Head Start

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Snow in the South is rare, and she wanted to go riding and enjoy the winter scenery. As a precaution she called a friend to ride with her; they were to meet along the trail. Her appendix gelding was “bombproof,” and had carried her safely on the trails many times before. She’d shown him all over the country, including Congress and the World, never wearing a helmet except in her hunter classes.

But, this time, before she even got out of her driveway, her horse slipped on an icy spot, and fell with her. She hit her head, and was found unconscious later by her friend. She died in the hospital. We omit her name to protect the privacy of the family.

The American Medical Equestrian Association (AMEA) and the Safe Riders Foundation report that 60 percent of deaths due to riding accidents are a result of head injury, which is why the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) have set the standard for the modern riding helmet. It is well documented that wearing an ASTM/SEI-approved riding helmet saves lives and protects riders, but sometimes it’s not until tragedy strikes closer to the barn that we are really struck by the reality that horseback riding is a high-risk activity. The risk can be minimized by the simple act of putting on a helmet every time we ride.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that helmets reduce head injuries. The U.S. Pony Club reports that its head injury rate has been reduced by 29 percent since it made wearing helmets mandatory, and head injuries are fewer among jockeys than recreational riders since the American Jockey Club began requiring safety-approved helmets. In Britain, the hospital admission rate for riders dropped 46 percent after helmets became routine gear.

Most equestrian associations now have rules requiring safety helmets. In Ontario, Canada, it’s the law that individuals under 18 years old must wear helmets while riding. Parents, trainers or instructors can be fined up to $5,000 if a minor is found not complying with this law.

In the United States, the horse industry is self-regulating on the use of helmets. The U.S. Equestrian Federation requires that all junior competitors in hunter, jumper and hunt seat equitation must wear ASTM/SEI-approved helmets while mounted anywhere on the show grounds. USEF added a rule in article 1713 for eventing, requiring protective headgear at all levels of competition. The rule states that a hardhat must be worn when riding on the flat, and when jumping, an ASTM/SEI-approved helmet with harness secure and properly fitted must be worn.

4-H rules vary from state to state. In Kentucky, all 4-H events require riders to wear ASTM/SEI-approved helmets that are secure and properly fitted anytime they are riding or driving horses. In North Carolina, ASTM/SEI helmets are required in hunt seat, short stirrup, and games when mounted on the show grounds. In all other divisions approved helmets are strongly encouraged and approved as optional use.

How many bumps can a helmet take? There is no easy way to tell. A helmet should be examined by x-ray after a fall to be sure the integrity of the helmet is intact. Many helmet companies will examine a helmet and replace it for a small fee. Dropping a helmet on a hard surface can also damage it. Any signs of damage, such as cracks, dents or holes inside or outside the helmet, are reason for replacement. Even without obvious bumps and bangs, the life span of a helmet is about five years—a manufacturer’s date is printed inside the helmet. It is not advisable to buy used helmets, since the integrity of the helmet cannot be guaranteed.

This brings us to the question: should we require riders to wear helmets when riding on our property? Are we liable if a rider falls and is hurt or killed while riding at our facility? Should instructors require their students to wear helmets?

The answer to all three questions is “probably, yes.”?In their article, “Helmet Safety and Legal Liability,” law partners Barbara A. Halper and Katherine C. Bloomquist write, “If you have anything to do with the horse or the property where the horse will be ridden, you need to make sure either the rider wears a safety-approved helmet or the rider signs a release specifically regarding helmets. (Of course a guardian should sign the release for minor children.)”

They go even further and say, “If you did not get a release or if you get a release in an area where helmets are required, and there is no helmet worn, you can count on the issue being used against you if there is a lawsuit from an injury.” For that reason it is understandable why equine commercial liability insurance providers want to know if an applicant requires riders on their premises to wear a safety-approved helmet. Amanda Williams, a representative of Triangle Insurance Group, Inc., says they want to know helmets are required before they will issue liability insurance to a stable owner.

The most commonly heard excuse for not wearing a helmet is that they look funny. But equestrian safety helmets have come a long way since the mushroom styles of the early models. Today they are safer, lighter, cooler and more fashionable. By using improved technology, manufacturers can produce helmets with lower profiles and improved fit, thus making them more attractive as well as more efficient. Helmets also come in a wide range of colors and styles for every riding discipline.

In the end, the price of an ASTM/SEI helmet is cheap insurance when you weigh it against the consequences of an accident and subsequent lawsuit at your farm.

Products and Pricing

Here are a few helmet suppliers and the innovations they are bringing to the equestrian world. All helmets listed are ASTM or SEI certified. Most national catalogs and tack stores carry these products.

• Troxel—Wide range of styles and colors. Troxel’s Gripper Positioning system (GPSIII) is a new micro-adjustable stabilization and fit system ideal for lesson programs because it allows the rider to turn a dial to customize the helmet’s fit. Prices start at $40 for the Spirit schooling helmet to $190 for the Grand Prix Gold show helmet.

• Aussie 21—Rated safest equestrian helmet on the market by UK independent tests. Molding fuses top and bottom outer shells to the EPS inner shell to become one piece, which results in a more durable helmet that is more likely to hold together in a multi-impact accident, according to the tests. The helmet comes in five colors and is black flocked for showing. Retail price is about $75.

• GPA—The Titanium helmet comes in twelve sizes with three outer shell sizes and has four color combinations. Titanium is an aluminum and titanium alloy. These helmets feature a patented two-way venting system for inside airflow and cooling. The helmet is covered in synthetic suede, has a non-extendable chinstrap with three-point fastening and flexible peak for shock absorption and an automatic buckle. Retail price is $375.

• Devon Aire—The new Captiva helmet line comes in six colors: seafoam, lavender, silver, ruby, black, blue. It features an Easy-Fit Dial for secure and comfortable fit and mesh-covered vents. The helmets come in two sizes, S/M and L/XL and cost $60.

• Charles Owen—The Pro Racing Skull Cap line is deep fitting with a light upward curve in front for better vision. Lacing adjustment at the nape of the neck is attached to a water-resistant leather harness. The helmet comes in most sizes and retails for $120.

• International Helmet Company—International has a large line of helmets. Among them is the Equi-Lite Dial Fit System schooling helmet. The Dial Fit System accommodates a ponytail and reduces forward and backward shifting. The helmets come in black, white, silver or hunter and in small, medium and large sizes. Prices between $30 and $35.