A Cowgirl Change Of Heart – by Lisa Kemp

The following article was written exclusively for the Riders4Helmets Campaign by Lisa Kemp of Kemp Equine.

Some would say a cowgirl simply isn’t a cowgirl without her hat, but one cowgirl at the recent Riders4Helmet’s Symposium has discovered there’s something even more near and dear to her heart.

An integral part of equipment in Western riding and competition, the cowboy hat is an iconic symbol of the American West. Some wear a cowboy hat during nearly every waking hour, and they feel naked without it. However, given what we know today about traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and the high probability of head trauma in equestrian accidents, is it time for a change of heart, and thinking, about Western headgear while riding?

According to speakers and attendees at the 2nd Riders4Helmets Helmet Safety Symposium, the answer is ‘yes’ from a safety perspective, but the roadblocks in getting to that ‘yes’ are numerous and complex.

Held at the Kentucky Horse Park on Saturday, July 23, 2011, the Symposium brought together thought leaders and top equestrians to discuss what makes sense for our industry, and how to proceed with both education and outreach efforts. One of those top equestrians was barrel racer and Extreme Mustang Makeover competitor Mary Miller Jordan.

While Miller Jordan’s presentation was about the transition facing Western riders in giving up cowboy hats and embracing helmets, she told a very personal tale about growing up on horseback, the one place in the world where she felt invincible.

None of her role models wore helmets, and when Miller Jordan’s granddaddy insisted she start wearing one around age seven, she complained loud and long about how uncomfortable it was. In truth, the helmet made her feel inferior and not at all like her riding heroes.

So, despite parental and grandparental guidance, Miller Jordan continued to find ways to ride without a helmet as she grew to adulthood, learning ‘how to fall’ and telling everyone she ‘had a hard head.’ Then she had a reality check. She had a baby

All of a sudden everything was different. “My daughter’s going to wear a helmet, a vest, and probably even a face mask when she rides!” she exclaims now, with a mother’s zeal.

Once she’d started thinking about her own daughter growing up and riding, and how she felt about being forced to wear a helmet as a child when the adults didn’t, Miller Jordon realized it wasn’t fair to admonish ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ So, she now wears a helmet whether she’s competing, schooling, or just enjoying some recreational saddle time. She’s also become a passionate advocate for helmet use, but she applies some good cow-sense to her approach.

“You can’t scare people into wearing a helmet. It’s like trying to get someone to go to church by telling them they’re going to hell; it just doesn’t work,” she said, adding that rather than finger-pointing, we need to find ways to encourage helmet use that fit with the Western culture and pride of heritage.

Some of Miller Jordan’s suggestions included developing financial incentives for helmet-wearing during competition, encouraging companies to sponsor activities and riders that invite helmet use, more aesthetically pleasing and comfortable helmet design from manufacturers, and greater awareness by top riders and clinicians that they’re role models and influencers of other equestrians every time they get aboard a horse.

With Miller Jordon’s change of heart has come greater understanding that when it comes to horses, everyone’s a role model for someone. “The biggest thing for me is thinking about all the people we affect,” she said. “If you’re sitting on a horse and somebody else sees you, you’re leaving an impression on them.”

Another Symposium speaker, Tonya Johnston, MA, of Peak Performance Consulting is a mental skills coach who works with equestrians across disciplines; she feels that understanding the factors involved is key in any behavioral change, and that the question of ‘helmet or no helmet’ for Western riders is not a one-size-fits-all issue.

“Everyone may have different motivation for wearing a helmet, and that is to be respected,” said Johnston. “The key is to activate each rider to find their own ‘tipping point’ of motivation, and then support them to take action on it.

Yet individual responsibility and choice should be balanced with the need for education and policy development that protects the riding public. Lyndsey White, co-founder of the Riders4Helmets campaign, thinks the biggest challenges are still ahead. “The Riders4Helmets campaign has gained tremendous support since its early 2010 inception, but educating riders in Western disciplines on the benefits of wearing a helmet will not be easy,” she said.

As an example of the need for change, White pointed out the recent rodeo death of a twelve-year-old competitor who was wearing a hat instead of a safety helmet. “The tradition of the cowboy hat is very strong, but these kinds of tragedies provide the incentive to tackle any barriers and hope for changes to occur, even if only little by little.”

While riders accept the risk inherent to equine activities in exchange for the enjoyment of the sport, style of headgear is a minor point within disciplines, according to Craig Ferrell, M.D., U.S. Equestrian Team physician and chair of the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) Medical Council.

In his Symposium opening remarks, Ferrell championed a need for the equestrian world to change with the times, which requires going beyond organizational mandates to reach individual riders, securing buy-in from them so they’ll wear a helmet each and every time they ride in order to prevent the high-cost tragedies, and even deaths, from head injuries incurred during equestrian accidents and falls.

The issues in a transition to helmet usage are complex, including understanding of and respect for the role of traditional clothing and equipment in modern equestrian sport, the difficulties inherent in behavioral changes, and what responsibility equestrian organizations and helmet manufacturers might have in developing industry-wide guidelines and mandates, but ultimately it comes down to individual freedom of choice, and understanding the potentially life-altering consequences of that choice.

Mary Miller Jordan is choosing to change a lifetime habit and wear a helmet instead of her trusty cowboy hat whenever she’s on a horse. She’s making that choice not only to be a role model for her daughter, but also so she’ll be around to see that daughter grow up and have babies of her own.

 Mary Miller Jordan at the 2ndRiders4Helmets Helmet Safety Symposium



  1. Mary looks great in that helmet! No need to be ashamed!

  2. kim gibson says:

    good way to hopefully help others make a change.she looks great.

  3. Absolutely she looks great! I’m glad a western rider is wearing a helmet, and looking great doing so!

  4. Helmets do seem to favor the aesthetics of English riders. A helmet that fits the fashion sense of a western rider would no doubt go a long way toward “activat[ing] each rider to find their own ‘tipping point’ of motivation, and then support them to take action on it.”

    Keep up the good work, Riders4Helmets!

  5. Well done! I do my best to wear my helmet and set my vanity aside when I ride, and it is definitely my children who give me the most incentive to do so.

    I do hope that helmet manufacturers will develop an equine helmet that looks like a traditional cowboy hat while providing the same protection as the traditional helmets. The only cowboy-style helmet I’ve seen is not very popular, likely due to it appearing overly large on someone’s head. I call it the “Yosemite Sam” look.

  6. I never wore a helmet until I met my Bella a spirited horse now I wear one everyride. I would never ride without one now. 3 months ago we had an accident I was out riding alone on my property we will never know what happened but the helmet was bashed in on one side of the back and I had no recall of getting up that day. I wear my helmet, my chinks and once off my horse put my cowboy hat back on. I always thought I would look stupid in a helmet and my western attaire I was wrong. No one has made fun of me and if anyone rides at my property they will wear a helmet

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