$100K added to helmet lab’s research into equestrian safety

Equestrian helmet testing at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab.
Equestrian helmet testing at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab. © Virginia Tech

A US equestrian body has pledged $100,000 to help out a new research campaign on helmet safety by the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab.

The US Hunter Jumper Association is pledging $100,000 towards the $450,000 Helmet Safety Research Campaign to support research to improve helmets used by the equestrian community.

Virginia Tech’s research program will study head impact and concussion risk in an equestrian environment. The research will be conducted in lab settings and field video data on a variety of equestrian events with significant attention to jumping, where many injuries occur. This project will set the framework to better understand concussive biomechanics in the equestrian industry and better inform helmet manufacturers for improvement with environment-specific design.

The lab was founded in 2011 by Stefan Duma, who now directs the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. “Since we started the Helmet Lab, I’ve gotten more phone calls about equestrian helmets than I have about any other sport except football,” Duma said.

“So we know there’s interest. And when you look at the injury numbers, they are staggering.”

© Virginia Tech

Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering, explains that the basic physics of riding a horse ratchet up the risk of head injury.  “When you’re on a horse, that puts your head about 8 to 10 feet off the ground. If you come off the horse for any reason, whether you’re thrown or you just fall, you end up with a much higher impact injury than people might expect,” he said.

“There is tremendous room for improvement not only in how helmets are evaluated, but also in utilizing advanced helmet technology,” Duma said.

At the Helmet Lab, customized pendulums, drop towers, and other equipment recreate impacts experienced by athletes in a variety of sports — so far football, hockey, soccer, and cycling. These sophisticated devices allow the lab’s researchers to test helmets and other protective headgear under realistic conditions, evaluating which models are most effective at managing the impact energy responsible for concussions and other head injuries.

The most visible outcome of this research has been the lab’s five-star helmet-rating system, which gives consumers an independent, evidence-based tool to guide purchasing decisions; they’ve also driven innovation in the helmet industry by providing a more granular metric for evaluating different models against each other using test methods that are reproducible in the lab and relevant on the field.

Preliminary tests by the lab measured the performance of six different helmet models with respect to the existing standard. All six helmets passed, but the results revealed wide variation in performance and significant room for improvement: the best equestrian helmet was still far less effective at managing impact energy than top-performing football helmets subjected to the same test.

More than 30 million people in the US ride a horse each year and this contributes to 50,000 injuries annually. Most of them are head injures.

Lead researcher Dr Barry Miller is fronting an informational webinar hosted by the USHJA on Wednesday, July 29 at 5pm (ET) for those interested in the campaign.

USHJA President Mary Babick said helmet safety was of the highest importance to the health and well-being of equestrians.

“Our pledge to this campaign is not only a commitment to furthering research and technology in this field, but also a commitment to our equestrian community to help make it safer for all involved,” Babick said.

The USHJA Board of Directors approved the funding in December 2019 at the USHJA Annual Meeting after Miller led a presentation on the topic of helmet safety and the research the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab has undertaken. In it, he noted that one in five equestrians will suffer a serious head injury during their lifetime, and novice riders are at a higher risk. Another statistic given was that current helmet use in all equestrian sports is less than 25%.

» Donations to help Virginia Tech reach the funding goal of $450,000, can be made here.

» Register for the webinar.

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