The Duke, Gene or Clint would never wear a helmet

First Posted: 6/26/2009

When the push began for bicycle riders and skateboarders to wear helmets, it was perfectly understandable from a safety standpoint.
The same was true with members of NASCAR pit crews being forced to trade their caps with sponsors names for the harder variety of headgear, after a series of serious mishaps in which crew members were struck by cars.
And while the sight still takes some getting used to, it seemed logical for Professional Bull Riders competitors to start donning helmets as well. After all, they can come in handy when an 1,800-pound bull throws you off its back and tries to stomp on your head. At least its hooves have to crack the helmet before they can start on the skull, possibly giving the downed rider a chance to escape.
However, despite the many ways in which protective devices for the noggin have become prominent on our sports and recreation scene, I do not think America is ready to accept the idea of its sons and daughters wearing helmets while horseback riding. Somehow it just doesnt seem right, from aesthetic and other perspectives.
All I have to say at this point is, what would any self-respecting cowboy of the Old West say if you told him to put on a helmet, rather than the impressive hats usually found on the heads of cowboys and cowgirls?
I am not a regular horseback rider and dont keep up with all the trends in that field, so I was somewhat surprised last weekend to see that this new helmet thing also has spread to equestrian pastimes, just like kudzu.
The source of this was a Saturday morning program on public television called Equitrekking, a travel series that attempts to take viewers on horseback riding vacations around the world. When watching that show recently, I noticed a disclaimer displayed among the credits at the end saying that its producers recommend always wearing helmets while riding horses.
Well, for one thing, despite that lofty advice, none of the people on the program wore helmets, even though they were riding in some pretty rough country. That shows the Equitrekking folks were not willing to practice what they preach.
But the thing that really bothered me was just the idea of wearing a helmet while riding a horse at all.
Although I strongly advocate safety, there is also something called style. And there reaches a point when appreciation for safety and responsibility must give away to the selfish and frivolous desire to look good while sitting atop a trusty steed.
For example, a beautiful woman can be even more lovely in a saddle, her long hair flowing from underneath a Stetson as the horse gallops into the sunset. Somehow, picturing that same woman with a helmet covering her hair and most of her face ruins the adventurous effect of the scene.
The picture is even more ridiculous when applied to the colorful folklore of the Old West and even Hollywood actors who have portrayed cowboys.
In the real West, a cowboys most valuable possessions were his horse, his gun, his boots and his hat. An anonymous ranch hand once said of the importance of the cowboy hat: Its the last thing you take off, and the first thing thats noticed. While dying with ones boots on was desired, I never heard the same thing said about helmets.
There are no recorded cases of this in history, but I bet that if a cowboy had showed up one day wearing a helmet, he likely would have been laughed off the range.
The outcome probably wouldve been much worse if a famous Western actor such as John Wayne learned he would have to wear a helmet for his next movie. The Duke probably would have taken the Colt from his holster and drilled the director right between the eyes.
And can you imagine being the one to inform Clint Eastwood that there was a new Hollywood regulation requiring all actors who ride horses to wear helmets? It is simply inconceivable that Clint would ever comply with such a rule.
Singer-actor Gene Autry, whose flicks are still shown from time to time, was known for wearing a big white hat that immediately caught ones attention, which is really the point to be made here. Cowboy hats, with their wide brims and flashy decorations and sheer size, are meant to be noticed and enjoyed.
And I would submit that part of the fun of horseback riding is being able to wear a cowboy hat in an appropriate setting since many of us like to emulate the Old West culture which doesnt include ugly old helmets.
Fortunately, the situation with helmets and horses still comes down to personal choice.
With some people, safety risk is less important than being fashion-conscious, and I would say that certainly applies to one of the most daring and colorful figures in history: the American cowboy. The Duke probably would agree.
Tom Joyce is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at [email protected] or 719-1924.

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