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Your Turn: More than a top hat

Since barely surviving a severe head injury not quite 20 years ago, Megan Rust has known she could never risk leaving her head unprotected–even for a dressage test. So she invented a solution.

From Megan:

I got back into horses as an adult in 2003, when I bought Juno, a Canadian Warmblood mare. Even before I had gotten past Training Level, I was thinking about the future, when I dreamed about making it into the upper levels of dressage. I had an image in my mind of me wearing a shadbelly and a top hat, and even had been looking at catalogs to see where to buy a unique shadbelly, unlike the typical ones seen at shows. When I thought of the matching top hats, however, I found myself in a quandary. All of the top hats that I saw were “just” top hats, and I could see that they offered no protection for the head like a helmet did. They were felt. Very nice fur felt, but still felt. Felt would not give any defense to the head if the wearer were to have a fall. That would not do for me.

In 1984 I suffered a severe head injury when I was run over by a forklift on the job. I survived the head injury, barely, but another blow to the head, even a minor one, would surely kill me. I always wore a helmet when I rode, even when riders were not routinely wearing them. But how could I ride at the upper levels where top hats are the norm and I could not wear one? I knew I could wear a helmet, but that would handicap my mare: Even though judges could not lower my test score because of me wearing a helmet, judges are human and in the back of their minds they could be thinking that my mare must be trouble if I felt the need to wear a helmet when I rode her. They’d look at her through different eyes, expecting her to misbehave and increase their scrutiny.

I had to find a way around that dilemma.

One day I saw an ad in a horse magazine that showed a derby, like those worn by saddle seat riders, that fit over a helmet. The helmet underneath the derby endowed strength to the flimsy derby material: The rider looked “proper” but still had her head protected. What a great idea. Undoubtedly, they’d have the same thing for dressage riders, with a top hat substituted for the derby, and I called Troxel to see where I could buy one. Troxel told me that no such helmet existed, so I set out to make it happen.

I called the hat maker who made the derby helmet, and they adjusted the derby design to make it into a top hat which also slipped over a helmet. When I got the finished product I saw that it was not close enough to the “official” style of the top hats, so I sent it to another hat maker to make the corners of the top hat more crisp. This hat maker, who worked for the film industry in LA, did a fine job of tweaking my top hat to make it fit my idea of what a top hat should look like.

The final version of the top hat helmet is shown here. It is a top hat which fits over an ASTM approved skull cap made by Troxel. It looks exactly like a conventional top hat, with just a quarter inch of the helmet showing underneath the felt. I’m hoping to wear it next spring when I take my young Lusitano mare to her first dressage show.

By wearing the top hat helmet I want to prove to other riders that you can still follow the fashion status quo while protecting your head. And as a survivor of a severe head injury, I know how important it is to prevent damage to your skull. I hope that riders wear a helmet on every horse and on every ride, and you don’t need to throw away your helmet in order to wear a top hat: My top hat helmet invention is all you need to do both things.

Interested in making your own hat?

Says Megan, “My top hat helmet is a one-of-a-kind, but with a bit of effort anyone can have one. Troxel makes the skull cap helmet, and Baron Hats in Los Angeles can make the top hat that fits over it. Mark Mejia, master hatter at Baron Hats, says they can make the top hat in 4 to 6 weeks. He said that the cost would vary from $500 to $1200, depending upon the material and labor. (My helmet was about $500, including the skull cap.) They’re at (818) 563-3025.

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