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Why Do Western Riders Not Wear Helmets?

Most Western riders choose not to wear a helmet while competing; even though a helmet costs less than the entry fee at a western show, there is a reluctance to wear helmets among western horseback riders. The question is, why? Let’s find out why they are not protecting their heads!

The main reasons why Western horse riders don’t want to wear equestrian helmets are due to traditional and cultural differences. Western riders like to present a western image while riding, and using a cowboy hat rather than an equestrian helmet portrays Western-style riding better.

We look at Western riding culture and try to understand the reasons why Western horse riders are reluctant to wear equestrian helmets. We’ll also discuss the safety issues related to not protecting your head when horseback riding.

Why Western Horse Riders Refuse to Wear Helmets

When we envision a Western horse rider, we all see a cowboy or cowgirl on a horse wearing the trademark cattleman or cowboy hat. Western-style horse riders want to present a western image to the world, which is why most of them prefer to wear a cowboy hat when riding.

It’s a fashion statement that identifies with Western horse-riding traditions. Western-style horse riders are also under peer pressure to conform to the western riding culture, so it is not that easy to break from the traditions.

Some western-style horse riders say they prefer not to wear an equestrian helmet because of comfort. A western rider wearing a large, brimmed cowboy hat is more comfortable and cooler than an equestrian helmet that is heavy and hot to wear. When out on a trail ride in the hot sun, a regular equestrian helmet does not offer protection from the sun.

Western cowboy hats have a wide brim that protects them from the sun and rain. They also come in handy when waiting on the sidelines to compete to fan yourself on a hot day.

Western riding embodies the rough and sturdy country boy or girl image of a cowboy who rides off into the sunset. To live up to the western tradition and imagery, young western riders often disregard safety issues and stick to western cowboy hats as their preferred choice.

It does not mean western riders think they are invincible but rather that they refuse to wear helmets out of tradition, culture, and image. However, some western riders ignore the danger in horseback riding without a safety helmet.

Horseback Riding Without a Safety Helmet is not Safe

Some youngsters often feel that they are invincible and partake in dangerous horse sports without a care in the world. Young western riders are more at risk of injury simply because they lack the experience of an older horse rider and are more likely to be injured.

Traumatic brain injury occurs in people of all ages, typically competing in dangerous sports like horseback riding.

Serious head injury is the most common kind of injury experienced by equestrians. Head injuries are the leading cause of horseback riding-related deaths.

When a horse rider has fallen or is thrown from a horse without wearing a helmet, it does not necessarily mean they would die, but it could mean a life in a wheelchair with a lifelong disability.

A head injury-related to a horseback riding accident might leave you with intellectual impairment, physical disability, seizure disorder, and large hospital bills to mention a few.

As dashing as western-style riders look riding without an equestrian helmet, risking their health to portray an image or stick to a tradition isn’t very clever when it comes to safety. Western horseback riders who prefer to wear a cowboy hat continuously risk traumatic brain injuries every time they ride without a safety horse-riding helmet.

Safe Horse-riding Gear

Safety horse-riding wear is vital when horse riding, whether Western or English. A horse rider should always wear the correct attire when riding. Wear good boots with heels, comfortable riding pants that protect your legs, a comfortable shirt, and a well-fitting safety helmet.

A horse-riding boot with a small heel serves two purposes; it prevents a rider’s foot from slipping through the stirrup while riding and offers protection for toes against a horse’s hoof that might land on foot accidentally.

High riding boots also protect a rider’s leg from chaffing and from getting scraped by branches during trail rides.

For safety, a horse rider should wear gloves that provide grip and protect his hands when a horse pulls, which can cause blistering. Most fitted gloves can be used for riding if a rider can hold the reins. Most riders prefer a leather-palmed crochet-backed glove for summer that offers some ventilation and lined leather gloves for winter for warmth. 

Safety vests protect a rider’s torso in case of a fall preventing injury for internal organs, ribs, and spine. A safety vest is heavily padded, lightweight, and regularly worn by eventers and rodeo riders.

You will see safety vests worn by show jumping riders and endurance riders. The safety vest can be hidden under jackets.

A horse-riding helmet is manufactured to provide safety during a fall to protect a horse rider’s head against a hard impact and penetrating objects. Equestrian helmets are shaped differently from helmets in other sports. Equestrian helmets offer protection for the whole head but particularly for the back of the head.

Equestrian safety helmets protect the horse rider’s head from severe head and brain injury by reducing the impact on the rider’s head.

Protection is offered when the helmet act as a barrier between the horse rider’s head and whatever is the cause of the impact, like the ground or a rock. The helmet then disperses the force of the impact over a larger area, reducing a concentrated impact in one area while absorbing the energy reducing the force on the brain. 

The Equestrian Helmet – Safety Features

An equestrian riding helmet won’t keep you entirely injury-free, but it will reduce severe head trauma or injuries in the case of a fall or accident. 

Let’s look at the equestrian helmet and how it is manufactured, and the different safety features it offers to protect the horse-riders head during a fall.

