The inside scoop on helmets – and how they save horse riders

US dressage rider Laura Graves.
US dressage rider Laura Graves. © FEI/Liz Gregg

Gone are the days of riding helmets made of simple hard plastic with a velveteen outer layer. Nowadays, helmets are held to a much higher standard of safety testing. They’re more aerodynamic and better padded, without adding extra weight, and they are stylish so riders will want to wear them.

The equestrian helmet covers more of a person’s head than does a bicycle helmet, fitting lower on the head, particularly at the back of the skull, and has protection distributed evenly around the head, rather than concentrated in the front and top.

The safety of every ride is the main goal for each helmet manufacturer as they strive to develop the safest helmet they can, while keeping it comfortable, attractive, and easy to wear.

There is no single most important material, or part of a helmet because the manufacturers and safety experts believe these materials must work together to protect the rider.

Here are the elements that make up a riding helmet.

New Zealand eventing rider Caroline Powell. © Mike Bain

The outer shell

This part of the helmet gets the most attention because it’s easily seen. The outer shell’s material must be made of something that can prevent penetration from an object such as a sharp rock or a horse’s hoof. Manufacturers these days work to find the most stylish design that’s lightweight, yet functional.

Ovation helmets, the Troxel Spirit helmet, and Back On Track’s Trauma Void helmets all have an outer shell that is made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) thermoplastic, an engineering plastic that is easy to make and fabricate, and is a proven material for structural applications when impact resistance, strength and stiffness are required.

The Gatehouse helmet is also constructed from thermoplastic, with the additional of carbon fiber or aramid additional reinforcement.

Seven-time World Champion Team Roper Jake Barnes now wears a Resistol Ridesafe hat, after suffering a traumatic brain injury when his horse fell at practice last November. He withdrew from the 2015 NFR and began his road to recovery.
Seven-time World Champion Team Roper Jake Barnes now wears a Resistol Ridesafe hat, after suffering a traumatic brain injury when his horse fell at practice in 2015. © / Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo

The middle layer

This is what should absorb the majority of the impact from a fall or accident. Liners can be made from expanded polystyrene — which is a very lightweight product made of expanded polystyrene beads — made of more than 95 percent air and only about 5 percent foam. Expanded polystyrene, like that found in Gatehouse and Troxel helmets, has strong shock absorbing properties and is compression resistant.

KEP Italia helmets feature a polycarbonate and carbon fiber combination. Polycarbonate is a pliable material commonly used in eyeglasses, greenhouses, and digital discs. The impact strength of polycarbonate rates towards the top for impact strength, but it can be susceptible to scratching.

The inner layer

This layer of the helmet provides comfort for the wearer — if you had to wear something rigid day in and day out, you most likely wouldn’t be compelled to wear it, right? So helmet manufacturers may add a thin liner to the inside of the helmet for a softer feel, while also protecting the shock-absorbing layer from the inside.

These inner layers can include a mesh comfort liner to help wick away sweat, as well as some extra foam for the comfort and ability to make the fit a little more custom. One K’s Air helmet includes inflatable air pockets in the liner, which allows for the riders to adjust the helmet for comfort and fit.

After the introduction of (BS)EN 1384 in 1996, some 15% of all equestrian injuries were to the head and face, a drop from the 33% prior to the standard.

Retention straps

No helmet is effective if the retention, or chin, straps do not exist. The retention system, often referred to as straps and buckle, keep the helmet on the rider’s head during a fall when fitted and used correctly.

Most retention straps are made from a nylon webbing and plastic buckle. Some may include soft fabric covers that can cover the underside, being held together with Velcro. Some might also be made of suede or leather.

Passing the test

Wearing a helmet could reduce the risk of riding-related head injury by an estimated 50 percent, as well as reducing the risk of death due to head injury by 70-80 percent. To ensure a helmet can accomplish these tasks, it must pass a series of tests. There are several different tests around the world. In the United States the standard is the ASTM/SEI (American Society for Testing and Materials/Safety Equipment Institute), which includes three main tests: the impact test, the side distortion test, and the penetration test.

The impact test measures the helmet’s ability to absorb a blunt force impact should a rider fall on their head onto something like pavement while trail riding.

The side distortion test simulates what could happen if 1200 pounds of horse happens to land on your head during a fall. It measures the ability of the helmet to resist distortion.

The penetration test measures the resistance the helmet offers to a pointed object into the ventilation area. It uses an equestrian hazard anvil, designed to approximate the angle of a horseshoe or a jump standard edge, to ensure there is no penetration by a sharp object whilst wearing the helmet.

Other testing certifications include the PAS 015 (British standard), and the AS/NZS 3838 and ARB HS 2012 (Australian standards).

The helmet of New Zealand showjumper Chloe Akers after a fall. It was only the next day that Akers discovered her helmet had been cracked.
The helmet of New Zealand showjumper Chloe Akers after a fall. It was only the next day that Akers discovered her helmet had been cracked.

Time for a change?

It is recommended that all helmets be replaced after an impact, even if you don’t see much physical damage to the helmet. General wear and tear of a helmet not only shows its age perhaps on the outer layer, but the materials that soften the impact can degrade within three to five years.

“Longevity depends on how frequently the hat is used, the conditions of use and how the helmet is stored and even transported,” says Paul Varnsverry, Technical and Safety Product Advisor for Gatehouse Hats.

All manufacturers recommend equestrians check their helmets regularly for any obvious signs of wear to the lining and retention straps, any cracks in the structure of the middle layer and the outer layer, and finally the operation and security of the buckle.

“Irrespective of any signs of deterioration, it is recommended to replace the helmet after five years because the protective capacity diminishes over time due to the ageing of materials,” says Silvia Fantoni with KEP Italia SRL.

• August 18 marks Riders4helmets International Helmet Awareness Day, where leading manufacturers offer special discounts on safety headgear around the globe.

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