|A nice GPA riding helmet|
When I was a kid, it was the norm to ride bareback. Jeans, sneakers and t-shirts were the 'correct' attire (unless it was hot, and then bare feet and shorts were the order of the day), and nobody wore helmets. Yes, we were injured a lot, but fortunately we managed to avoid serious injury. We were lucky. My sister and I owned a helmet (one between the two of us, if that's any indication of relevance) but it was strictly for looks. It was pretty and velvet, but offered no real protection in the event of a fall. When we competed, we were in soft derby hats, had flat, cutback saddles and solid fillis stirrups. My how things have changed! Fortunately, people know better now.
Now, it is a requirement that all riders under the age of 18 wear ASTM approved/SEI certified helmets when competing in all disciplines. The United States Pony Club takes it even further; they recommend safety stirrups as well. As a parent, I can't tell you what a relief it was to know that those rules and guidelines were in place when my daughter was involved. To send her out on a horse with a bare head would terrify me, as would the thought of her hanging up on a stirrup. Equestrian sports are dangerous enough, it helps SO MUCH to stack the survival odds in your favor by using the correct safety equipment.
There are some folks that still can't be bothered though, and IMHO they set a bad example while risking their own well being. There are some breed shows that are more concerned with a 'low profile' appearance than safety. Many folks in the dressage world are "too cool" to school in a helmet. I have seen more than a few natural horsemanship enthusiasts riding helmetless as well, though I think many of them fall into the 'western' camp. I have rarely seen a western rider wearing a helmet, though I'm not really sure why? Perhaps it's the preference for cowboy hats? The western folks that I asked seemed to feel that helmets were more of an English riding accessory, and that English riding was more inherently dangerous, anyway. Maybe that's true, but there are lots of great helmets on the market in many styles including those with a very western appearance.
There are so many helmets on the market today, that there is something for everyone. There are lightweight, ventilated helmets for endurance and trail, cute colorful helmets for children, very traditional helmets for a conservative and traditional hunter look, and really cool, sporty ones for the eventers and show jumpers (like the neat GPA pictured above). It can be hard to choose just one (I think between my daughter and I we have 5?). They range in price from about $30, all the way up to $500 or more. The only thing they have in common is that they are all designed specifically for equestrian use. And THAT is important. I have seen people put bicycle helmets on their children for horseback riding, and that's a very dangerous thing to do. Bicycle helmets protect different areas of the head, and are not at all suited to equestrian use.
Technically, as an old lady and fairly experienced (though rusty at this point) rider, I am not required to wear a helmet. But I do. Every time, every ride, even on an elderly Percheron. I am very aware of the risks involved with riding an unpredictable, 1000 pound prey animal. I know how quickly things can go bad and how bad they can go. It's so easy to get hurt, and with the advent of good safety helmets, the head injuries of my day can be just a thing of the past. I think I'm much 'cooler' with my brains intact, even if it means sporting a helmet that doesn't necessarily highlight my features. I'm very pleased with how normal it has become to ride with a helmet, and very pleased that kids growing up these days are in the habit of it. Even though I grew up without them, as an adult I will always ride with a helmet.