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With some justification, the hunting community could be accused of being behind the curve on matters of health and safety. The list of recent deaths and serious injuries, partly due to wearing traditional hunting caps rather than safety headgear, makes uncomfortable reading. Other equestrian sports have made big strides in recent years to improve safety while striving not to compromise their essence.

Why is it that when a rider falls badly while wearing a traditional hat, some people comment: “Well at least her hat stayed on”? Even a traditional hat should be fitted so it doesn’t come off.

Coroners and medical professionals are becoming increasingly damning of the traditional hat. If insurers follow suit it would sound the hat’s death knell.

Meanwhile, hat manufacturers have been developing a traditional-looking BSI kitemarked hat aimed at the hunting market. It isn’t as elegant; however — unlike many other hats — as long as it is properly checked, it doesn’t have to be discarded after a fall on the head.

Hunts rightly shy away from “nannying” their members, preferring to encourage personal responsibility. However, we do look out for each other greatly and the Corinthian spirit should be tempered if someone insists on carrying on after a heavy fall.

Different types of injuries can befall those up front, without the hurly-burly of the mounted field to contend with. Those at the business end often attest that the lack of chinstrap is hugely beneficial when riding through woodland. For others, it is a no-brainer.

Several masters and a few huntsmen now hunt in kitemarked headgear, however most agree that adult body protectors and air jackets would seriously restrict the flexibility required in the hunting field.

Vanity counts for naught

Like most other masters and huntsmen I will probably reach for my traditional hat this coming season, but for how much longer? Glance at nearly every mounted field and you will see the tide turning. Tradition, elegance and vanity mean for naught if you are being fed and changed by a loved one for the rest of your life.

The countryside is a place of gradual, though sometimes dramatic, evolution. Unless our insurers insist on instant change, over the next decade the traditional hat will become a relic on the tack room top shelf.

It is a contradiction of our times that we are in many ways risk averse, yet push human endeavour to the limit. Managing risk is key. Even the highest standard of head protection can’t eliminate risk, as the achingly tragic events in the Cotswolds showed at the end of the season.

Every hunt has those members at its core who concur with Surtees that, “all time is lost wot is not spent in ‘unting — it’s the sport of kings, the image of war without its guilt, and only five and twenty per cent of its danger”. To protect that freedom and excitement, we may need to protect ourselves from unnecessarily foreshortening our enjoyment.

Our nearest and dearest

A recent near-fatal head injury out with our hounds has provoked many hunt subscribers, including my wife, to abandon their traditional hats. Even my most traditional colleagues now send their children out hunting in body protectors and BSI kitemarked hats.

My eldest son will be out hunting more next season, largely off the lead rein trying to join his daddy. It is unimaginable that he would wear any of the flimsy hats I used to wear as a child. These make better hanging baskets than head protectors.

During our annual (entirely legal) rabbit hunt at the end of the season on ponies and with a bobbery pack of terriers, he rode up to me, aged six, and advised that if I didn’t make quite such a din blowing the horn we might have more luck. I don’t consider myself a particularly noisy huntsman, but he may have a point. It is their future, not just our own, that must occupy our thoughts.

Ref: Horse & Hound; 14 July 2016