Only Two Of The Three Kids Survived The Trail Ride – Sheila Hatch

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About 20 years ago I was in between horses and was riding horses for a friend who owned a small boarding facility.  I don’t recall if there was a helmet rule or not but we mostly wore them, though I don’t remember it being discussed much one way or the other.

I don’t remember having much of an opinion about it myself. I had never had a head injury and it just wasn’t something that I thought about very much.

Really nice little barn, well kept, safe facility, nice horses, good people.

I am going to leave out a few specifics out of respect for the people that were involved. The story is really more about how one small decision changes the rest of your life – your perspective, your attitude, what you think about every time you put your foot in the stirrup.

One hot day three kids went out on a trail ride in the preserve behind the property. The kids could all ride – had grown up in pony club, took lessons, were capable riders.  The boarders hacked out in the preserve pretty regularly as I recall.

There was absolutely nothing unusual about that day. Except that something went terribly wrong and one of the kids ended up coming off.

When I was a kid we never wore helmets. Only at horse shows, and we actually cut the chin straps off. So I completely understand why these kids thought it was no big deal to skip the helmets that particular day. They were just being kids, being a bit casual.

Only two of the three kids survived the trail ride. A simple trail ride on a hot summer day, and a child is dead. Likely because she wasn’t wearing a helmet. We’ll never know if the outcome could have been different. It was a freak accident. Kids being kids and horses being horses.

Going to that funeral changed me. No child should die at such a young age. And no family should have to live through something like this. That experience entirely changed my perspective on helmets.

I’m a dressage rider these days but I board at a multi-discipline facility. Not one of the western riders wear helmets. Most folks are casual riders. They don’t want to hear my speech.

Some of the responses shock me. The western folks tell me that you won’t fall when you are in a western saddle. Then I hear that it isn’t the tradition. One trainer actually told me that they like the helmets without chin straps because they are “all about the look.”

I simply can’t comprehend the logic.

But they haven’t spent and afternoon at a funeral for a child who died out on a trail ride.

I don’t want to be right about this. I don’t want to see one of my friends die or suffer a life altering traumatic brain injury to prove that they should wear a helmet.

I’ve seen how riders4helmets and publicity around Courtney’s accident has changed dressage, and I am truly hopeful that folks in other disciplines join in.  Every ride, every time.

– Sheila Hatch

Dressage at the Gaits - July 4, 5 & 6, 2014


  1. Michelle Morrison, Ed.D., CCC-SLP says:

    Thank you for this article. I have ridden both English and Western; been unseated from both English and Western saddlery; received severe concussions and other head injuries from having the false belief that one could not come out of a Western saddle. If a horse steps wrong, spooks or simply decides that you are not going to be on its’ back there is no saddle keeping you seated and a helmet could potentially save your life. Why take a chance of harming the only brain you are given?

  2. I grew up in a riding helmet, I rode at a familie friends small riding school as many times a week as I could if u did not have ur helmet u just didn’t ride. All us kids were so used tonr helmets that they hardly came off r heads mucking yards making feeds u name it ththey helmets hardly came off.
    I’m now a mother of 3 lill boys with 2 horses they r both reliable horses that I have taken through the parelli program but I still wear a helmet ever time I ride and if i go out on the trail a body protector is put on its cheep insurance my kids need me home safe and sound at the end of my ride because no matter how experienced u r or how great your horses r they r still horse some where in there there is still a bit of a wild animal and u can’t accound for others actions. The big 4wd that speeds past so close to u u could touch it for instance.
    When and if my kids choose to join me riding horses helmets r non optional. They wear them on the bike or quad so why not on a horse and I will continue to be a good role model and have a helmet on.
    So I’m all for helmets as I say its cheep life insurance.

  3. Haley Stone says:

    I am a western rider, and growing up, like you, helmets were not generally something we wore, nor was it ever a “deal” if we wore one or not. I had an accident when I was 20 that by the Grace of God alone I was wearing a helmet that day. It had a 6″ crack down the midline when I got up off the arena floor. I never rode again without a helmet in the many many years since.
    A few yrs ago, I was w/ a group of girls at a 4H trail ride. These young ladies were all good riders, rode hunter/jumper and on the flat, always wore helmets. Our small group was among the few people at that ride wearing helmets. The girls all looked to me, I being the “token western rider” so to speak, and asked why no one was wearing helmets. It completely baffled them that anyone would possibly think to NOT have one on, period. I say Kudos to those girls for recognizing the appropriate use of the helmets (every ride, every time) and the parents and trainers who instilled this in them. Also, I have spent every moment since my own accident trying to advocate the use of helmets in western disciplines.
    I am sorry for what you and the families of those children went through. A senseless tragedy. But a powerful lesson. Thank you for sharing.

  4. If you wish to wear a helmet, wear it, if you want your children to wear a helmet so be it. If others choose not to wear a helmet, please have enough respect to leave them to make their own decision. I have witnessed two deaths both were wearing a helmet……..and I have been riding for a very, very, long time, well over fifty years.

