wear a helmet!

The other morning I was up in my bedroom getting changed (or writing, or watering plants, or straightening the sheets, or putting clothes away, something) when I happened to glance out the window. My older daughter was in the stable/lean-to, draped across Velvet’s back, her arms wrapped around her neck, just hanging out with her horse while Velvet munched her grain or hay or whatever it is horses eat. Then another time, I looked out the window to see Velvet grazing in the yard, my daughter perched on her back, staring off into the middle distance.

Both times, my daughter was wearing a helmet. When it comes to horseback riding—here, there, anywhere—helmets are a given. Every single time my daughter swing-jumps up on her horse, even if it’s just to sit for a couple minutes, she puts on a helmet first.

The other day my daughter was out in the field jumping Velvet when my mother came to visit. My mom and I watched her from the kitchen window for a bit before sitting down at the table to talk. A little later, my younger daughter yelled to me from her bedroom. I ignored her, of course, because, Don’t call me; COME to me, duh. But then she called again. “Mom! I think Rebecca fell off the horse!”

Sure enough, Velvet stood in the middle of the field, and my daughter lay motionless on the ground at her feet. I raced out to the deck and hollered to her.

“I’m okay!” Her voice was reassuringly strong, so I stayed put, watching.

Once she started moving, the coughing began. I called her on the cell phone (which she often carries while riding). She could barely talk.

“Are you laughing or crying?”

“I (hack-hack) got the (cough-wheeze) air knocked outa me (cough, hack, wheeze-wheeze).”

I waited, her ragged breathing in my ear, as she gradually made it to her knees, and then, bit by bit, to her feet. “Nothing’s broken,” she rasped. “I’ve gotta get back on now.”

When she came in later, we got the whole story. She and Velvet had some confusion over cantering and trotting, and then Velvet stepped to the side at the jump and my daughter went tumbling. She landed smack on her back, her head snapping back and smacking the ground. We inspected the helmet for cracks—there were none.

By the next morning, she didn’t have much neck mobility and ached all over, but she was fine. Within a few days, she was back to normal.

Recently, I was describing my daughter’s riding—full gallops, thundering hooves, homemade jumps—to a friend, an avid bicyclist.

“Riding is so cool,” he said.

“You should come over,” I said. “My daughter would love to teach you.”

“But it’s so dangerous!” he protested. And then he said, “I don’t know why I said that. I hate it when people say they don’t ride bike because it’s dangerous. Just because it’s dangerous is not a reason to not do it.”

“A bicycle won’t kick you, though,” I said.

“Yeah, but drivers might run you over.”

Twice now, my mother has informed me that, according to some friends of hers, riding horses is more dangerous than riding motorcycles. She’s right to be concerned: riding a horse is dangerous. Yet my son now barrels down the Interstate at 70 mph and I don’t hear anyone making a peep about that. Somehow, our culture considers children driving tons of steel at deadly speeds an acceptable risk while riding horses is considered dangerously risky.

So what’s what? When is something too dangerous? What is responsible risk? When do I let my natural anxieties and fears have the final say—with one sloppy maneuver, one moment of inattention, one tumble, one kick and an entire life can shatter—and when do I tamp them down, allowing my children to boldly live?

My daughter is going to fall. With riding horses, that’s a given.

So she wears a helmet and I try not to think too much. Best I can tell, it’s the only good solution.

This same time, years previous: cornmeal blueberry scones, cherry pie, and a child’s blessing.


  • Lauralli

    My dad's sister fell or was thrown from a horse when she was about 15 years old. This was in the 1950's, so of course, no helmet. She was unconscious for 2 weeks and they didn't know if she would survive. She recovered and went on to lead a seemingly normal life, completing high school, college, married and had 2 kids. Sometime in her late 40's, early 50's she began noticing memory issues. She said nothing to anyone about it. Finally (probably about 7-8 years later) when the issues became so apparent to everyone, they took her for a brain scan trying to get a diagnosis. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's due to the brain trauma from her accident. The scans showed very clearly where her brain had sustained the injury. Today, at 77 years old, she has very advanced Alzheimer's which requires her stay in a nursing home. She is completely healthy otherwise. So sad! Wish helmets were in use back then. Glad we know better today!

