Like so many older riders, I grew up in an era when riding helmets were basically non-existent – if you rode Western, you wore a Western cowboy hat that offered little protection, except from the bright sunshine. If you rode English or did any jumping or showing, you wore a little black hunt cap or a felt wool fedora, neither of which did much in the way of protection from a fall or being flipped off your mount. It wasn’t until the 1990s when a friend and Pony Club leader urged me to write a column on safety helmets that encouraged me to purchase one for myself.
In the 1980s, the U.S. Pony Club had developed its own minimum “Pony Club Standard” that all helmets worn by members had to meet. They asked the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), which had developed headgear standards for other sports, to do the same for riding helmets. An ASTM subcommittee consulted individual riders, horse sport federations, engineers, manufacturers and materials-testing specialists. Their goal was a standard geared toward protecting the head from a single major blow which occurs during the kind of accident most likely to happen to a rider: a fall from a horse at speeds anywhere from a walk to a gallop.
In 1990, ASTM published the specification, known as ASTM F 1163, now recognized as the safety standard for riding helmets. The Safety Equipment Institute (SEI), an independent testing laboratory, then took on the job of testing helmets to certify that they meet the ASTM standard.
It was surprising – and scary – after doing some research on horseback riding and head injuries to learn just how dangerous our favorite sport can be. The American Medical Equestrian Association stated that most riding injuries occur during pleasure riding. The most common reason among riders for admission to the hospital are head injuries; a fall from just two feet can cause permanent brain damage; and a human skull can be shattered by an impact of 4 – 6 mph – and horses can gallop at 40 mph.
It was enough to cause me to head out to a local tack store to order an ASTM/SEI-approved riding helmet. My friend’s warning was prophetic, as just three days after receiving my first safety helmet, I had a serious injury while riding.
My husband and I had taken an early morning ride on that beautiful summer day and headed up the mountain to ride our trails. On our way back, we heard some loud noises from along the banks of the river below. The county highway department had just begun jack-hammering guard rails up from the road shoulder and were throwing them in the back of a slow-moving truck. The noise of the jackhammer and the guard rails landing in the metal truck was amplified by the river below and was frightening my “green” three-year-old filly. She began to spook and jump, then stumbled, landing on her knees.
As I braced my hands on the saddle and pushed my right foot out of the stirrup iron to dismount, she suddenly struggled to get up, the momentum of which flipped me out of the saddle. I landed hard on my back and had the breath knocked out of me, with tremendous pain. Graycie was galloping wildly toward my husband and his horse, then stopped and turned when she heard me yell and raced back (just short of running me over) and leaned her head down toward me. I felt that I could read her thoughts – “What happened? Why are you on the ground?” – before she took off again for the safety of the other horse and human. After racing to secure the horses in the barn, my husband called our local ambulance.
I was greatly relieved to be able to move my fingers and toes as I lay on the ground while waiting for rescue. The EMTs carefully loaded me onto a stretcher and I was eventually transported to Westchester Medical Center and placed under the care of a back surgeon. An MRI and other tests revealed I had suffered a compression fracture of my lower back, had cracked my left hip and torn my left rotator cuff – and no doubt would have had a serious concussion or worse if I had not been wearing that safety helmet.
All these years later, when browsing articles about horses, it is disconcerting to see the number of riders who are not wearing any head protection. The most common injury in all sports is concussion, and horseback riding in any discipline, not just jumping, ranks third overall in the number of concussions suffered by adults. Horseback riding is considered a contact sport, and no matter how experienced the rider, or how gentle or well-trained the horse, anyone who rides a horse can fall and suffer a head injury.
A safety helmet absorbs the impact of a fall to protect the brain inside the skull. Most serious injuries occur when the head hits an immovable object, such as the ground, the arena wall or a jump rail. The head stops moving, but the brain does not. The brain hits the inside of the skull, and the velocity of the impact determines the extent of the injury.
The Biomechanics Laboratory at Virginia Tech specializes in studying brain injuries and sport helmets. Virginia Tech Helmet Lab researchers have been providing unbiased helmet ratings that allow consumers to make informed decisions when purchasing helmets. Covering sports from football, hockey, bicycling and soccer to snow sports, whitewater and equestrian, they rated a total of 40 equestrian helmets. Helmets are rated using a STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) evaluation, and the STAR score is calculated based on each helmet’s performance in a series of impact tests. The ratings identify the helmets that best reduce your chances of sustaining a concussion, with five stars being the top rating of providing a reduction in concussion risk.
The ratings are an objective assessment of each helmet’s performance solely for the consumer and are not sponsored by nor influenced by any manufacturer. All helmets have passed both American and European standards.
Of the 40 equestrian helmets tested, retail prices ranged from a low of $46 to a whopping $669 per helmet. Thankfully, while the top-rated five-star helmet, the Champion Revolve S-Air MIPS, sells for $460, the second-rated five-star helmet, the TuffRider Carbon Fiber, retails for just $58. And there are 12 listed for less than $100. For a list of the equestrian helmets tested and rated by the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab visit helmet.beam.vt.edu/equestrian-helmet-ratings.html.
The money you spend on a top-rated safety helmet is a small price to pay, and it’s the best money you can spend to protect yourself or your loved ones from horse-related head injuries. Be sure to wear your helmet each and every time you ride!
by Judy Van Put