Two women are sitting on their horses, in an open field. Gorgeous mountains in the back. Looks like Colorado. Where I ride, in addition to all over the world.

Both women are completely engrossed in their phones. Trying to post Instagram shots, according to this national Verizon Wireless ad. Neither is wearing a safety helmet.

They are barely holding onto the reins. Maybe with one finger.

In other words, these PYTs are totally ignoring their 1300+ pound, wholly-unpredictable animals.

Lots of horse people (I’d be one) might watch this this television ad and wonder which moron on Madison Avenue thought up this pitch?

Nobody at the wheel. As in the photo, above. Reins not even in hand.

We were laughing at this out at my local stables yesterday. It’s funny. But then again, it’s really not. Television ads sometimes normalize really stupid, dangerous behavior. This is a classic example.

Those who own what they claim are “bomb proof” horses might also tell you that one well-placed wasp sting on the butt cheek could send said so-called “bomb proof” horse off bucking or at a dead run. Or both. Right now it’s hunting season in the high country. What if a hunter- who doesn’t see or care about you- takes a shot at an elk herd across that same meadow?

Keeping your reins firmly in hand gives you a fighting chance to negotiate a peace treaty with a runaway horse-assuming you’re still on it- and allows you to (eventually) bring him to a stop. A horse that has been terrified and is galloping full tilt isn’t exactly considering your safety. In fact, getting you off as quickly as possibly could well be a high priority. If Mr. Pumpkin Patch is making a beeline for the nearest low branch, well. I can’t speak for you, but I’d like the option to at least suggest an alternative.

Loose reins can wrap around a running animal’s legs; he can trip.You really don’t want to be part of that accident. Makes for great highlight video for everyone but you.

Horses can be smart, stupid, hilarious, silly, wily, fun, not fun, dangerous, annoying, stubborn, affectionate, brave, loving, unpredictable- you name the characteristic, that’s a horse. On any given day, a horse could bite or kick for no reason other than it’s just trying to kick or bite another horse. Whoops, whalloped you instead.

Horse: Um, sorry, man. Can I still have my biscuit? Nuzzle nuzzle. And the one you’re hiding in your pocket, too? We good, dude? Big eyes. Very big eyes.


You: OUCH. Here you go. Yes, I still love you. Turd.

To assume they are perfectly safe all the time is reckless. Many of us know people who have owned and ridden horses all their lives and nothing has ever happened. That’s also true. Most of us who have spent decades around these animals bear the marks or we may walk a tad funny. Usually we can read body language and usually we can get out of the way in time. Most of the riders I know don’t text and ride simultaneously. My trainer would have my head on a platter for it. I think she’s right.

Why is this important? For one thing, 45.2% of all Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) in adults are from horseback riding. Not the NFL. A lot of them are from people like those in the Verizon Ad who refuse to wear safety helmets. Only about 20% of those who ride wear protective headgear. Why? It doesn’t look cool or sexy. You get hat hair. The best helmets are right pricey. Well forgive me, but I’d rather keep my skull in one piece. To me, that’s worth $350 or so. Here’s the other point: an equestrian TBI is likely to be far more dangerous. Sixty percent of equestrian head injuries lead to death. Just ONE incident can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, the illness made famous in the film Concussion.

What trainers, guides and those of us who go on international horseback adventures do NOT appreciate is a TV ad that normalizes unsafe riding practices: no helmet, no control of the reins, and attaching your face to your device while mounted. (i.e. Riding While Stupid).

It doesn’t matter that lots of people do it. You can send me a thousand messages about this article claiming that “your horse would never do that” or ” I text all the time and I’m perfectly safe.” “I never ever wear a safety helmet.” “I’m a cowboy/girl and I’ll never wear a helmet.” “Nobody will EVER wear a helmet in this ranch family.” “I went riding once and I…” You can make emphatic arguments about the kind of tack, Western vs. English vs. whatever. We horse folks are nothing if not passionate. I like that about horse folks. I’ve been riding six decades. I get it. We’re opinionated as hell. I’m sure I’ll hear from plenty of horse folks on this one. But hold off a minute.

Look, if you’re a professional, this isn’t about you. You know the risks, presumably you know your horses. What you do with your noggin and your body is your business, although I’m not sure about the example for beginners, who are watching you very closely. You are, after all, the experts. Perhaps you’ve just been supremely fortunate. So far.

