Riding helmets are tested to withstand rigors specific to equestrian activities. Here’s what you need to know about selecting, maintaining, storing, and replacing them.
By Natalie DeFee Mendik, MA
Advances in technology are leading to continual improvements in safety standards for athletes. For riders, this means helmets that offer increasingly better protection.
When purchasing a new helmet, look for one designed specifically for equestrian use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States recommends helmets certified by industry safety institutes ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), SEI (Safety Equipment Institute), and/or Snell Standards (Snell Memorial Foundation). In other countries organizations carrying out safety testing standards include SAI Global (Australia), PAS (Britain), and EN (Europe). Testing protocols include impact, penetration, stability, and distortion measures.
Riding helmets are tested to withstand rigors specific to equestrian activities. “Different labs create different standards for testing and certify helmets accordingly,” says Fernanda Camargo, DVM, PhD, associate professor and equine extension specialist at the University of Kentucky (UK) and executive committee member on the university’s Saddle Up Safely campaign. “For example, a riding helmet will be tested for falls from a horse height (for example from at least 8-9 feet in the air for jumping) at a certain speed (to also protect those going at high speeds, such as racing) or a kick, whereas a bicycle or a football helmet does not need to be certified to protect against a kick.
“Riding helmets are designed to cover all the way to the bottom of the skull, whereas a bicycle helmet isn’t,” she continues. “A bull riding helmet also has a face cover, because you are most likely going to go up in the air and fall from a bucking and kicking bull, so your face also needs to be protected. One might say that an equestrian can also fall and be kicked in the face, which is true, but while a bull rider doesn’t need to see where he/she is going and doesn’t need to guide the bull to a specific obstacle, a horse rider has to, so covering the equestrian face is less safe in general.”
Replace any helmet worn in an accident immediately, even if it appears undamaged. Helmet materials are designed to dissipate the impact of a fall, which can compromise the helmet’s interior structures; this includes if a helmet was dropped.
“A helmet should be replaced if it suffers a fall, blow, or kick,” says Camargo. “If you had a fall but feel that your helmet was not affected, you can send it back to the manufacturer for testing. Even if the helmet does not have obvious signs of damage, the protective foam inside may have gotten deformed.”
Some manufacturers replace helmets involved in accidents at a reduced price within the warranty period, so save the documents related to your helmet purchase.
Replace any helmet, regardless of whether it’s been involved in a fall, at least every five years, because materials can degrade over time. That said, helmets worn excessively, such as those belonging to people riding multiple horses per day versus once or twice a week, withstand additional rigors and should be replaced more often than the recommended five years.
Don’t store your helmet in extreme temperatures, in a car, in direct sunlight, or next to a heat source, as these can negatively impact the materials within. “Heat will also damage the protective foam, so it’s highly important to not leave or store your helmet inside your car or trailer, because the temperature can get really high inside these spaces and deform the foam, deeming the helmet not protective anymore,” Camargo says. “For that reason, riders that ride all day every day in hot sun will purchase a new helmet (even if they haven’t received an impact) more often than five years.”
To clean your helmet, you can wipe it down and/or use a deodorizing product designed specifically for riding helmets, but don’t soak it or apply chemical cleaners. With proper care, maintenance, and fit, today’s helmets offer unprecedented levels of protection.
“While helmets don’t protect against everything, there is extensive research that shows it lessens the severity and/or reduces the incidence of TBIs (traumatic brain injuries),” says Camargo. “As a mother, a rider, and someone who didn’t use to wear a helmet (I grew up on cattle ranches, working cattle on horseback, where wearing a helmet is not customary), and after studying thousands of horse-related injuries, I must urge all riders to wear a helmet every time they’re on top of a horse.”