Horse Riding Helmet Update

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Protective headgear for riders is of paramount importance. It is not uncommon for people falling off a horse to incur a head injury; a helmet gives some protection to that invaluable part of your body--your brain. Even though you might not ride or compete in extreme sports such as eventing, jumping or polo, there is always a risk of falling off or being thrown, even from the most tractable horse. Horses are unpredictable, just as riding situations are unpredictable. 

Credit: Thinkstock Make sure your riding helmet is up-to-date and meets all the current certification.

Credit: Thinkstock Make sure your riding helmet is up-to-date and meets all the current certification.

From the Ontario Equestrian Federation: “A rider sitting on a horse is elevated eight feet or more above the ground, and a fall from just two feet can cause permanent brain damage.”

To mitigate the risk of traumatic brain injury related to equestrian activities, many horse show events, and in particular those sponsored by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) and the Federation Equestrian International (FEI), require protective headgear for every rider. The Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) independently tests and certifies that helmets meet standards stipulated by the ASTM International.

As of January 2016, new specifications have been implemented for ASTM helmet standards. Previously, the standard used was ASTM F1163 04a; this is now changed to ASTM F1163-15. This current modification has very little impact on helmet design. What is changed with this new designation is that helmets will be tested with a wider range of head forms. What is not changed is the maximum allowed impact forces, the limits of the helmet coverage on the head, nor the retention system straps. Many of the USA helmet manufacturers exceed the ASTM/SEI standards.

The helmets produced in the USA with either the previous or current ASTM designation continue to meet requirements set by USEF for protective headgear worn by riders engaged in helmet-mandated events. This applies to all junior riders under the age of 18, hunt seat classes, and any event or practice and warm-up sessions that entails jumping. FEI requires that a helmet is worn for all disciplines while mounted on a horse on the show grounds, with a few exceptions for dressage and vaulting competitors.

Both the older standard (ASTM F1163 04a) and the new (ASTM F1163-15) can still be purchased and used as acceptable headgear at any horse show since both have passed ASTM testing. The main thing is to make sure that there is a stamp or label on the inside of the helmet that verifies that it is ASTM/SEI-certified.

Please note that other countries’ manufacturing regulations of helmets might differ from those required in the United States; if you purchase a helmet outside the US, make sure it is dual-stamped to include the ASTM/SEI-certification.

The specifications desired by ASTM testing concern the ability of the helmet liner to crush on impact; this ensures that it absorbs the bulk of the concussion rather than that concussion being absorbed by one’s head. Another criteria that must be met is the presence of a three-point harness that it is secure--jaw straps are preferred as the most secure method of affixing the helmet in place during a fall and/or a horse’s kick. And, a third criterion of the standard protects the rider’s neck from dangerous torque by ensuring that the outer surface of the helmet shell is able to slide along the ground.

SEI Testing involves multiple steps with computer sensors documenting the force of impact:

  • The helmet is dropped onto a flat anvil from a height of six feet from various angles and directions.
  • The helmet is also dropped onto an anvil with a sharp corner to simulate the impact incurred from a rider’s head hitting a jump or the strike of a horse’s hoof.
  • Then the helmet is placed on a head form that is comparable to human bone structure; with straps in place, the helmet is weighted, then dropped. The straps cannot stretch beyond a specified amount.
  • The helmets are further tested for the three parameters above--concussion and retention--following freezing to minus 20o F, heating to 120 o F, and submergence overnight in water.

Regardless of the SEI certification status of the helmet, it will only work to maximum efficiency if it fits just right. When fitting yourself with a helmet, also think about how you might be wearing your hair as tucking it up, wearing hair clips, or letting it down could modify fit. If you want options of hairstyle, you might want to purchase a separate helmet for each purpose.

How do you determine the size of helmet you need? Using a cloth measuring tape, measure the circumference around the widest part of your head. This measurement along with your regular hat size should give you a good starting point. Troxel, a respected helmet manufacturer, recommends some general rules for fit:

  • The helmet should sit level on your head with the brim parallel to the ground.
  • The brim should be about 2 finger widths (an inch) above your eyebrow.
  • The helmet shouldn’t move forward or backward easily. With your hand on top of the helmet, as you try to move it fore and aft and side to side, your forehead and eyebrows should move with the helmet.
  • Without the chinstrap in place, you should be able to bend forward without the helmet falling forward or off.
  • At the base of your skull is the occipital bump--the helmet should cover that area.
  • Check for gaps on the sides of the helmet even if it fits snugly. If there are gaps, then these need to be corrected or you might need a more oval shape. If it is too tight on the sides, you might need a rounder design.

Just as you would try a pair of shoes by wearing them and walking around for 15-30 minutes, do so with a new helmet you are trying out. You don’t want to feel any pain, bruising of your forehead, and you definitely don’t want to experience a headache. The fit should be snug, yet comfortable with no pressure points. When you shake your head, the helmet should stay perfectly in place.

For children, remember they will continue to grow so fit must be assessed regularly.

Helmets are so inexpensive anymore, there is no reason to ever buy a used helmet or borrow a friend’s--not only do you not know if it has previously incurred an impact that renders it useless protection in future or it might not fit you well. In addition, manufacturers recommend replacing a helmet every five years from the date of purchase even if it has not been impacted; materials tend to degrade from body heat, moisture and use. ASTM/SEI modify their designs and/or update their standards about every five years, as well.

The Bottom Line

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) reports, “While head injuries comprise about 18% of all horseback riding injuries, they are the number one reason for hospital admission. A 2007 study by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) found that horseback riding (2001-2005) resulted in 11.7% of all traumatic brain injuries in recreational sports, the highest of any athletic activity. 

Of the estimated 14,446 horseback-related head injuries treated in 2009, 3,798 were serious enough to require hospitalization, for an estimated 4,958 concussions and 97 skull fractures. Subdural hematomas and brain hemorrhages comprised many of the serious injuries. According to the Equestrian Medical Safety Association, head injuries account for an estimated 60 percent of deaths resulting from equestrian accidents.”

With these statistics in mind, it behooves everyone mounted on a horse to don an appropriate helmet that fits correctly. It is estimated that ASTM/SEI-certified helmets have reduced riding-related head injuries by 50%.