I never used to place any importance on wearing protective headgear while horseback riding. In fact, it gave me a macho sense of toughness not to wear one of those shiny plastic helmets. That is, until one day when I got thrown. That incident, coupled with a few horror stories I’d read, changed my mind and convinced me to start wearing one. But this story is not about me.
This story is about a true expert, a real live buckaroo who breaks wild mustangs for the state prison where I work. We call him “Cowboy.” His job is to supervise and train a group of inmates who work with the wild horses. These horses are rounded up and brought to the prison, where they are green broke and then auctioned. The state benefits from the proceeds, and the inmates get a sense of self-worth and respect from the general public. Cowboy is a first-class rider and well respected for his knowledge of horses. I’ve watched him work from my tower. He’d take horses the inmates couldn’t manage and have them ridable, even side-passing, within a short time. But even he was not invincible.
It was a hot Wednesday morning at the prison, and all was quiet. Suddenly, my portable radio crackled and an urgent transmission came over the air. The construction supervisor, who works near the horse corrals, was shouting for medical help. There was panic in his voice. I assumed an inmate had been kicked or bitten by a mustang. This is common, and although there are lots of bruises, the inmates usually take it in stride. But then the supervisor came back on the air, reporting it was a staff member who was hurt and an ambulance was needed. A hush came over the whole prison as we all stopped to listen. The only other staff member out there was Cowboy.
He’d had an accident while riding one of the mustangs. The horse spooked, bucked and unseated him, then kicked him in the head on his way to the ground. And, no, he wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Cowboy is well liked here, and everyone I spoke to later said that their first impulse had been to rush to help, but we all had to stay at our assigned posts. Most of us could do nothing more than listen to the radio traffic—some garbled, all of it urgent—that streamed forth as medical personnel raced to the scene. Cowboy was bleeding from the back of his head and was dazed. He was laid out on a gurney and given oxygen, but his condition worsened. He was conscious but incoherent, not recognizing even the Warden. Finally, we were relieved to hear one of the officers relay over the radio that Cowboy was breathing and his pulse was strong.
When the ambulance arrived, we assumed that Cowboy was safe, and the prison returned to normal operations. But Cowboy was not out of the woods. He was bleeding into his brain and later that day had to be medevaced to another hospital. The doctors were struggling to save him. His memory was worsening. He did not remember his own wife. His condition remained touch-and-go for a few days, but slowly he stabilized and his memory began to return.
Cowboy was lucky.
That incident eliminated any lingering reluctance I might have had about wearing protective headgear. Even on the “safest” horse, it’s just too dangerous to do otherwise. I am of the opinion that Cowboy’s injuries wouldn’t have been nearly as serious if he had been wearing a helmet. That was his choice—and his gamble—but as for me, that helmet goes where I go. My goal is to live to ride again!
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #446, November 2014.