Hard Headed: Helmets are making inroads into rodeo culture | TSLN.com
Ruth Nicolaus
for Tri-State Livestock News

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Hard Headed: Helmets are making inroads into rodeo culture

Jake Barnes wears a helmet at RFD-TV's The American after a head injury threatened his life and rodeo future.

A cowboy hat.

It's one of the most recognizable symbols of the West, a sign of rugged independence, self-reliance, grit and determination.

It also offers zero protection for a person's head or brain in case of an accident.

In the past few years, helmets in rodeo arenas have popped up.

The most recognizable might be world champion barrel racer Fallon Taylor's wildly colored helmets. The Texas cowgirl, who, in 2009, was thrown from a horse and suffered skull fractures and numerous broken facial bones, made a statement when she wore one at the 2014 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, and again last year.

But they are gaining traction with other people, too.

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Nichole Aichele is known as the Helmet Girl.

The Walla Walla, Washington cowgirl grew up showing horses, barrel racing, "everything you could do on a horse," she remembers. Horse participants in 4-H were required to wear helmets, which "was the worst thing ever," she said. "We hated wearing helmets."

But in high school, in a sports medicine class, she studied a unit on concussions and traumatic brain injuries. "I was getting convicted in the back of the classroom," she said, thinking to herself, "you know, I really should be wearing a helmet." Her mind might have been convinced, but her heart wasn't. "I absolutely hated the idea of it. Gosh, how embarrassing. What will people think?"

So she told herself, "If I can come up with a good reason to not wear a helmet I won't wear one. I couldn't come up with one. So I said, that's it. I can't not wear a helmet because of what other people think."

That was in 2008, and since then, she's worn a helmet every time she's run barrels.

She became a Women's Pro Rodeo Association member, had some success in the arena, and the helmet was the thing that stuck out. "Everybody knew me as the Helmet Girl. It wasn't in a negative way. That's how they recognized me."

People began contacting Aichele, thanking her for wearing a helmet, including little girls. "That really impacted me." As she continued to wear the helmet, she realized they should be worn not only while running barrels but all the time when on horseback. "I was committed, and thought, if I'm telling people to do it, I should be doing it, too." Now she wears one every time she gets on a horse.

Two years ago, Aichele began the Helmet Tough campaign, a campaign to eliminate the stigma of wearing a helmet. "We encourage people to wear helmets but the main thing isn't to force helmets on everybody's head. It's to bring light to it and help them make the decision."

The English riding industry has worn helmets for a long time; for rodeo people, it's new. Even though very few in the rodeo world wear them, it's time, Aichele says. "I think they're more ready (for helmets) than they've ever been. I get caught on both sides. I understand rodeo, I understand the people, I love the people, I'm on the same wave length as a lot of them, which means I don't think (helmets) should be forced.

"But on the flip side, safety wise, it just makes sense. When it comes to kids, I'm more strict about them wearing helmets. Even then, I don't know that forcing things is always the right way to do it."

Aichele's website is http://www.HelmetTough.com.

For seven-time world champion team roper Jake Barnes, he had to wear a helmet.

Days before the 2015 Wrangler National Finals, Barnes was in the practice pen when his horse slipped. They went down, and the horse stepped on his head, causing bleeding and bruising to the brain and a traumatic brain injury.

Because of the injury, Barnes wears a helmet every time he rides. "My neurologist suggested I not ride anymore," he said. "If I was to bump my head or have some kind of accident, (the injury) would be more severe than before. For me, I'm going to wear (the helmet.)"

He's had numerous close calls before, with horses falling or bucking, but this one changed his opinion.

The helmet "isn't western but we've got to get over the stigma of the western cowboy as rough and tough. That's the way it used to be," he said, pointing out that even the bull riders now wear vests.

"I guess I'm partially a poster child for head injuries," he said. "I have to wear one. I'm just thankful that my head injury isn't worse than it was, that I don't have permanent brain damage or I'm in a coma or confined to a wheelchair."

Wearing the helmet while riding took a little bit getting used to, but he did. And being the only one in the arena with a helmet on is a bit different, too, but he doesn't mind. "Honestly, I don't care what people think. They can think I'm a sissy, but if my horse falls, and I get banged in the head, I won't have a severe head injury. I'm still going to live. I cherish life."

It's hard being the "poster child" for helmets in rodeo, but it's worth it. "If it saves one kid or one life, then I don't care. I have thick skin." His peers haven't given him any flack for wearing a helmet. "No one has said anything to me. They respect me. For what I went through, I don't want to have to go through it again. I don't wish that on anybody. I thought I was going to die."

For barrel racer Margo Ransom, she wears a helmet not for herself, but for her husband.

Ransom and her husband Bill, a former tie-down roper and PRCA rodeo judge, live outside Paola, Kan., and have been WPRA and PRCA members, respectively, since the early 1970s.

Twenty-two years ago, Bill was diagnosed with melanoma cancer that has now spread to his brain. Margo is his only caretaker, doing all she can to keep him at home in her care.

Wearing a helmet is just the smart thing to do, in her opinion. "I wear it because of the responsibilities that I have," she said, noting that if something happened to her, her husband would have to get care elsewhere. Many of her barrel racing friends have other people in their charge. "We're responsible for kids, husbands, families, mothers, fathers, even our animals."

Ransom is the WPRA's Great Lakes Circuit Director.

There have been several different brands and styles of helmets on the market for equestrians. Troxel makes a brand of helmet that is not particularly styled like a cowboy hat; Jake Barnes wears a Troxel helmet, and Fallon Taylor is a Troxel athlete. Several years ago, a helmet geared as a hat was introduced, but it was bulky and large. There are "do-it-yourself" projects, where people attach a hat brim to a helmet to give it the western look. None have been popular.

In the last few months, Resistol has introduced a helmet combined with the look of a cowboy hat.

Called "RideSafe," it is a "protective riding helmet that delivers on its safety promise but simultaneously preserves the iconic image of a cowboy hat," they say.

Their statistics say that three out of every five equestrian accident deaths are due to resulting brain injuries. The RideSafe helmets are certified by two main helmet certifications: ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), and SEI (Safety Equipment Institute).

Resistol's RideSafe helmet was designated the "official protective headwear of the National Little Britches Association" earlier in the spring. Helmet wear is not required by the NLBRA for its members, but more and more members each year wear helmets, says Debbie Mills, one of the NLBRA's sponsorship coordinators.

"We don't require helmets, but as long as (the member) has a hat or a helmet on, it's considered a part of full western attire."

The partnership with Resistol and the RideSafe helmet is a good thing, Mills said. "It offers our members something that's a western style. They understand that if you get kids used to that at a young age, they'll be more likely to continue to wear them."

Mills doesn't know how many Little Britches members wear helmets, but she says a large portion of the membership, especially the younger kids, choose to wear them.

But she, like most people, realize there are dangers in nearly every part of life. "Riding is a risky thing. Horses are big animals," Mills said, "but driving down the street is risky. But you enjoy it and take all the precautions you can."

Return to the 2016 Horse Roundup.