  • Margo

    beautiful girl on a beautiful horse! and thank you for a succinct way to explain to my kids not to yell for me across the whole house.

    I wrecked my bike once while I was wearing a helmet. The impact cracked the helmet and the ER doctor thanked me for wearing it 🙂

  • Anonymous

    My parents leased a horse for me when I was 12. My memory is that I fell off that horse almost daily for quite a while. Helmets were unheard of at the time. It was all part of the learning curve.
    I still carry one of the lessons I learned from my trainer way back then. She said to always ride 'on the edge'. In reality, it meant that some days I would fall off but in the falling I was improving. If I didn't push myself and take risks, I would not grow and improve. It was a great lesson to carry with me into adulthood. SJ in Vancouver BC

  • Fiona

    I just love the photos. Seeing the way your daughter sits her horse is simply wonderful…mostly like a bur! Life is full of danger's but we have to live it because we only have one. I rode from childhood and only ever wore a helmet in competition, but then I was lucky too! The thrill of galloping a horse!

  • Susan

    I grew up riding horses and that was way before anyone thought about safety headgear (other than my cowgirl hat). I took my portion of spills, too. Today, I would wear a helmet. But only if it was shaped like a cowgirl hat. 🙂

  • Rachelle

    A couple of hundred years ago, people riding horses was the norm. I'm sure parents were concerned about their children riding and getting hurt, but no more than we are vaguely concerned with our teenagers starting to drive. I think the prevalence of the activity really matters a lot in how dangerous we see it; something of a safety feature for our brains so we don't go crazy worrying about things that we're going to do every day anyway.

    I mean, as an example, driving a car has been shown to be more dangerous than flying in an airplane and yet people who are absolutely terrified of being in planes get into cars every day. But if we let ourselves be worried about cars (and busses, etc), then we'd never go anywhere and that's just not an option for a lot of people these days.

  • Anonymous

    You might also look into a good trusted chiropractor or massage therapist for body work after falls. (I have a couple names to recommend who have reasonable prices in the area.) Even if muscle soreness lessens within a few days, repeated impacts can affect body structure over the longer term, even in the more resilient bodies of young people.


  • Becky

    At some point, we're not going to be around to protect our children from every little thing, so I do think we need to teach them to live and live boldly, but to take the necessary precautions, like helmets.
    That's my philosophy anyway.

  • Lizzy

    Daughter (11) has been riding since she was 3. They have it drummed into them if they fall and bang their head. Regardless of whether there is visible damage the helmet must be replaced. Apparently the impact weakens the integral structure. Same as if you are in a traffic bump, infant carseats need replacing for the same reason.
    I think life is risky but we don't stop living! It's about assessing what lies ahead and taking adequate protection if necessary.
    That said I still can't watch dd jump. Dressage yes, but jumping gives me the shivers. You could consider body armour for your daughter. The jury is out. Some say no armour makes you safer as you're more aware. Others won't ride without. DD has to wear it at the stables we use as a requirement. I think it's wise as it's a busy yard with a main train line running past. Too much potential for bolting!

  • Sarah

    Tell me about it. With kids in Africa, we're sorting through this on a near daily basis because we feel like we have no parent peer guide to tell us if a risk is stupid or not. So far we've found the best rule of thumb is to read to ourselves the headline if the worst case scenario does happen. I.e. "Child injured from riding horse." (Few will judge you after the fact for letting your kid ride the horse.) Or "Child eaten from parents letting her sit on crocodile." (Everyone will say this was a stupid thing to let you kid sit on a crocodile.) I swear, this is a real life scenario. Everyone here swears it's totally safe to sit on a crocodile. Tradition, even! We've seen many do it. But I still read myself the headline and let that be the guide.

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