Growing up around horses, Caitlin Gooch (Black cowgirl, mama of four, and the energy behind @saddleupandread) says she always wore a helmet. She credits her dad for always insisting on safety first for his daughter. After taking a bad fall that required major surgery on his neck and left a permanent scar, he was adamant that Caitlin wear a helmet anytime she was on a horse, no matter what they were doing. Although helmets were normal for her, now that she’s looking back on her childhood, she also recalls getting picked on, and it wasn’t necessarily coming from other kids her own age. “It was really weird, just thinking about it now,” Caitlin reflects. “Like why would adults, you know, be commenting on a child wearing a helmet?”
Now that Caitlin is a mother herself, she’s looking deeper into the stigma and attitudes toward helmets in the Western riding community in general, and the impact they’ve had on Black riders in particular. She began in January with the hashtag #saddleuphelmeton, which opened up a space on social media for dialogue among equestrians, especially riders of color, to share their experiences. “I sometimes think about why certain people with large platforms don't address certain things. And I’ve always thought, if I ever had a large platform, I would bring awareness to helmet safety. But recently, I was just like, you know what, why wait? Let me just start talking about it.”
Although some of the "Don’t you trust your horse and your riding ability?" and "Are you scared?" -type responses illustrate that the stigma towards helmets definitely still exists, Caitlin noticed that a lot of riders who aren’t wearing a helmet are not doing so because they are necessarily anti-helmet. “The reality is, there are not a lot of helmets out there for ethnic hairstyles. If we are just looking at the access, like what is actually available to us, we can see that some of these helmets get pretty pricey and who is going to spend money on a helmet that they can't even safely fit over their natural hair?” So while she’s hoping that talking about re-shaping the negative helmet associations on social media will help riders of all ages and skill levels re-examine their attitudes toward protective headgear, Caitlin is also ready to ask the helmet companies and equestrian sport governing bodies some challenging questions.
Why are you assuming Black riders don’t need helmets that fit? Why is no one investing in safety testing to make sure we are as protected in our helmets as other riders? Why are we being told we can’t compete in certain helmets, when those are the only ones that fit properly over our braids?
And if we scroll through Instagram or leaf through equestrian magazines, why do the ads for helmet and other riding gear companies almost never feature a single rider of color?
The answers to those questions might be uncomfortable, but they shine a light on the work that needs to be done when it comes to inclusion and accessibility in the riding community, where every rider deserves to feel equally protected and valued.
Already, Caitlin says she’s been flooded with comments from other riders who experience the same struggles of finding the right helmet for their hair, so it’s clear she’s not alone. “Maybe the companies think that not enough of us are wearing helmets, and we're not going to buy them, so they're not even looking at us as a target audience. But they shouldn't because I guarantee you right now, if I were to say, this helmet right here will go over such and such hairstyles, people would flock to it.”
Caitlin continues, “There are a lot of people wanting their kids to be into horses and to ride. But the parents are looking at their trainers to advise them on helmet brands and fit, but if the instructor isn’t Black or has never really worked with Black kids, how would they know how it should properly fit?” She points out that well-meaning trainers (in real life and in the comments to her #saddleuphelmeton tweets) have made suggestions that just aren’t feasible, like telling Black riders to just wrap their hair in a scarf or buy a bigger helmet. Although Caitlin is happy to show why those ideas won’t work, the bigger issue is that no one should be suggesting making untested adjustments to safety equipment, especially when it comes to something as important as head and spine protection. “I think we deserve to have access to research and helmets that have been safety tested on specific hairstyles. No one should have to be eyeballing it and hoping for the best when it comes to their own or their child’s safety.” No matter a rider’s age or skill level or body type, whether they want to show or event or trail ride, a helmet that fits properly should be available to everyone.When it comes to discussing issues like wearing helmets, representation, or even using certain positive training methods, Caitlin is quick to point out that raising awareness is not about criticizing or judging; it’s coming from a place of wanting what’s best for every horse and rider. It’s about wanting younger equestrians being able to see us having positive interactions and knowing that there are better ways to ride and stay safe, and we can make changes or try new things to make the riding community a better place, even if that means bucking tradition and doing things differently. Caitlin hopes her daughters will grow up in a horse world that’s not afraid to say, hey, maybe there's a better way to do this, and know that it's not coming with the intent to shame or offend. “Horses have souls too, just like riders have souls. They're not just machines, just like we aren't just machines. They have bad days and make mistakes like we have bad days and make mistakes. They are our partners, our friends. We should always start by being safe and by treating the horses and ourselves with respect.”