The Equestrian Helmet Safety Initiative

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

BY ELYSE SCHENK

Our riding helmets could be significantly safer. To address this, the United States Hunter Jumper Association is taking live-saving steps to support new developments in helmet safety. The USHJA Board of Directors recently unveiled the Equestrian Helmet Safety Initiative—a mission dedicated to fundraising for helmet safety research. In order to prevent concussions, especially those of novice child riders, the initiative is calling for your support.

The goal? $450,000  funnelled directly into science with a return of proven safety measures. The USHJA dedicated $100,000 into its Equestrian Helmet Safety Initiative as an expression of their hope for the cause. They encourage all equestrians (and their loved-ones) to contribute in order to prevent brain injury as well. The effort to reduce risk of riding injury is a movement everyone should participate in. Thankfully, momentum is picking up.

Recently, we’ve seen a steady embrace of protective riding apparel, particularly in the hunter jumper industry. Judges welcome them in the show ring and manufacturers are taking their safety certifications seriously. Already popular in the eventing community, body protectors, air vests, and Halo collar neck protectors are gaining traction within many English disciplines. Notoriously (and wisely) cautious amateur riders have been the first to conform to these new safety apparel trends.

Yet, child riders are the ones most notably at risk. Research shows that novice riders are at a 3 to 8 times greater risk of head injuries than more experienced riders. Young riders, and their parents new to the industry, may be especially naive about the safest helmets to purchase.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

“With equestrians becoming devoted riders at such a young age, this initiative is more important than ever,” explains Penny Brooks, USHJA Development Director. “We believe in the life and safety of every rider, whether competitive or pleasure, is vital. Safety in our sport is of the utmost importance and the EHSI is working to help advance the safety of our equipment.”

Safety advancement is begging to be addressed in our sport. Frighteningly, equestrians visit the emergency room approximately 50,000 times a year. A majority of these cases are related to head injuries. In fact, equestrians are the greatest contributor to traumatic brain injury rates of all sports, including football, according to the National Trauma Databank. Generally speaking, head injuries are the most serious injury to acquire. 

But there is hope for progress. Helmets are our main tool to prevent head injury, and we have room for improvement in manufacturing technology and consumer awareness. We need to build on our momentum for improving safety apparel by committing to improving our helmets. 

The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab is the team of scientists called to study our problem. This independent, unbiased research group is committed to reducing concussion risk in sports. To do so, they’ve addressed a specific, glaring problem within the helmet manufacturing industry: consumers have no way to compare safety between helmets. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

“Although all helmets currently being sold satisfy minimum safety requirements specified by standards organizations, not all helmets are created equal,” the Lab explains. A helmet could potentially barely pass the certification standard and a consumer would have no idea. To better inform the consumer, their goal is “to create a sport specific rating system to supplement the certification based on real-world injury scenarios and concussion risk for that sport.” They’ll then share the data with manufacturers for life-saving design suggestions.

The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab is building off of their decade’s experience rating football, soccer, cycling, and softball helmets, to tackle horseback riding helmets. Their plan in spelled out into three tasks:

  1. Background Research and Field Work
  2. Laboratory Testing
  3. Data Analysis and Final Helmet Ratings

First, the scientists will study the real world of riding. They’ll gather information from riding videos (particularly of jumping) to evaluate every type of potential riding accident. Next, they’ll shoot headforms (dummy human heads) into different arena footings to study hardness impacts of various soil conditions. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

Second, the team will use the data collected from the field to set up laboratory simulations of equestrian head injuries. For this, they use a large instrument called a pendulum impactor for precise impact onto helmets worn by dummy heads. These dummy heads are equipped with sensors to provide kinematic data, which informs the scientists about acceleration rates (acceleration is the main metric used to characterize concussion risk). 

Finally, data analysis is conducted. The lab offers a “STAR” (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) rating system based on statistical analysis of concussion exposure and risk. This rating can be understood by the consumer simply as a 5 star rating– 5 stars as the safest helmet, and 1 star as offering the least protection. The lab recommends helmets in the 4 to 5 star range. Once the research is completed, the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings website will provide and continually update equestrian helmet ratings. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

“No helmet is concussion-proof. Any athlete can sustain a head injury, even with the very best head protection. The helmet ratings identify the helmets that best reduce your chances of sustaining a concussion. With that stated, helmets are only one piece of the equation to minimizing concussion risk. Rule changes and coaching proper technique can result in fewer high-risk head impacts, and are perhaps most important. Having the best available head protection for the remaining head impacts further reduces risk.

Since the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab is independent and not funded by any helmet manufacturers, they ask for donations. Your dollar could represent a life saved. Riding will always be risky, but we can still enjoy the thrill while promoting safety. In the meantime, wear your helmet, be safe, and have fun. 

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