The Future of Riding Helmets

Photo Credit Piper Klemm

There are exciting changes  on the horizon for helmets—but not without our help

BY RENNIE DYBALL

The hunter jumper world has come a long way from hunt caps and clear plastic chin straps. But equestrian helmet safety still has plenty of room for improvement.

The Virginia Tech helmet lab has conducted extensive research on helmets used in other sports, and equestrian helmets are on deck as soon as funding is secured. The helmet lab’s STAR rating system gives consumers an independent, evidence-based tool in making their purchasing decisions. Currently, equestrian helmets must be ASTM certified, though that certification involves only a pass-fail system. With the forthcoming helmet lab research, riders will be armed with more knowledge about specific helmet brands and how they fared against one another in equestrian-specific testing.

USHJA has pledged $100,000 toward the $450,000 needed for the study, and the organization is actively working with USEF and other organizations to raise the remainder of the funds. Individuals can contribute to the fundraising through the Equestrian Helmet Safety Initiative using the link at the bottom of this story.

To learn more about these upcoming developments—as well as how to keep ourselves as safe as possible right now—The Plaid Horse consulted two experts in equestrian safety to answer our most pressing questions.

Dr. Barry Miller is the Director of Outreach and Business Development for the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab.

TPH: Can you explain how the Virginia Tech helmet study will provide riders with more information on their helmets than the ASTM currently provides?

Dr. Miller: We supplement the pass/fail certifications by creating a sport-specific helmet rating that provides consumers information about the relative differences between helmets as it relates to concussion risks for that sport. By doing so it also helps the helmet companies better design helmets to reduce concussion risks.

TPH: What sort of timeline can riders expect?

Dr. Miller: 18-24 months is typical for this type of research, but we’re trying to fast track this as there are many people interested in this project. We have also conducted some preliminary testing and literature reviews so we’re ready to go once funding is secured!

TPH: How many helmet brands will be tested?

Dr. Miller: Once the STAR Rating protocol is developed, we would try and sample a wide array of currently sold equestrian helmets on the market and then post them to the website. This would be on ongoing process as new helmet models enter the market we’d get them tested and posted as best we can.

TPH: Are you testing equestrian helmets with MIPS technology specifically?

Dr. Miller:  Not specifically, but the newer helmet models are incorporating MIPS and other rotational mitigating technologies so a good portion of those would get rated.

TPH: Since MIPS technology is still new to equestrian helmets specifically, would you recommend riders take advantage of helmets with MIPS?

Dr. Miller: Our bike testing results certainly supports the use of MIPS and Wavecel technologies. MIPS simply provides a slip plane between your head and the helmet. So with an impact the MIPS allows the helmet to rotate a little while allowing your head to remain more stable. This reduction in rotational kinematics can reduce the risks of concussion and the helmets incorporating these rotational technologies have tended to rate better. 

Joe Dotoli is a lifelong hunter jumper trainer who serves on the USHJA board of directors and heads the ad hoc USHJA Safety Committee. He’s been working to make our sport safer for more than two decades.

TPH: Can you provide us with a little history on helmet certification?

Dotoli: Many years ago, there was a stigma associated with ASTM helmets, because back then, the helmet companies had kind of given up on the people who horse show. We had made it very clear that we weren’t that interested in wearing them because they weren’t attractive, but they weren’t attractive because the people who did want them didn’t care about looks. They only cared that they were inexpensive and safe. Companies were making them as cheaply as they could and still getting them to pass ASTM. And then right around 2000, we got serious about it. I met with the helmet companies at the time and they were great about it. They produced some attractive helmets by the time it was a rule in 2002 for junior riders to wear approved helmets.

TPH: How does the ASTM certification work today?

Dotoli: The ASTM method for testing various sport helmets (hockey, football, riding, etc.) are similar. The pass/fail threshold uses just linear acceleration values and does not take into account Rotational Acceleration data which also significantly contributes to concussion risk. It’s not sport-specific. Obviously if you’re skating on ice or riding a horse, the injuries don’t necessarily align. There are different angles of how you hit the ground. The second thing that’s always been an issue for me is that it’s a pass/fail system. Once the manufacturer gives ASTM all their models and they all pass, there’s no incentive to make something better. They’re all ASTM-approved.

The end result that I see is a parent standing in front of a wall of helmets, all very attractive, and not knowing which one they ought to buy, because they’re all ASTM-approved. Imagine if they had a one through five-star rating on them, and the one through five-star rating is a scientific equation as to how much linear and rotational force they will absorb. There’s nothing subjective about it. Now the parent at the tack store and can see the ratings on the helmet and make their choice.

TPH: How did the idea to have helmets tested at the Virginia Tech helmet lab come about?

Dotoli: Kenny Marash, the horse show announcer’s wife Holly had a head injury. Kenny sent me this article about the work being done at Virginia Tech. Their work had just been completed on football helmets. Bike helmets had been tested by the bicycle industry, too. They were interested in doing something with riding helmets—equestrians have a high rate of head injury, particular concussions. Ultimately, USHJA backed the helmet study financially to start it off. The helmet lab does this in three phases: First, they go out to the field and watch hundreds of hours of video and so forth, trying to figure out the angles that people fall at and the materials they land on, all specific to riding. The second stage is to create tests in the laboratory to simulate those falls. Then the third phase is to test all the available helmets. It’s going to be about $450,000 total.

TPH: While we wait for the STAR rating system, how do riders choose the best bicycle helmets?

Dotoli: Fit is very important. It’s my understanding the most recent scientific information shows that wearing the hair up or down does not change how well the helmet works. If the helmet stays on, it does its job in terms of protecting your head. Now the fit is important because obviously the better fit it is, the better chance it’s going to be where it belongs when you hit the ground. The biggest thing seems to be that some helmet makers use an oval form to make the helmets and some use a round form to make their helmets. There is that one difference in head shape. If you’ve got more of an oval-shaped head, there are certain helmets designed to fit better. If you have a round-shaped head, there are other ones that will fit you better.

 To contribute to the Equestrian Helmet Safety Initiative, go to: www.ehsi.net

Previous articleA Quick Questionnaire with Rising Equitation Star Xavier Gomez
Next articleThree Tips for Ditching the Barn Drama