This is about the hobby, casual or first-time rider who decides they’ve seen these unsafe practices validated on national television so they must be OK. No they aren’t. As an advanced rider who has been subjected to this idiocy on international rides where other people were endangered by rank rookies, I have no patience whatsoever.

Every equestrian facility in Colorado bears a sign stating that you can get injured or killed while riding because riding is inherently dangerous. The facility isn’t responsible. As the rider, you are. The law protects the stable and the trainers from their horses’ potential bad moods and riders’, well, just riders. When you’re riding it is your responsibility to calm a frightened, agitated or startled horse. You’re driving, unless someone is leading you in a circle around the corral. That’s why you can’t afford to drop the reins or take your attention off your animal.

Most horses you would rent out in America and at most professionally-run outfits are by all means very safe, well-trained, and absolute angels. I would trust most any of them. However, they could still startle if you raise your arm too quickly, or shy hard at a fox that runs across the trail. Or they will leap three feet in the air for absolutely no earthly reason whatsoever other than the dreaded blowing plastic bag. Or, because she’s a mare and, well, OMG it’s a puddle!

When I’m riding near highways, which happens at times that you just can’t help, certain asshole semi drivers or guys in large pickup trucks find it entertaining to scream and blast their horns as they pass. Quite understandably that scares the crap out of both me AND my horse. Not a time to be on your phone or you both might end up in oncoming traffic. As we increasingly lose our safe places to ride, this happens far more frequently.

These days I must share my riding trails with runners, ATVs, mountain bikers, hikers. Many of them aren’t at all happy about horses, even though horses were in Colorado centuries before they got here. Housing developments taken over many of our once safe lanes and paved them. There is a park where people send illegal drones over the heads of cute four-year-olds learning to ride at our training facility. Horses are terrified of drones. These people know that. That’s part of the fun. This is the world we live in today.

Parts of the West looks more and more like Manhattan lite, or Los Angeles lite, just decorated with rather large speed bumps called the Rockies. People come out here for the romance of the Western culture and then they harass the crap out of the last of the true Western culture that exists. Ask any of my fellow riders who are screamed at by people who say they have no right to ride such a large, dangerous animal near the park. The park that separates our stable from our riding arena. The park that we have to ride by, in order to do our training in the arena that we own. People who are unpredictable, hit our horses with their cars, slap them, shriek at them, wave things at them all while we are riding them. While kids are riding them. And then threaten to sue us if our horses scare them, these people and their kids with the illegal drones and their illegally off-leash dogs barking and biting at our horse’s heels. People built right up to the very edges of our stables, right to the very edges of our training ring, and blame us for riding there. I have difficulty understanding the logic but then I am not a city person. I am, and will always be, a ranch and horse person.

For these reasons, I ride as though I expect my horse to shy. Always with a safety helmet, always with my reins in hand, and always expecting a leap in any direction. This does two things. I’m rarely caught off-guard, and boy, have I got terrific legs. A rookie riding here not paying attention might end up being T-boned by a car speeding by on a side street, not expecting a terrified horse, spooked by a drone, streaking though with a rider hanging on for dear life, reins flying in all directions.

This is stark reality. Today’s Wild West.

I want people to ride and appreciate horses. Functional words here: ride and appreciate. They are amazing animals and they deserve our respect. Please, I’m not saying be afraid of them. Too many people already are for wholly irrational reasons. On the other hand they aren’t tireless machines that gallop forever and ever. Horses can die from exhaustion, too. You wouldn’t appreciate someone’s beating you on the flanks to keep on running in the increasingly brutal summer heat after you’d run out of gas, especially if it hasn’t occurred to your rider to let you drink or rest. Out here in the West people are hiking to their dogs to the point were their animals have died from heat stroke and exhaustion. This is how far we’ve come from understanding living creatures. Sometimes I am just beside myself.

Horses are powerful, marvelous, sometimes unpredictable, proud animals with personalities, preferences and attitudes. That’s why we love them. If you can’t handle that, don’t ride. And for heaven’s sake, if you do ride, please ride with safety gear, and please only use your phone to take photographs – to post on Instagram when you are in a safe place later.

Look, I’m not trying to spoil your fun.

I AM saying kindly please don’t behave like you’re on your Barcalounger and assume that nothing will ever ever ever happen.

You want to text? post Instagram photos? Watch television? See the game? Count your damned likes?

Please. Dismount. Go find yourself a nice hay bale and have at it.

Or, at least have someone hold your horse’s reins while you head off into LaLa Land.

Ride the horse or ride the couch. Please. Because you and the horse could get hurt.