Shopping for a riding helmet? Check out these safety ratings

A new riding helmet ratings system builds on existing safety standards to help equestrians make more informed purchasing decisions.

Shopping for a riding helmet can be unexpectedly overwhelming. Sure, it’s a simple enough piece of equipment. But with dozens of brands, each with numerous models, there’s a lot for a consumer to compare and consider.

For the safety minded, though, one thing is non- negotiable: a good rating from a reputable organization. In the United States, that means ASTM/SEI certification. This designation indicates that the helmet model has undergone testing by the Safety Equipment Institute and passed standards set by ASTM International, formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials.

Design and materials may vary, but essentially all ASTM/SEI-certified helmets have one common selling point: In the event of a fall, they absorb some of the force of impact before it reaches the skull. (Adobe Stock)

For decades now, ASTM/SEI helmets have been required for junior riders by many U.S. organizations and certain recognized shows. In addition, some states have passed legislation mandating their use by children. At the same time, a growing number of adult competitors and recreational riders opt for ASTM/SEI certified headgear. And some organizations now mandate its use for adults as well.

ASTM/SEI-certification

While specifics of design and materials may vary, essentially all ASTM/SEI-certified helmets have one common selling point: In the event of a fall, they absorb some of the force of impact before it reaches the skull. Yet the price tags for this headgear range from as little as $50 to more than $600. Of course manufacturers provide information about specific product features. But helmet shoppers must sort through options on their own, no doubt wondering whether a higher price means greater protection.

Fortunately, there’s now another tool to help consumers evaluate equestrian headgear options. Last winter, the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab in Blacksburg unveiled an independent ratings system that complement ASTM/SEI’s pass/fail test. Using STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) ratings based on an expanded testing protocol, the Helmet Lab system now makes it easier than ever before to compare levels of protection offered by different helmets. To date, the lab has tested 40 popular helmet models. Rankings are presented on the lab’s website.

Filling a gap

Since 2011, the Helmet Lab has provided independent ratings of sports safety equipment based on its biomechanics research. To date, it has assessed safety gear used in varsity and flag football, hockey, soccer and cycling, among other sports.

The Helmet Lab began researching equestrian headgear in 2019. To Barry Miller, PhD, the Helmet Lab’s director of outreach and business development, the need for this initiative was clear. “The materials used in equestrian helmets have not changed much over the last 10 years,” he says. “The primary components are still expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam for shock absorption encased in a thin polycarbonate shell—very similar in design to most bike helmets.”

Effects of brain injuries

Meanwhile, the dangers of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) have become increasingly evident. The term “TBI” covers a wide range of diagnoses, from a mild concussion to brain bleed or other brain damage. But more and more research points to the troubling, potentially long-term effects of even mild brain injury.

“Broadly, the brain can be injured whenever it is subjected to excessive forces,” explains neurosurgeon Lola Chambless, who is also an equestrian and a helmet safety advocate. “In equestrian injuries this is usually a rapid deceleration from a fall. These forces can cause shearing [tearing] of the neural tracks in the brain tissue itself. Or they can cause tears of the brain’s blood vessels leading to hemorrhage in or around the brain.”

How much protection?

Chambless and others have voiced concern about how effective modern riding helmets are in protecting against TBIs. “Current helmet technology is designed to prevent the severe brain injuries that result from these torn blood vessels or fractures to the skull,” she says. “We know that helmets have saved many equestrian lives and lessened the severity of many more TBIs. However, there is less evidence about the degree to which they protect riders from more mild injuries, like concussions.”

The Helmet Lab’s research and testing program expands that knowledge. It also provides helmet manu- facturers with data to help them improve their products. Their evaluation of equestrian headgear goes beyond conventional “drop tests” that calculate the linear forces in impact injuries to include other sorts of motion that contribute to the “concussion equation.” After all, a rider’s fall from a horse is usually not straightforward, literally or figuratively. Indeed, many falls involve rotational forces—a rapid change of the rotational velocity of the head. And these forces have long been associated with traumatic brain injury.

Protection calculations

To calculate the linear and rotational forces and other factors that contribute to head injuries, the Helmet Lab developed a testing protocol based on industry safety standards and video analysis of equestrian falls. For its new STAR system evaluations, the Helmet Lab performs 12 impact tests on each helmet using a pendulum test rig with a weighted impactor device. Assessments of both linear and rotational acceleration during each impact are made using three helmet locations (front, side and back).

Above all, the range of conditions reproduced in these lab tests mimic the factors that typically result in concussions. Simply put, the Helmet Lab’s expanded testing protocol supplements the pass/fail ASTM/SEI helmet certification with “real-life” concussion risk assessment.

The STAR system

The helmet lab tests only riding helmets that meet American (ASTM F1163, SNELL E2016) and/or European safety standards (VG1 01.040, PAS 015). Their test results are used to calculate an overall STAR rating.

First, a helmet receives a numeric “STAR score” that represents “the average number of concussions a rider would get wearing that helmet model when exposed to the laboratory tests representative of real-world falls,” according to Miller. In this case, a lower score indicates better performance. The other component of the Helmet Lab’s rating is the assignment of zero to five stars (general categories), based on the helmet’s overall performance. Zero stars is the lowest rating while a five-star helmet is a top performer.

Toward better purchase decisions

In addition to helping riders make individual purchase decisions, the Helmet Lab’s testing might spur product improvements over time. Indeed, one noteworthy discovery from the initial testing was that “a good portion of the helmets were overly stiff and thus didn’t perform very well on the low-energy impacts such as falls on softer ground,” Miller says. “This makes total sense because the only design/performance criteria for helmets prior to our release were the various certification standards (including ASTM). All of those criteria are high-energy impacts associated with more catastrophic injuries.”

What’s more, Miller notes, many equestrian helmets could benefit from an upgrade in both safety technologies and protective materials. “There are rotational technologies and materials other than EPS that can be incorporated into future models. We’ve already had discussions with five or six manufacturers on how to improve the helmets,” he says. He adds that one prototype is scheduled for testing in early 2023.

Looking ahead

What’s next? Over the long term, the Helmet Lab will continue to work with manufacturers, encouraging research and the application of better technologies in equestrian helmets. “We’ve already had several great discussions with companies so they can fully understand how the tests are conducted and how they can improve future models,” Miller acknowledges.

Meanwhile, he says, “We’ll continue to add models to the website ratings page as we get them into the lab and tested/rated, so this will simply be on a rolling basis.” Currently, the lab re-tests helmets only “…. if functional changes to a given helmet model are made,” he adds.

As for rider feedback on the STAR system, Miller says it has been “very positive” after some initial misunderstandings “about what the ratings really mean” were cleared up. “We’ve done numerous podcasts, interviews [and] articles to address all the questions. And it seems people are starting to really understand the STAR ratings,” he explains, adding, “This is the normal response to all the ratings we’ve released. 

“This is just the beginning for improved safety,” he concludes.

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