safety paradox

Whenever discussions of helmet safety pop up, there’s always that one person out there who is like “well, helmets make you feel more safe and therefore more willing to do dangerous things so ultimately it’s less safe to wear one overall!”  And I always was like

nicki minaj animated GIF uh-huh…

Then I was listening to one of my favourite podcasts, Freakonomics, and their very first episode addressed a paradox where the incentives to perform a behavior make it such that this behavior is performed to a level where the incentives no longer exist.  In sporting parlance, adding equipment to make riding (or football or NASCAR or add in your sport of choice here) safer make it such that people do this sport or activity to such a level (bigger, faster, stronger, more dangerouser) that the incentives no longer exist.  So apparently those helmet wearing naysayers were right.

emma stone animated GIF Ugh fine

So there does, in fact, exist a safety paradox.  And if you look at the statistics (I’m not going to repeat them here because it is late and I don’t want to go and get them from the twinternet), the number of serious injuries in sports like football have increased an insane amount as protective equipment has increased.  I suspect that in sports like hockey and other full-contact sports (forgive me for not knowing more, I don’t really follow… other sports) the number of serious injuries have increased as safety equipment has been added also.  I am not sure this statistic holds true for things like NASCAR (do you capitalise that whole word? I don’t even know), when things like fire-resistant suits and cages that keep the driver safe during rolls have made the sport overall safer, however I definitely think that there are probably much more spectacular crashes than in the past.

FOX Sports: Watch. Enjoy. Repeat. animated GIF
Gettin’ some

When I thought deeply about the safety paradox and how it might apply to my life, there are definitely things I will not do without my safety equipment.  I will not ride my horse without a helmet on.  I will not go out on XC and jump the jumps without a vest and helmet.  Now, for the sake of this argument, I will admit that I would could probably jump my horse around a course even up to 3′ without incurring a traumatic brain injury.  Also, I could probably jump around a BN cross country course without having my torso crushed by my horse.  However, and this ties in below, the things I am protecting myself against are not the everyday injuries and casualties of my sport (as in football, where people habitually smash their bodies against other bodies and the ground).  I am protecting myself against the horrible freak accidents that are, sadly, all too common in our sport.

And this ties in to why I don’t think the safety paradox exists as strongly in equine sports than in others.

First, in no equine sport is the human or equine body use as an offensive weapon.

Second, in no equine sport have advancements in equine safety been made such that horse injury or death can be prevented by a single piece of equipment.

corgiderpEven happy XC corgis wear a helmet!

To expound upon my first point, neither my body nor my horses body is used as an offensive device against another horse, human, or obstacle.  The goal of my sport, and most equine sports, is to avoid bashing down the various obstacles that we are presented with.  So… no aspect of the safety elements that we wear make it such that hitting an obstacle is more alluring.


Second, there’s a whole other creature in the equation here!  It’s not just about my safety but also my horse’s safety.  No piece of safety equipment for myself or my horse makes it such that an injury to my horse could be prevented by wearing them.  Tendon boots?  Breakable.  Air vest?  Doesn’t help a horse.  Helmet?  My horse don’t wear one.

But maybe he should! I could see Murray rocking this with a little sparkle and rhinestone action!

So what does this mean in terms of the safety paradox?  Well… I would think it defies it.  There aren’t safety incentives available that make riding so safe for the horse that riding dangerously should be more common.  At least not in my opinion.

Of course, on the other side of this argument, it’s quite possible that safety equipment empowers people to do stupid things they wouldn’t otherwise do with their horses.  Jumping bigger than they or their horse are capable of.  Galloping in an unsafe position or out of control.  Unbalanced sliding stops (I don’t know I’m searching for an example here).  Maybe that is the whole point of this paradox, but “stupid” is the key word for me here.  However, in all of these cases I posit that a person could be killed or seriously injured even with their safety equipment.  There ain’t no* cure for stupid.

camelotfallJust throwing this in here for good measure.

* Double negative intentional, because there is a cure for stupid. But only one.

24 thoughts on “safety paradox”

  1. Really interesting post! I think another huge difference is that no safety equipment can PREVENT ACCIDENTS. I wear a helmet each time I ride, a vest on XC, and boot or wrap my pony because SHIT HAPPENS. Why yes, I am fully capable of dressaging and jumping and trail riding without maiming myself on a daily basis, but once in a while human error, or equine unpredictability, or simply the universe at large gets the better of me and I eat dirt. My helmet can’t prevent that. My vest can’t prevent that. But they CAN save my life in the event that an accident happens, and I’m not foolish enough to think that wearing a helmet makes accidents less likely. Safety equipment is an insurance policy, not a vaccine against accidents.


  2. Very interesting read. From my (UK) perspective wearing a helmet to ride is like wearing clothes; if you don’t do it no one will let you on their premises. So you put one on and don’t even think about it. I’m sure that there are some UK riders with their own land that don’t bother but IRL I have never seen someone on a horse without a helmet. So for me the suggestion that wearing a helmet will make you do stupid things is kind of insane.

