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The Western Hat

HEALTH WARNING: nothing in this blog is intended to recommend the use of a western hat. It is a matter for the personal choice of the individual and nothing in this article should be taken as influential to that choice.

Early on in my riding career, I had nipped down to the yard one summer evening for a quick workout with my horse. Not planning on doing anything strenuous, I’d left my hat at home. It all went smoothly enough and the last thing I remembered before I woke up in hospital was that we had been walking quietly back to the stable – giving the boy a stroke of the neck for a good session. To this day, I don’t know what happened but I had obviously landed on my head/face because I was concussed and my face was a mess (well, it was never a picture, but could do without the scars and third eyebrow that now give it “character”).

It was a hard way to learn a lesson and I was lucky it was not worse but, on the odd occasion since, when I have managed to leave my hat somewhere else, I’ve simply not mounted up.

And, horses being the unpredictable creatures they are, there have been a few more occasions when I’ve ended up in the dirt. The last time, I was riding my friend’s horse doing a solo penning class. Somehow the safety pin securing our competition number to the saddle pad had come undone and while we were quietly (very quietly) pushing our cow out to the pen, the horse suddenly erupted and I went skyward, executed a fair imitation of a half pike and came back to earth landing almost squarely on my head. This time though, I picked myself up, dusted myself down and walked out of the arena.

As on all occasions since my first accident, I was wearing my western hat and it did its job. We call them “Stetsons” in the same way that we call a vacuum cleaner a “Hoover” but, as with all cases where a market leader gives its name to a product, the name can be abused to describe something that doesn’t match up to the quality of the original. I’ve never owned a Stetson as such but a have a number of good beaver felt hats of at least 5x quality and they have preserved what’s left of my face and head.

Now, many years on, I’m about to buy my first hard hat. Not that I’m about to give up my western hats but we plan to do a few cross country events this year and the organisers won’t let us near nor by their event unless we’re in hard hats. Moreover, having being doing a bit more trail riding lately, I realise that my personal accident riding insurance cover is probably invalid if I’m not wearing a hard hat.

So? What are the pros and cons? Firstly, it must be clearly stated that, in relation to the western hat,  we’re not talking about a hat that you might see the average line dancer wearing or a hat you may see at the seaside with “Kiss me Quick!” written across the front. The real thing is made of animal (beaver or rabbit) fur treated to felt. Its quality is described by an x-rating (5x, 10x , 20x or whatever) but be aware that one manufacturer’s 5x can be another’s 20x – there is no universal standard. But, made that way, they are pretty solid.

What sets a Western hat apart from other forms of protection is that, firstly, it has a deformable brim which, apart from keeping rainwater from running down your neck, can protect your face. And that brim going all around, it doesn’t have a peak at the front that can provide leverage to twist your neck the wrong way in a rolling fall. And the crown is hard but deformable as well so that it can absorb an impact directly to the top of the head. Motorcycle crash hats deform in their absorption of a blow and so do many designs of riding hard hat – but there’s an awful lot out there that don’t and whilst they may prevent a broken skull, they don’t stop your brain from rattling around inside.

But, truth to tell, Western hats are only good for our purposes in the controlled environment of a show arena where there is a forgiving surface and our horses are working at something for which they’ve been precisely trained.

I know that thousands of cowboys working in one of the most safety conscious countries in the world cannot be wrong but, there again, they are working in a particular environment with a western horse who knows his job. If you are out and about in the wider world (or, indeed, anywhere other than the controlled environment of a show arena) where the risk of the unexpected is greater and where the availability of a comparatively soft landing is virtually negligible, I think you have to leave your western hat at home and put on a hard hat...

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