When Buying a Helmet, Use Your Head

This properly fitted helmet caps off this formally dressed rider's award-winning look.

By Dana Miller • Chagrin Saddlery

Whether calculating a fast and clear jumper trip, finding the perfect distance to a fence or going on a relaxing trail ride, keeping the most important of human organs healthy is far from a gray area.

Heads up, brains matter! A properly fitted riding helmet is the most essential piece of equipment that a rider needs. Long gone are the days when elegant black velvet helmets, the kind you might see as a prop in a Ralph Lauren store, were “de rigueur.” Those items of mere apparel, with a tidy bow at the back pointing up for commoners and down for hunt staff, were made obsolete in the 70’s when the AHSA, now USEF, the governing body of horse shows, made wearing an “approved helmet” a rule.

Today, helmets worn at horse shows in general must be “ATSM-SEI” approved. The ATSM, or American Society for Testing and Materials, tests helmets worn for equestrian use differently from those for other sports, making modern helmets very equestrian-sport specific. The testing equipment used simulates a blow to the head sustained by a hoof or a fall on a jump standard.

A helmet that falls off when bending at the waist is too large

Hand-me-downs for riders should be limited to outgrown breeches and coats, but never helmets. Aunt Betty might have forgotten that her daughter sustained a fall, but the helmet holds a grudge. Once a rider has had an accident involving any impact to the head, a helmet is no longer viable. While the helmet might look perfect on the outside, the inner foam may be compromised, making it less protective. Even if a rider has remained vertical during the life of the helmet, it should be replaced every five years due to the fact that the helmet will degrade over time from heat, sweat and use and may not provide the same level of protection as a new helmet. Additionally, helmet technology is constantly evolving and improving. Replacing your helmet every 5 years will allow you to take advantage of these new innovations.

This helmet is not moving when she bends at the waist

No matter how careful the rider, accidents can and do happen. When sized and fitted correctly a helmet can make the difference between life and death. While you can shop online for a helmet, nothing takes the place of working with an experienced helmet fitter. This cannot be stressed strongly enough. An experienced helmet fitter will make sure the most important areas of helmet safety are covered, size and fit.

Wearing a helmet isn’t just a requirement for horse shows, it’s good common sense for any rider. Whether you’re looking for a comfortable schooling helmet to wear on a trail ride or a modern style for the show ring, the only way a helmet will do its job is if it fits correctly. Here are some suggestions that will help you find a helmet that will fit properly.

Step one: In preparation, if you wear your hair in a hairnet, place your hair in the hairnet in the same style as you wear it at a horse show. Hairnets come in various types and styles. My preference is a hairnet that features the knot in the back as pictured. This type leaves no painful dot on the rider’s forehead and allows for a more comfortable fit. If you try a helmet on with your hair down, it may not fit when you finally wear it up. The length and/or thickness of your hair or the way you place it on the top of your head may change the way the helmet sits. Make sure that your hair lies as flat on your head as possible before you try on the helmet. This will allow the helmet to sit lower, and not “on top” of your head, which is unsafe and incorrect. Once your hair is in place, place the helmet on your head

*Style note: The show ring is not the time to go temporarily from brunette to blond. Hairnets must match the color of the rider’s hair and secure the locks neatly halfway over the rider’s ears.

Helmet Fitting Note: The helmet that your friend wears, although fabulous, may not be the best option for you. Even if you love the helmet, certain helmets fit some head shapes better than others. Be open to the one that fits the best. There are helmets that fit oval and round heads. An experienced helmet fitter will identify which one is best for you.

Step 2: Place the helmet on your head with your hair up and check the overall fit. The helmet should feel snug around the entire head with pressure distributed evenly but not uncomfortably. The side of the harness should frame the ears. There should be no gap between the helmet and your head. The helmet should fit snug but not tight. If the helmet squeezes your forehead, it is too round for your head. If the helmet rocks front to back, it is too oval for your head.

*Style note: The model is wearing a Samshield Shadowmatt helmet. This conservatively styled helmet is very popular and appropriate for any riding discipline.

A good test to check helmet security is to bend over at the waist, lowering your head to see if the helmet moves or falls off. If it does, the fit is incorrect. If the helmet does not move, the helmet passes another safety check.

Step 3: Check the front brim of the helmet. The brim should sit level on your head, covering your forehead. The visor’s brim should be about 1 inch (about the width of two fingers) from your eye. If the brim sits too low, it could obstruct the rider’s view.

*Style Note: While jewelry can flatter any look, in the show ring, less is more. If you are going to wear earrings, make sure they are simple and classic. Save bold accessories for when you are out celebrating your performance.

Step 4: Adjust the strap. When you have performed all of the steps above and found a helmet that fits perfectly, the next step is to adjust the chin strap. It should fit snugly under your chin and be sized so that one finger can be placed comfortably between your throat and the throat latch. It should not be tight fitting and cause any discomfort. Adjusting the chin strap is the final step to fitting your new helmet. Although this strap will help keep the helmet in place, the other safety checks will make sure the helmet does not move and will keep you safe for years to come.

Once you find the perfect helmet, wear it around the store for at least 10 minutes. If it gives you a headache, it’s too tight. It should become less noticeable and more comfortable as you wear it. Helmets do break in, which is why the initial fit must be snug.

With hospital admission rates of equestrians exceeding those of major sports, wearing a properly fitting helmet should be a “no brainer”. The perfect helmet does not have to be expensive or fancy. It just has to fit correctly and compliment your look. Always seek the help of an experienced helmet fitter to stay safe in the saddle. It may save your life.

Dana Miller is a partner at Chagrin Saddlery (located in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.) In addition to managing retail store operations, she functions daily as an equestrian stylist and helmet fitter. Passionate about equestrian trends, Dana maintains a busy schedule outfitting riders from all over the country including top equitation competitors and IEA/IHSA Teams. You can contact Chagrin Saddlery by visiting their website at chagrinsaddlery.com.

This article was originally published in the June 2015 print edition of The Plaid Horse Magazine.