Megan Rust knows if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. She first realized this when recovering from an injury, then again when looking for a horse and finally when she looked for a helmet that combined the protection of a crash helmet with the elegance of a top hat.
In 1984, Rust was run over by a forklift at a job site and suffered a head injury that sent her into a three-week coma. On waking up, "I had to learn how to talk and walk again," she says. Healthy today at 51, Rust concentrates on what she loves most: horses. But, she is determined not to jeopardize her hard-won independence by riding with an unprotected head. There is no such thing as being too careful. "I think it's really important for riders to wear safety helmets in all disciplines," she says.
Rust rode as a child, and after a 30-year hiatus, she returned to the horse world to try her hand at dressage. She knew she would need a special horse to reach her goal of eventually riding the Grand Prix. She was smitten with the Lusitano breed but had trouble finding the perfect horse. "I thought, well, if I can't find one, I'm going to have to make my own." So she bought a yearling and started training the now 4-year-old this summer at her farm in Washington state. With shows on the horizon, Rust knew she had to figure out a way to protect her head without sacrificing traditional dressage attire. Safety helmets are acceptable at any level, but "I didn't want to handicap my horse by wearing a helmet," says Rust, fearing a judge would think her horse was unruly. So she began to search for a different type of protective headgear: a top-hat helmet.
Rust's first inspiration came when she saw Troxel's derby helmet, a base helmet with a derby cover fitted over it. The helmet was certified by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) approved. She immediately called Troxel to inquire about the concept of using a top hat cover instead of a derby, but they hadn't had any interest in protective top hats and were not currently making any.
Rust decided the key was to find a company that could make a cover large enough to fit over the base helmet. She contacted the manufacturers of the derby cover in Arizona and commissioned them to make her a top-hat cover with traditional styling. The prototype was not close enough to a top hat for Rust's liking, so she sent her idea to Baron Hats, a Los Angeles hat maker for the movie industry. They were able to narrow the rim and sharpen the corners, achieving the more traditional look that Rust wanted.
A year after her search began, Rust had her top-hat helmet. It is, of course, larger than a normal top hat. The helmet peeks out below the cover with a visible chin strap.
According to Shay Timms, CEO of Troxel, the thinnest ASTM/SEI approved base helmet can be purchased for $49 (troxelhelmets.com; 800-288-4280).
Mark Mejia, master hatter at Baron Hats, says they can make the cover in four to six weeks. "All our custom hats come with a leather sweat band, silk-satin lining, a lifetime guarantee and a signed and numbered certificate of authenticity," he says. The price of the cover varies from $500 to $1,200, depending on the materials used and the cost of labor (baronhats.com; 818-563-3025).
Rust thinks her top-hat helmet would appeal to many dressage riders, and she hopes to be able to debut it at upcoming shows. She believes that once people see it, they will realize it is possible to protect their heads without sacrificing looks. "I don't think riders want to change the status quo," she says, and she knows that wearing traditional dressage clothing is a rite of passage for many riders. But for Rust the bottom line is safety.