Outer Shell

The outer shell of an equestrian safety helmet is manufactured from Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), polycarbonate, Kevlar or carbon fiber and fiberglass,

During a fall, the other shell of the equestrian helmet protects the rider’s head against penetrating objects like poles or branches that can penetrate a rider’s head. The outer shell of the equestrian helmet also protects a rider against crushing injuries like a horse’s hoof accidentally stepping on a rider’s head.

The smooth outer shell also lets the helmet slide easily on surfaces, which helps the stopping room during accidental dismount.

The outer shell is the outside layer visible, and it can have a matte or shiny finish or a traditional black velvet covering. Some modern equestrian helmet brands feature vinyl, suede, or leather finish on the outer shell.

The outer shell is the part that hits the ground first during a rider’s fall; it needs to be strong and impenetrable and withstand a horse’s hoof stepping on it.

Some equestrian helmets could also feature a lining of both polycarbonate and fiberglass for added strength and safety.

Interior Shell

The interior energy-absorbing inner shell is made from Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) or Expanded Polypropylene (EPP) that has shock-absorbing properties. This interior energy absorbing material is usually crushed during impact to protect a rider’s head.

The energy-absorbing interior shell is the white polystyrene foam that has been used as the energy-absorbing liner for decades.

However, Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) is a single impact solution because polystyrene gets crushed during impact and won’t return to its original state; therefore, equestrian helmets must be replaced after an accident or serious head impact.

Expanded polypropylene (EPP) is harder and more flexible and will return to its original state after an impact. Equestrian helmets made from EPP can be used in multi-impact falls, making it unnecessary to replace the safety helmet after every fall.

Inner Lining

Equestrian helmets feature soft moisture-wicking polyester and padded foam for the rider’s comfort. This regulates ventilation to cool a rider’s head during the day while riding.

The inner lining and padding are soft foam material that wraps around the shape of the rider’s head, providing comfort and a tight fit around a rider’s head.

The moisture-wicking polyester keeps a horse rider’s head cool and dry. The lightweight, soft and durable layer allows a rider to wear a helmet for extended periods.

Adjustable Straps

The helmet is secured to the rider’s head with adjustable straps made from nylon, leather, or suede attached to both the front and rear part of the helmet.

The adjustable retention straps are also called the harness or chin straps. The primary function of the chin straps is to keep the helmet securely strapped to a rider’s head during a fall or impact and must be durable and strong.

Chin straps should be covered with soft padded material for comfortable wear and to avoid chafing under the rider’s chin,


Equestrian helmets have a small brim at the front that comes off easily when impacted during a fall. Every part of the equestrian helmet is as important as the other part. None is more important than the other; they all have a vital function to protect a horse rider’s head against injury. 


All equestrian helmets must have a safety certification label to show they were inspected and approved by an authorized entity. These organizations and certifications can vary depending on location; the most common ones are:

  • United States – ASTM/SEI F1163
  • Australia – AS/NZ 3838 or ARB HS 2012
  • UK- PAS 015
  • European countries – CE-certification

Multi-directional Impact Protection System – MIPS – Optional Feature

Multi-directional Impact Protection System or MIPS technology introduced into the production of equestrian helmets was first implemented in 2007.

MIPS is designed to handle incidents where the rider’s heads impact the ground sideways, causing rotational acceleration that greatly impacts the sensitive brain. This sideways impact action causes a concussion, diffuse axonal injuries, and subdural hematomas for the horse rider. Look for the MIPS logo when you purchase your safety helmet.

Helmet Wearing Western Riders Fear Being Ridiculed by Other Riders

Western riders considering wearing a helmet often fear being ridiculed by other western riders. One example was a rider who chose to wear a safety helmet during a barrel racing event.

She said when she went to a barrel race to compete, and while waiting, her turn was referred to as “helmet girl” by one of the even staff. The event staff yelled out, “Helmet girl, you’re up next!” 

It caused her to look around, noticing that she was the only rider wearing a helmet. Even though there was no reason to feel embarrassed, the person who referred to her made her uncomfortable.

Western riders often don’t want to stand out and go against tradition, so they continue to wear a cowboy hat even though it is not the safest option.


Most English riders wear riding helmets these days, but you seldom see a western rider wearing a helmet. A traditional and cultural issue stops western riders from wearing equestrian safety helmets. That is mainly related to fashion consciousness and peer pressure to stick to the traditional image of western horseback riding.

There are many arguments from western riders why they are not willing to wear a helmet, but most arguments are just excuses and the refusal to acknowledge that horse riding is dangerous regardless of how well trained, experienced, or quiet their horse may be.

It has nothing to do with skill. The equestrian society lost several accomplished riders, even at Olympic levels, all because they were not wearing a helmet.

Suppose western riders are still unsure whether wearing a helmet is a good idea. In that case, they might want to consider that the most frequent cause of death and severe injury amongst horse riders dismounted and mounted are head injuries, with 60% of them resulting in death.

Even though western riders refuse to wear helmets because of their image and traditions, it should seriously be reconsidered because heads don’t bounce. 


Anrie Diedericks

I've been around horses since I was 6 years old and started competing at the age of 9. Horses are my greatest passion and I am thrilled to be able to share my 23 (and counting) years of experience and knowledge with you.

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