). In the rider’s choice of colors. It’s not traditional in dressage, or course, but it is in other disciplines, and they do want to be equal with the choices in other disciplines. Can those that signed the petition get behind that choice?

    “If an essential part of your identity as a sport is based on a hat that makes you look like a butler from the 1800’s, it miiiight be time to re-assess priorities.” YES THIS !!! wahahahahahaha …

    Before Sept. 11, 2001, no one had ever flown a plane into a building in a deliberate act of terrorism. But a lot of people knew that something like that was coming, sooner or later.

    Before it happened, a lot of different tragedies had never happened before. But they could be foreseen and prevented – if someone cared enough to prevent them.


  13. I would find it amusing if the helmet companies dropped some of these people for signing it.

    It is absolutely ridiculous. Wear a damn helmet. Its not hard. Top hats look silly.


    1. If I were a helmet company I would 100% at least reach out to my rider and say “Hey, either you strike your name from this petition or you lose this sponsorship”.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Super tired of all the it’s my right not to wear – helmets, masks, whatever – arguments. The flip side of rights is responsibilities. Can’t have one without the other.

    Surely we owe it to whoever would end up pushing our wheelchair (if we’re lucky,) or those who won’t be able to attend the funeral, to do the responsible thing, no matter how “inconvenient” it is.


  15. I just checked the petition…. so sad to see that the whole german dressage team, including our national coach, signed it. I am embarassed by the example they set for our country.


  16. I have been a dressage rider for many years and have seen many of the top riders in a. On show environment . It amazes me how some top riders pretend to be pro-helmet at shows and yet ride and school at home with nothing. It is hypocrisy at it’s finest.


  17. Having stood next to WFP one time when he had on his stovepipe, I can attest that it was completely RIDICULOUS. I simply can’t imagine what dressage people are thinking. How embarrassing! Courtney and Charlotte must want to beat their heads in themselves. I hope this goes nowhere…


  18. Motorsports of all types fought the HANS device initially. F1 also had a meltdown about the Halo, and that came in right after someone DIED. It was pathetic and embarrassing, yet I don’t think there would be any support from dropping either of those now. Helmets should be mandatory in all FEI disciplines, end of story. Riders that dont’ like it can shut up or leave the sport. More than enough research shows just how damaging long term even small head knocks are. And the most susceptible are young people, and women. Young women are at the highest risk. Horse sport demographic? I’m super tight with money, and I’d go as far as to say no helmet older than 5 years should be used, and that should be enforced too.


    1. Yes, that was back in the day before we really had much safety technology at all in ANY sport, or a mind towards safety in general. It was a new and burgeoning idea at that time, unlike now where safety is widely discussed and pursued in all sports. Helmet wearing certainly isn’t a new or revolutionary thing in equestrian sports by this point. This response 20 years ago would be more understood, but these days? It’s silly.


  19. I’m really interested in the insurance side of things – most insurance companies these days won’t cover you if you don’t do basic risk management, so I can’t understand how helmets are not mandatory as a condition of insurance cover. Insurance companies make people jump through all sorts of hoops about everything else, it doesn’t compute to me why helmets are still optional to insurance companies.


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