    Love the showjumping elephant. His technique is flawless. We can all learn from that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with you. The paradox doesn’t exist or not as strongly for equestrians. Putting on a helmet doesn’t change anything. You can still fall on your head the exact same with or without it. Your head just might fair better with it. I put protective equipment on my horse to protect him from regular injury not to up the ante. I don’t know a single equestrian that thinks ‘gee I put protective equipment on today lets move up from 2’6″ hunters to the GP ring’.


  4. very inneresting. i suspect you’re right about the paradox being less of a factor in riding. it might also be related to control. as in, despite all appearances, when horses are involved it’s usually a stretch to say we’re *in control* of the situation. more experienced riders can more strongly influence a situation, but control? ehhhh not exactly. and wearing a helmet or protective vest doesn’t change that. naysayers might say that riders are more reckless or whatever when wearing protective gear, but the truth is that things can spiral out of control at any moment, and we usually don’t see it coming. so…. i’ll stick with the helmet, thanks!


    1. and also bc it’s timely, for proof that even riders at the highest level lack complete control of the situation – look no further than Michael Jung and FischerRocana going ass over teakettle just by cantering through the water at Burghley

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with your overall point, but there’s a surveillance bias problem with the comparison to apparently increasing injuries in other sports. We do seem to have more TBIs in hockey now, yes — but that’s at least in part because historically we weren’t recognizing somebody “getting his bell rung” for what it was. More reports of an event doesn’t necessarily equal more occurrences of same, you know?


    1. Another fantastic point! I think, though, that even if you do the analysis in terms of things that don’t have an observation bias like TBI (measuring actual behavior, speed of drivers, force/directness of hits, etc.) that the general trend still holds that as safety equipment has increased, so have the “dangerousness” of behaviors performed.


  6. This argument is what I hear a lot from natural horsemanship trainers/followers. That adding a helmet makes people feel invincible. I don’t 100% agree. I think adding a helmet is just “duh” and people will keep doing the sport they were doing before they wore a helmet. I know wearing my helmet hasn’t made me feel any inclined to go xc jumping!


  7. I’d also submit that it’s conplicated. Safety gear can equal increased comfort zone equals taking greater (too great?) risk…but also safety gear can equal increased comfort zone equalling better/more competent execution of the task at hand…equalling, potentially, accident prevention. Complicated! Lots of variables. Risk is cool.


  8. Hmmm. I wonder if there are other influences to the safety paradox. Like is the ONLY reason there are more football accidents because of the stricter gear or is there something else at play here that has not been put into the study.


    1. Definitely a good question. I suspect that the overall aggressiveness of the game has changed wildly not only due to safety but also because people get paid to be super aggressive and win games, not to preserve their bodies!!

      Liked by 2 people

  9. A couple things:

    1) NASCAR is an acronym and therefore capitalized.

    2) Rugby is a fascinating sport (similar to American football) in which the participants wear zero safety equipment. My impression is that they get hurt less, but that would be an interesting comparison. Someone has probably already done it if you feel like scouring the interwebs.

    3) I would like to see you take this premise a little farther–which equine sports wears the most safety equipment and what is the corresponding injury rate? Risks?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, this made me think too, it would be interesting to see the number of injuries in rodeo events (bronc riding, bull riding, etc. the ‘tough guy’ sports) vs. eventing. In eventing there is a LOT of safety equipment, in rodeo there is almost none. Both are very dangerous.


  10. This is super fascinating! It makes me think of the difference between horse sports and other sports where a large prey animal is not a factor in outcomes. I am (a bad person, I know) not even a hard liner when it comes to wearing a helmet while mounted (although right now I can’t imagine riding without one) and to think that somehow I ride more dangerously or take more risks because of a helmet or other safety equipment is completely ludicrous to me. My horse takes precedence over my head. His safety is extremely important to me, and I happen to benefit from my concern over my horse’s welfare because I consider risks in terms of his abilities and mine, not whether I’m wearing a helmet.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Love this! Safety equipment is the last defense when you have a wreck, offering a decreased chance of severe or fatal injuries. I’m not sure how people can be dumb enough to think these things would make them invincible and use this equipment as an excuse to ride like a psycho.


  12. This is such an interesting discussion, I love reading all the replies. I think there definitely is a difference between riding and other sports when it comes to the safety paradox. Like was said above- a lot of our decisions regarding what sort of situations we put ourselves in are less based on safety and more based on ability. A BN rider isn’t going to go sign up for Prelim (not that they could) just because they got a new helmet or put on a better vest.

    Plus the whole deal with riding is that it’s so much less predictable due to the addition of an animal. I have nothing to back this up, but it seems like freak accidents on bikes should happen less (maybe the same or more due to being in traffic, etc) than on horses. Sure the horse wants to preserve their own safety too, but horses fall down, spook at shit, run people over, in ways that bikes wont.

    It’s a really interesting thing to think about, cool!


  13. I think you really got it spot on. While I agree that having the protection might make some people jump bigger and go faster, I generally believe those are the people who might do it anyway. Because as you said, there’s no protection for the horse!


  14. A very thought-provoking post! I think it’s good to compare sports, even if they seem very dissimilar on the outside because as you point out, all sports work to make things safer for competitors.


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