Riding helmets are a source of strong opinions among horseback riders. Views on helmets range from “every ride, every time,” to “never have, never will.” 

The fact is, horseback riding carries the highest risk of any sport when it comes to head injuries. Brain injuries comprise about 18 percent of all horseback riding injuries, and they are the number one reason for horse-related hospital admissions and the leading cause of death. A whopping three out of every five equestrian activity deaths are due to brain injuries. 

Maybe you are still thinking that horseback riding is no more dangerous than any other active sport. Consider this — 45 percent of traumatic brain injuries among adults were related to horseback riding, dwarfing the number of such injuries in other sports. The second leading cause of sports-related TBI was falls or hits from contact sports like football and soccer, but that accounted for only 20 percent of brain injuries. 

One simple act — wearing an approved equestrian helmet — cuts this risk by 85 percent. 

In 2010, Olympic dressage rider Courtney King-Dye made headlines when a horse she was schooling slipped and fell while she was riding without a helmet. King-Dye suffered a fractured skull and a traumatic brain injury, and after four weeks in a coma she began the long and difficult road toward an incomplete recovery. Her accident inspired the launch of helmet advocacy group Riders4Helmets. 

As awareness of head injuries has grown, the national governing organizations for dressage and eventing have implemented rules requiring approved helmets by all competitors.  

But many western riders have been less than enthusiastic to give up their cowboy hats. 

Mounted Shooting champion Karen Plumlee is changing that after suffering a fractured skull in a riding accident. With a little tinkering, her husband Mark modified a western style brim to go on a helmet, and they dubbed it the “HellHat.” 

The HellHat is a do-it-yourself project which joins the brim of a cowboy hat to your favorite riding helmet, and accessorizes with hat bands limited only by the maker’s creativity. The Facebook group “Karen’s HellHat Posse” offers instructions, as well as ideas and photos from the many people who have crafted their own HellHat. 

Yacolt rider Laurie Gerst tackled her HellHat project with nothing more than an X-ACTO knife and some double-sided Gorilla tape. She used her favorite riding helmet, and chose a straw western hat with a brown and turquoise brim. 

“Buy the biggest western hat you can,” she advised, since it must fit around the outside of a riding helmet. 

A sharp X-ACTO knife is essential to get clean, accurate cuts. 

The original western hat band she chose was too short to wrap around the larger helmet, so she filled in the gap with pieces of another band which compliments the style.  

Gerst followed the instructions on the HellHat Facebook page to make her own headwear, which she dons everytime she rides her American Cream Draft gelding, Dirty Harry. The project wasn’t difficult, she said, though it required attention to detail. 

On her Facebook group, original HellHat wearer Plumlee recounts a conversation with an event spectator where she wore her HellHat. 

“You know what that hat tells me?” they asked. “It tells me that somebody loves you.”

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