Before I begin this post, I want to say that I still believe it's the right of every adult to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. It's a fact of life that helmets are not routinely worn by western riders. The high levels of dressage still show in the traditional top hat, and in the hunt seat classes at stock breed shows, velvet hunt caps with no chin strap are still correct, which we all know go flying when you do.
I do believe it is the duty of every parent to encase their child's head in an approved helmet when possible. Again, it is a fact of life that the western disciplines do not compete in approved helmets so I understand when a traditional western hat is worn in the show ring (I do believe 4-H requires helmets for youth riders but I'm not sure if that's a national 4-H rule, or just local? Feel free to educate me.). When they're 18, they can make their own decision but under that age, it's your job as Mom or Dad to keep them as safe as possible by putting a helmet on their heads, boots on their feet, and ensuring they are on a horse appropriate to their abilities (i.e. NOT your two year old colt because you wanted to "see what he would do.")
This duty is especially important when your child is disabled and may have an even greater risk of an accident than a child who is not. Even if his disability doesn't affect his balance and coordination, it may affect his ability to respond to instructions particularly in an emergency. That's why so many people freaked out when they saw this Craigslist posting - and rightfully so:
"Autism and horses? (Eureka)
Reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org [Errors when replying to ads?] Date: 2009-05-04, 11:41AM PDT Have you wanted your child to experience the therapeutic value of horses? I have 11 years experience working with children with developmental disabilities in . I have extensive training in language development through movement and sensory experience, as well as behavior modification and skill development. If you have an child with a disability, and would like them to experience everything that horses and I can offer them, send me an email. I have all the gear, just bring a . (I do have 2 helmets, they are medium and large size) Bicycle helmets offer equally good protection as the expensive horseback riding helmets. "
The ad continues but this is the statement that made everybody cringe. Nicki, they're not, and you could have found that easily enough by googling. Bicycle helmets are not designed for a fall from 5 feet in the air - they're designed for a fall from a bicycle. They have a lot of padding at the top but none at the back, and don't extend down as far. Horseback riding helmets are specifically designed to address the fact that you may get a sharp hoof in the head - this hazard doesn't exist in bicycle riding. To say that a bike helmet offers "equally good protection" is incorrect and irresponsible. It doesn't.
Here's what the American Medical Equestrian Association has to say about using a bike helmet instead of a riding helmet. As they note (and Nikki caters to this in her ad), the usually reason for choosing a bicycle helmet instead of a riding helmet is price. But here's an approved, lightweight, dial-a-fit adjustable helmet for only $34! Who can't afford that?
I understand wanting to save money wherever possible in this economy, but this is a case of $20 extra you definitely want to spend. Disabled kids don't need any more challenges in life - a head injury is the last thing you want to add to the mix! I think therapeutic riding programs are great but (as has been noted before here), you have to be smart and check them out. Anyone who hasn't educated herself about safety equipment is a poor choice.