University of Vermont AAHS

HARMONY:  The Cowboy and the Helmet -- It's not as Funny as You Think


Jan Dawson

President, AAHS


[reproduced from Spring 2004 Caution:Horses]


The biggest contrast in helmet use is between Western riders and English riders. This is a hotly contested issue in some areas. Non-use of protective head gear by adults riding Western style is defended by the statement, "It is not in the Western tradition."


Frankly, helmets are not in the English tradition either. At the time the cowboy was being invented gentlemen rode English in either top hats or military head dress and ladies wore fancy hats. Helmets appeared much later in the English riding world.


Every part of the cowboy's equipment except his spurs was there for his protection - some would argue that his spurs were as well. Cowboys wore heavy, long sleeved shirts in hot weather as protection from thorns and branches. Heavy long pants, especially after the invention of Levis plus heavier chaps were not comfort wear in the summer. That is born out today by a look at the number of people who volunteer to dress that way in the summer.


However, the "traditional" cowboy hat is held on to fast as if it represents an entire way of life. But does it?


It takes only a few looks back into the photographic record to see what real cowboys wore on their heads. What a treat it would be to have the Western world wear some of these hats for a change. It is not a tradition that would last too long.


Those gorgeous "cowboy" hats like much of that closely held tradition, has its origin not in the tough, unglamorous, daily life daily life of the working cowboy. It, and most of the other closely held imagined traditional cowboy trappings, have their origins either in the movies of the 1930's and 40's or in the old Wild West Shows. 


While many of us harbor romantic dreams of the Old West or the Wild West, it is unlikely that we really would want to further the reality or the actual dress.


Mounted cavalry men did all they could to avoid being left behind without a horse or with a lame one facing all those guys chasing them with guns and sabers.  The working cowboy was no different. If he became injured he would not draw any pay till he could work again.


If a hat had been available to him that would have allowed him to keep working what do you bet he would have worn it. He wasn't a fashion plate to start with!

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