How Cracker Cracked my Helmet Not my Brain

I got the space man’s view of the rodeo. There I was way high up in the air above my mule Cracker. There he was way down below me bucking his guts out. Then gravity took over and I re-entered the earth head first like a faulty Russian rocket. CRACK! Landed right on my skull….which was snugged up in my helmet.

The wreckage: That’s Cracker’s saddle and my Troxel helmet – split in to 3 pieces.
This could have been my fractured skull. Instead, it was my helmet that cracked.

Okay, let me rewind the plot.

A Man Rides in to Town

Recently I rode my mules in to Brandenburg, Kentucky where I was going to cross the Ohio River with a police escort. I was riding Cracker, my saddle mule. Brick, my pack mule, was carrying our provisions.

This is the way it’s supposed to look. I’m riding one mule, leading another. We’re heading from North Carolina toward Idaho. Note the sorta goofy looking helmet. Wearing it paid of big time.

On the outskirts of town, Brick exploded, got her lead rope under Cracker’s tail who reacted to the wedgie with a National Rodeo Association-grade, head-between-the-front-legs-back-legs-over-the-saddle bronco ride.

That’s when I was launched.

A Long History of Falls

I’ve been thrown many times. I’ve been thrown from race horses and had my helmet knocked off during a steeplechase race. I’ve had my teeth kicked in by a thoroughbred and I’ve been deposited in front of a Honda on an Oklahoma highway.

I’m walking around with a fake front tooth because I donated the real one to the turf.

Turf days: my first steeplechase win aboard Bob Kitson’s mare Joli Princess. I’m the jockey on the far right in the green and yellow silks. I’m just clearing the fence and heading toward the finish line. I had to pass a few horse along the way. That was 30 pounds and almost as many years ago. (Camden, SC / 1992)
In the winner’s circle at Camden. I’m wearing a Caliente helmet which, circa 1992, was considered cutting edge. I can’t count how many times I feel in this helmet without replacing it as I should have. Years later I rode my mule Woody across America with this same helmet…and took a few more headers. I don’t know how much the yellow pom-pom on top did for cranial protection. (Camden, SC / 1992)

This fall was different. In all my falls, my head never, ever, hit the ground harder than when Cracker pile-drived it in to that rich Kentucky dirt.

It was the ground pounding strike that gets you a helicopter ride to the trauma unit. The head bashing that triggers medical wishes you’ve written out for your spouse. The brain shattering impact that has you asking Humpty Dumpty where he put the glue. But you can’t because, well, you’re knocked out as cold as a steeplechase jockey after a 6 horse pile up.

But I got lucky. Instead of cracking my skull, I split my helmet in to 3 pieces. Without my helmet, I’m 100% convinced I would have suffered major skull and brain trauma. 100% guaranteed. Some things you know deep in the core of your being and this is one of those for me.

My helmet. It’s a Troxel. The wide brim is an add on. Excellent for sun protection and making the helmet look less helmet-y.
One of the cracks. Yes, you just saw this photo. I’m showing it to you again to drive home that this could have been my – or your – skull.

Don’t Worry, This Mule’s Broke

I split my funny looking Troxel helmet that I sometimes swap out for my cowboy hat for when I have my photo taken. I busted the Bobble-head looking helmet I often think I don’t need to wear because, oh hell, this mule’s broke and he’ll never throw me.

Until he did.

What caused the wreck?

When things settled down I retrieved a piece of barbed wire from between Brick’s leg. That’s what set off the chain reaction.

The source of all our troubles: a piece of barbed wire that flipped up between Brick’s front legs. The cut was superficial. It has since healed.

So thank you silly looking helmet. You’re the reason why I’m gaily typing away on this keyboard, telling you about my spill, instead of pecking on a keyboard with a stick in my mouth because I’ve bashed some beautiful macaroni-shaped piece of my brain in to liver mush.

After effects? I got lucky. I had a mild headache. I had trouble remembering the names of some of the places I’d traveled through – like Cumberland Gap. Yeah, sorta worry-some. But in a day or two, all was back to normal.

The Lesson

The lesson? Think hard about wearing your skid lid when you swing in to the saddle. You can always take it off for the photos like my mom used to take off her glasses when the camera came out.

But that’s just vanity. And I admit that I do it all the time. I guarantee you’ll see photos of me on this site sitting on a mule wearing a cowboy hat. Or top hat. Or no hat at all. Chances are good you’ll see me riding without a helmet around the farm or out on the local trails back home in western North Carolina. I like that cool-breeze-in-my-thinning-hair feel.

But every time I do it, there’s an imaginary actuary in my head running the numbers. She’s saying, “it’s all statistics. It’s just a numbers game pal.” After a while that gets worrisome and I clamp that helmet back on my head.

Wearing a helmet is a personal decision. Just remember that nobody’s going to visit you or me in the ICU and think, “damn he looked so Marlboro Man out there riding up the highway in his cowboy hat right until he wound up with preventable brain trauma.”

Yes, I replaced my cracked helmet. Big thanks to my wife Julia who sent me a new one.

More Thanks

  • My helmet. Yes, I’m thanking it once again. RIP good buddy.
  • Steve Spink and Tim Smith: for helping me catch Brick and Cracker on the side of the road after I was thrown
  • Stacy and Rob Smallwood: for putting us in Brandenburg, KY after my header

Know Anybody Who’s on the Fence About Helmets?

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7 Responses to How Cracker Cracked my Helmet Not my Brain

  • Just read your excellent helmet essay. I have a Troxel helmet. My wife does also. I hate wearing it. I am a skinny tall guy, and I look like the dumbest bobble head you ever saw. Especially goofy when I am horse back. I can remember how cool I looked when my riding hat was a Stetson. I would look down at my shadow, and there was a beautiful horse, a younger me, and that great looking hat. And yes, I have lost my seat a number of times, been bucked off a few, and never once lost my hat. But now my balance system is 73 years old, as is my general strength. I want to ride til I am really old, and not do the straw thing. Or worse. So I will continue to wear my goofy troxel helmet, not as cool looking as I’d like, but keep riding.
    Thank you Bernie for your blogs. I appreciate them so much! Todd Bryant.

    • Dear Todd, What a beautiful reflection on mortality and dorky looking helmets. A reflection on aging and and timeless matters – like how a horseman’s skull of any age will crack on impact.
      I, too, get the bittersweet twinge of looking at my shadow from astride, especially when I’m wearing (momentarily) my wide-brimmed hat. That’s the younger (bolder,less bald, sharper-eyed) me riding there along on the ground. I’ve also learned if I tip my helmet and its slip on sun visor juuuuuuusssst so, my shadow looks it’s wearing a Stetson. That makes me a feel a wee bit younger.
      I think it’s marvelous that you plan to keep riding until you are really old. I wish you and your wife many more years in the saddle.
      Great to hear you enjoyed the helmet article. Comments like yours really keep me going.
      Happy Adventuring!
      Bernie Harberts

  • OK, not the same mount, but helmets saved my life several times, racing bicycles and even just getting around town. And bike helmets look just as dorky as Trexels…

  • Yeah, I’ll bet when bike helmets first came out in racing, those guys wearing the beanie-looking, short brimmed racing caps sneered too. ’til of course they crashed head first…. Happy pedaling.

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