  5. Thanks for sharing. I have one question to those who choose to put their life at risk.
    Why not wear a helmet?

  6. In Australia, insurance companies make it clear, if you want to be covered, you’d better be wearing a helmet. Overnight, everyone bought a helmet, grumbled a bit, but got over it. It’s like wearing a seatbelt. You just do it. No problem.

  7. Debby Courtney says:

    Only once did I ever come off wearing a helmet and body protector. I was going cross country doing little jumps and my horse stopped at one, while I continued over her shoulder, twisting the stirrup leather around my boot. When I hit the ground, on my back with the foot up in the air, I could not get up. Luckily, my horse stopped and I held onto the reins until someone reached me and I could scoot towards her tail and my foot came loose. What is my point? It could have been SO MUCH worse. I didn’t even have a bruise. There is a good reason for those rules. I always wear a helmet and cross country requires more.

  8. Felicity Marchmont says:

    I totally agree I had a really bad fall of one of my horses and was air lifted to royal childrens hospital I had serious neck damage I was lucky to not be disabled for the rest of my life and I was wearing a helmet but if I wasn’t the outcome could have been a lot worse and I am always saying KEEP YOUF MELON SAFE!

  9. I’ve watched barrel racers dragged alongside their horses, and yet they still don’t wear helmets. Most English riders do wear their helmets now; few adult western riders ever do. I don’t understand it. If Julie Goodnight won’t get on a horse without her brain bucket, no matter what tack she’s using, then why would the rest of us even think of doing it?

  10. Jill Mayfield says:

    I have ridden western and English…I wear a helmet 100% of the time. Went on a trail ride recently with over 100 people. I was the only rider with a helmet. I really dont care what folks think. I just want my brain to stay as safe as possible.

  11. Deirdre Britton says:

    I wear a helmet every time. I wear my Hit Air vest every time. I don’t fall off every ride but I am always grateful when I do that I have enough common sense to protect myself.

  12. Six years ago I had a horrific accident with a young horse. I’ve been riding all my life, so having experience wasn’t the issue. I nearly lost my foot, spent three months in a wheelchair, and several more months in physical therapy. Those injuries were minor compared to the head injury I would have suffered had I not been wearing a helmet. I hit the ground so hard, the helmet split. Thankfully, the brain trauma was not significant, but my memory and reasoning has been impacted. I will never get on a horse again without a helmet. For me, it would be selfish to not take every precaution to stay safe. My husband and son went above and beyond during my recovery and I owe it to them to minimize the risk of injury as much as I can. Helmets aren’t for everyone, but by the grace of God and my Troxel helmet, I’m still alive.

  13. The argument “it’s my choice not to wear a helmet” is really shortsighted and selfish. Do you not have anyone in your life, friends, family, spouse, dependents, that would not be devastated and negatively impacted if you were to die of a brain injury? And if you become a vegetable, someone has to pay for that care…namely your health insurance company or the taxpayers. There is a cost to society, and to the people who care about you. So, no. It is NOT just your personal decision to eschew a helmet.

  14. The people that respond with “it’s a personal choice” are entitled to their opinion. I personally think their opinion is a really poor one based on really foolish reasons. Football players wear helmets and pads and they aren’t even trying to ride a 1200 lb toddler with a trigger flight or fight response and an opinion all their own.

  15. to Andy J Tuck – We used to not put kids into car seats 50 years ago, or would advertise that smoking was a healthy habit, not require seatbelts, and gave pregnant mothers Thalidomide. I could go on and on and on…of what we ‘used to do’ 50 years ago, and what we do now that we have learned. I have heard every single excuse in the book — and not one of them can hold any water. My favorite excuses include “it messes up my hair” (oh yes, you are so right because a traumatic brain injury is a much better look!); or even better “I only wear a helmet when I know its going to be dangerous” (wow…there is clairvoyance in this world!) Please evolve on your thinking. And BTW — if you don’t care, why are you reading or even posting on such an important website?

  16. Nina Eckhoff says:

    I have never ridden without a helmet. I’ve been thrown every which way and I am grateful that my mother always insisted. I would not be alive today if not for my helmet. I even wear a helmet when grooming, especially in summer and/or when grooming hind legs, belly and picking out feet, etc. To those who say you don’t need a helmet because you can’t fall out of a western saddle – the horse can fall and you can be badly injured especially if you are still in that saddle and without protective head gear.

  17. I have been riding for longer than most of you have been alive. My worst concussion was when got bucked off and I foolishly did not wear a helmet, my boss thought I was dead as he ran towards me while I was laying in the dirt with my eyes open and not moving at all. I learned my lesson and although I survived, it was pretty scary for a long time. I firmly believe in helmets and that I will never ride without a helmet again. The silly excuse of ‘my hair will get messed up’, well when the hospital shaves your head to operate that excuse means nothing. My motto is “Those who wear helmets have something to protect!”

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