The western discipline and rodeo events are among the last equestrian sports holding out from wearing helmets while riding. Actually, we aren’t just holding out. We are freaking out. Stomping our boots, standing our ground, shaking our fists and blaring out warnings at the slightest mention of helmet safety in our sport. In a recent survey, a common reason that people don’t wear a helmet is because, unlike cowboy hats, they “aren’t part of the western heritage.”
Like many of these folks, I am proud to be part of the western tradition too, and the thought of this rare lifestyle fading away flat-out terrifies me. I'm sure I'm not alone in the thinking that if the world were a bit more cowboy and a lot less Wall-Street, we’d be a heck of a lot better off.
How is it, then, that people who share such similar beliefs, differ so greatly in their opinions on wearing helmets or cowboy hats? Where is the disconnect?
I considered the significance cowboy hats have had in the western culture. I thought about the Old West cowboys America has always loved--Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Wild Bill Hickok, and The Lone Ranger to name a few. These icons were never seen without wearing their cowboy hats unless they were praying, paying respects to our country’s flag, or to a lady. These icons were also among the founders of that “cowboy code” we praise and strive each day to keep alive.
For a couple of minutes, I considered not wearing my helmet anymore. It just makes sense that we are one step closer to loosing the lifestyle and heritage we love by putting on a helmet instead of something as monumental as the cowboy hat.
Or does it?
What does it mean to be a real cowboy, anyway? What made the men who created the laws of the land idolized by so many? Why has that impact lasted as long as it has?
The answer is simple. It’s because they lived such a strange life. A type of life that becomes more and more captivating the closer to the city you get--and those city limits are only expanding. Those cowboys lived by principles that are rare today. Values that are so foreign to our world that people are mesmerized by the honorable life these slow-talkin’ simple folks lived. Folks who open doors, who say yes ma’am and yes sir, who show respect to all while upholding their own beliefs--are real.
According to The National Day of the Cowboy, here is what the founders of our Western Heritage say it means to be a real cowboy:
This is the cowboy way--and this is where the disconnect lies. When actually looking at our heritage, we discover that the “cowboy way” has nothing to do with the outside and everything to do with what is inside.
It's important that we realize that simply because we rodeo, work with horses, or love the western lifestyle, doesn’t mean that we in any way measure up to the cowboys of our heritage. Being a cowboy isn’t as simple as wearing a hat, and losing the western lifestyle isn't as simple as wearing a helmet.
Upholding the core values set by the forefathers of our western heritage are what we should be desperately trying to protect—and to protect them, we first need to learn to live by them ourselves.
It’s clear that our industry today is not living by these values, because an outlandish amount of riders state that they want to wear a helmet, but are too afraid to because of the stigma associated with it.
When asked, “What made you choose to wear a helmet?” a young girl wrote, “My mom makes me. I hate it because people make fun of me at rodeos. They judge me because I'm wearing that. They don't look at how well my horse and I are doing. That's all they care about, it really hurts.”
The stigma is there. It’s real, and it needs to stop. Harsh judgments against those who have chosen to protect themselves in the sport that they love is not “practicing tolerance and understanding of others” (see #8 cowboy way).
It’s also important to point out how the familiar hat began in the first place. According to Wonderopolis, “Legend has it that Stetson’s invention of the cowboy hat started as a joke. During a hunting trip, Stetson amused fellow hunters by making a cloth from the fur of animals they captured. When Stetson finished making his fur felt, he made a very large hat with it, which he wore for the remainder of the trip as a joke. He soon realized, though, how well the hat protected him from the rain and harsh sun.”
The cowboy hat was not intended to represent the western lifestyle—it started as a joke and was kept because of the protection from the elements that the wide-brimmed hats offered the cowboys who rode all day and night.
Let me be clear, my intention is not to discredit the cowboy hat--but the sad irony is that we now worry about rain ruining our hats when they were originally used as a tool to keep the rain off us. That’s what they were: a tool. Not an accessory meant to define the people who wear them. If that doesn’t make you take a step back and look at where your priorities have been, I don’t know what will.
If protective head-gear like we have today was available back then, would cowboys have worn it? Who’s to say? But it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Part of Wild Bill Hickok’s code of conduct was “I will be brave, but never careless.” Even Roy Rogers shared a similar statement in his Rider’s Club Rules listing, “Be brave, but never take chances.” No doubt bravery was a trait of every one of those legends. Each of them made it clear, though, that being brave and being senseless are two separate things.
The Lone Ranger Creed states: “I believe in being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.”
“I work with clients recovering and living with the lasting effects of Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI),” J. Wolsleben said. “They change your life completely, and even at a functional level, things are never the same: short-term memory (remembering how to tack, or a pattern), common sense safety (hand on your horse as you walk behind), smooth, soft fine motor movements (a gentle signal of your rein for a half halt). Those things are everyday battles for riders with TBI's- those that are able to go back astride and ride, that is.”
If we can’t do these simple things, how are we going to be prepared to fight to keep our heritage alive?
Also from The Lone Ranger Creed is “...a man should make the most of what equipment he has,” while Hopalong Cassidy’s creed states that “a strong, healthy body is a precious gift.” Stetson, Rogers, Autry--all made the most of the hide and leather that they had. Today, we are blessed to have better protective headgear allowing us a better chance to preserve a “strong, healthy body” – giving us a better chance to keep our “precious gift.” Far too many of us are taking that precious gift for granted, instead of using what we have to protect it.
“I wish it wasn't considered ‘un-western like' to wear a helmet,” an anonymous survey respondent wrote.
Wish granted. It turns out wearing a helmet isn’t “un-western like” at all. We just have to go back to our roots--to the true western founders--and make sure we know what being western really is.