Helmets are essential, but they’re no panacea when it comes to concussion

Few riders are aware that helmets cannot completely prevent concussion, says Professor Alice Theadom. Photo: AUT

Horse riders largely over-estimate the ability of helmets to ward off concussion, New Zealand research findings suggest.

The new study of riding-related concussions reveals that riders tend to misunderstand the basic function of helmets.

“Helmets are important to prevent serious injuries like skull fractures, but few people are aware that they cannot completely prevent concussion.” says Professor Alice Theadom, lead author of the study and director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Network at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

“There is no way to keep the brain from moving inside the skull following an accident.”

Those who took part in the study showed high awareness that helmets absorb the impact from a fall.

However, only 17 percent correctly identified that helmets do not prevent concussion.

Professor Theadom says knowledge gaps around concussion are a huge concern.

Some people are not seeking medical attention after an accident, she says, thinking they must be okay because they were wearing a helmet.

In the study, there was also a discrepancy between some attitudes and behaviour.

There was strong agreement that a helmet should be replaced after an accident, as damage may not always be visible.

However, nearly half of the participants reported “re-wearing: a helmet following a blow to the head, instead of getting a new one.

The study, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, analysed knowledge, attitudes, and behaviour towards concussion among adults engaged in equestrian activities.

Almost 1500 people participated in the nationwide study, including jockeys, western and rodeo riders, pleasure riders, breeders, coaches, and parents.

More than 40 percent had experienced at least one concussion, a form of mild traumatic brain injury.

One in five traumatic brain injuries is sustained in sports or recreation, with rugby, cycling, and horse activities carrying the highest risk.

The strength, height, speed, and unpredictability of horses contribute to the velocity of the impact.

While most equestrian injuries are sustained by falling from a horse, a substantial proportion also occur while not riding.

One study has shown that 23 percent of injuries are caused by being knocked over or kicked in the head by a horse. However, the use of helmets when not riding remains very low.

Encouraging people to wear a helmet when grooming and tacking-up horses, not just riding, may help protect against other events leading to brain injuries, Theadom says.

She is calling for independent safety-testing of sports helmets.

“It is extremely hard to find out what safety testing has been done and by who,” she says.

“Currently, very few tests are specific to concussion or mimic a horse riding fall. People want more information on safety testing, so they know which helmet to choose.”

Wearing a helmet is now mandatory in competitive sport when riding a horse.

However, studies have shown that most equestrian injuries occur during unsupervised leisure riding.

Worryingly, one in 10 participants continues to ride without a safety helmet.

Most information about concussion was received from health professionals following a previous injury, it was found.

“There was also some uncertainty as to when people thought they should return to equestrian activities following a concussion. Consistent messaging across all sports is needed,” she says.

Despite the prevalence of concussion in equestrian activities, little was known about concussion awareness among people actively engaged in working with and riding horses prior to this study.

Health promotion requires accurate data to identify information gaps and misunderstandings that can be addressed with well-designed initiatives.

Education related to equestrian activities, such as helmet use, injury mechanisms, and learning to fall is needed to change behaviour and minimise the risk of injury, she says.

Theadom is a psychologist at the university’s School of Clinical Sciences. Her research on traumatic brain injury prevention and recovery is supported by a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship, administered by The Royal Society of New Zealand.

The study was carried out in partnership with ACC, the agency which runs New Zealand’s national no-fault accident insurance scheme. It also has a role in promoting injury prevention.


Latest research and information from the horse world.

5 thoughts on “Helmets are essential, but they’re no panacea when it comes to concussion

  • June 5, 2020 at 7:40 am

    Though it will not prevent concussion, it is incredibly important to wear a helmet.

  • June 5, 2020 at 4:02 pm

    Basically the authoritarians can’t sleep at night unless everyone thinks exactly like them through force and more regulation. All in the name of “your own safety”, as with any other example that happened throughout history.

    I mean sure, there is less risk if you wear a helmet, and go for it if you want to do that – “you do you” and all that – but why not just live and let live and let other people choose what they prioritise, what they consider important, and how they look after their own safety?

    • October 6, 2020 at 12:07 pm

      Possibly because it costs society a fortune to look after you when you injure yourself! If most people had to pay the actual cost of an extended stay in hospital it would probably bankrupt them. In countries with a public health system, it is the general, tax-paying public who are picking up the bill for post injury care so why shouldn’t the authorities encourage people to take responsibility for their own health and safety when taking part in a dangerous sport?

  • June 5, 2020 at 4:54 pm

    Hanging onto the reins especially rubber coated racing type reins reduces mostly eliminated hitting the ground head first. I have proven this so many times in serious fall at a gallop. Cut hand from clutching the buckle connecting the reins better than a fractured skull! An English Colonel in India innthe eighteen hundreds had the same advice.

  • June 9, 2020 at 3:27 pm

    I’m surprised that this article didn’t discuss the new MIPS helmets that are now flooding the market.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.