Safety + Style
Article & Photography by Jessica Hein
As a custom saddle maker, Mike Corcoran knows aesthetics are important. When it comes to marrying his love of Western style and tradition with safety in the saddle, however, Mike was hesitant to sacrifice one for the other.
“At most clinics and shows I attend, the facility’s insurance also requires all riders to wear a helmet. You can be all dressed up in your chinks and Western gear, but you have to wear a helmet instead of a cowboy hat,” he explained.
A traumatic brain injury survivor, protecting his head takes precedence, but Mike knew there had to be a better option than English-style protective headgear … something that could combine traditional Western looks with safety. Dissatisfied with existing products on the market—most helmet-hat combos are too bulky or misshapen, lacking the “look” of a well-crafted Western hat, he says—Mike hit his workshop to create a helmet-hat that better fit his needs. Soon, the prototype for the Hel-Hat was born.
“I had an old palm-leaf hat, and I started cutting it and fit it onto my English helmet,” he said. “I rode in it at Western dressage clinic, and the reaction from all 50 attendees was, ‘That’s so cool!’ ”
‘Biggar’ & Better
The clinic served as a light-bulb moment for Mike, who realized he might be onto something. By happenstance, he found Jeff Biggars, owner of Biggar Hat Store in nearby Decatur, Texas. With his design in tow, Mike headed over to Jeff’s store, eager to get the hat maker’s opinion about whether his prototype could be recreated in higher quality.
“I thought he was crazy,” Jeff said. “But I love challenges. He brought me this deal, and it was a challenge. We tried and tried and failed and failed until one day, I got it.”
Built around a low-profile ASTM-approved helmet, the Hel-Hat features a felt brim that produces a truly Western profile. Even better, the design doesn’t affect the rider’s balance, Mike says—and he should know, as he’s spent months test-riding the Hel-Hat himself.
“It doesn’t feel heavy one way or another. You can move your head just like you have a cowboy hat on,” he said.
Currently available in black and chocolate, the Hel-Hat’s style is versatile, too. The brim can be shaped to personal preference, and the entire ensemble can be “blinged” with Swarovski crystal accents around the brim or topped off with laced-brim accents for a fashion-forward look.
“It looks like a cowboy hat, and that’s what people want. They want to retain that Western tradition with safety first,” Jeff said. “That’s our goal: to make it as Western as possible without decreasing the integrity of the helmet.”
Due to the Hel-Hat’s unique design, it’s not easy to produce. Each hat is fully crafted by hand, using retrofitted hat-making machinery that’s more than 100 years old. After months of testing and tweaking, Jeff and Mike have perfected the Hel-Hat and are in the process of securing a patent.
Despite limited exposure, Mike and Jeff say response to the Hel-Hat has been extremely positive, and they’ve already booked a number of orders from horsemen and –women who enjoy a variety of true-blue Western disciplines, from barrel racing to calf roping.
“The Western dressage market has jumped all over this; it’s starting to bleed over to barrel races, trail riders, extreme cowboy races and more,” Mike said. “Parents want to put their kids in helmets for safety, and now if the little kid can look like a cowboy while still wearing a helmet, that’s even better.
Both Mike and Jeff have had traumatic brain injuries themselves, so they understand first-hand the importance of protective headgear. They also know the horse industry, while steeped in tradition, is slowly becoming more and more safety conscious, which might give the Hel-Hat a strong foothold in the Western market.
“I think in the next couple of years—maybe within five years, but absolutely 10 years down the road—helmets are going to be mandatory everywhere,” Jeff said. “I used to play hockey, and no one wore helmets. Slowly, the goalies started wearing them, then the players and referees started wearing them. I think people are going to go, ‘You’re riding a wild animal that goes 35 miles per hour—why wouldn’t you wear a helmet?’ I think that’s finally going to click.
“Helmets are the future, whether you’re a die-hard cowboy or cowgirl or not. You can wear this and keep the Western tradition.”
“It’s safety with style,” Mike chimed.