A heads up on helmets

Value your head! You only have one and damage to it can result in life changing consequences. KRISTEN FLEET takes a look at what’s what in the protective headwear department. 

When I was a child helmets were never compulsory, nor was wearing them enforced at any of the riding schools I attended in the early days. When I think of some of the stupid things I used to do on my pony, I am amazed I have a head left at all!  

As equestrian sports became more competitive (think harder and faster), more schools, trainers, and mothers, recognised that helmets were a necessity rather than an accessory! It wasn’t long before peak bodies across most riding disciplines included the wearing of helmets in their competition rules. But not just any helmets. These helmets had to comply with the most recent safety standards, and as designs and standards improved, the rule books were updated to reflect those changes.   

Helmet history trivia: Protective helmets in one form or another have been around for hundreds of years. The ancient Greek and Roman armies did battle in protective headwear, and the word ‘helmet’ is itself derived from ‘helm’, a medieval term for protective combat headgear. Jump forward a century or two to 1911, and Englishman Charles Owen, driven by a desire to ‘make products for a safer world’, began manufacturing cork helmets for the military. By 1928, the cork helmet had been given a hard exterior shell and was reborn as a motorcycle helmet. Ten years later and the first horse racing helmet was developed, changing the equestrian world forever. 

Current Global Standards: Many equestrians were taken by surprise when in 2016, Equestrian Australia (EA) announced that new safety standards for helmets would come into force from 2017 onwards, and in order to compete in any EA event, a rider must wear an approved helmet with the chin strap fastened at all times (of course, this is recommended whenever you ride a horse). But how do you know if your helmet complies with the standards?

Because helmets are imported from a number of different countries, the EA rules list several globally recognised standards, and at least one of them should appear on the labelling inside your helmet: 

Current Australian standard AS/NZS 3838 (2006 onwards) provided they are SAI Global marked.

New Australian standard ARB HS 2012 provided they are SAI Global marked.

Current American standards ASTM F1163 (2004a and any subsequent updates) provided they are SEI marked.

Current American standard SNELL E2001 (and any subsequent updates).

Current British standard PAS 015 (1998 or 2011 and any subsequent updates) provided they are BSI Kitemarked.

Interim European Standard VG1 (01.040: 2014-12) with or without BSI Kitemark.

Protect your head: Helmet manufacturers usually recommend replacing your helmet every five years, but if you’ve had a hard-blow impact accident, you should replace your helmet immediately – and there’s a very good reason for this. 

The part of the helmet that protects your head is the liner. Usually made from high grade polystyrene, it’s a bit like microscopic bubble wrap. The liner itself is protected by a hard fibreglass or plastic exterior. If you have a fall, the exterior shell diffuses the impact while the liner reduces bruising to your brain by increasing the length of time it takes for the shock to reach your head, thereby lessening its intensity. During this process, layers of bubbles actually burst – and if the impact is hard enough, the liner will collapse. And that’s why if your hat has been subjected to a severe impact, including being dropped on a hard surface, it should immediately be replaced. 

So which helmet should you buy?: There’s a wide variety of safety standard compliant helmets on the market for both adults and children. The price can range from around $65 to over $1,000, and when it comes to styles, colours, and fabrics, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Knowing what you’re looking for from the point of view of safety standards is essential, but after that, the fun begins!   

That said, accepted styles vary from discipline to discipline, and are also dependant on the level at which you’re competing, and on whether you’re showing under a breed society or in costume. 

Some disciplines, dressage for example, are very clear about the style of headwear approved for competition, but eventers, endurance and pleasure riders have a myriad of options, including helmet covers in an array of colours and prints, reflective covers for night riding and novelty covers. There are even stylish helmets available for western and stock riders who have traditionally worn a cowboy or stockman’s hat. 

You might be a traditionalist who opts for velvets and simple styling, or you might prefer the modern look of a ‘skunk’ helmet with its decorative ventilation strip running down the centre. And if bling’s your thing, you’ll love the crystals and reflective laser or placement prints offered by many helmet manufacturers. Some companies also offer personalised designs, embossing and logo treatments for a truly individual look.

But before you get totally carried away, here are some discipline orientated points to ponder:

DRESSAGE: All riders competing in an EA dressage competition must wear an approved safety helmet with the chin strap fastened. Riders 26 years and over, riding Prix St Georges and above, have the option of wearing a top hat. As a dressage rider, you don’t have many choices regarding the colour of your helmet, which should match the jacket colour you’ve selected from EA’s list of acceptable colours. However, you could always break out with a touch of bling!

SHOWJUMPING: It’s compulsory for all riders competing at EA showjumping events  to wear approved and properly fastened protective headgear with a three point retention harness at all times when mounted.

EVENTING: Event riders must wear properly fastened protective headgear at EA or FEI events in Australia. Obviously the helmet should comply with the approved standards, but as of January 1st 2020, your helmet must also be tagged with a current and visible EA helmet tag to show that the helmet has been inspected and has been found to comply with the required safety standards.

Some eventers like to stand out from the field with helmet covers in their own stable colours or in a personal design. Covers are readily available in a wide array of styles, colours and prints, and can easily be removed for the dressage and show jumping phases.  For eventing, a sturdier cradle or harness is used for the chinstrap and it should be worn tight to ensure the helmet stays put! 

ENDURANCE: There are quite a few popular styles for endurance riding. You should look for one that’s lightweight, super breathable, and able to withstand extreme conditions. These types of helmets are making their way into mainstream riding, and are especially comfortable in warmer or more humid climates.  Endurance riders can also make use of lightweight waterproof visors which fit easily over the helmet for extra protection. Many endurance helmets have reflective tape for safe riding at night, as well as a three point harness or chin strap for added comfort and stability. 

WESTERN/STOCKHORSE – TRAIL RIDING: There are few innovations in this space. However, some manufacturers have come up with a helmet and removable visor combination which still looks like a cowboy/stockman’s hat but is also a safety helmet. If required, the visor removes easily, and the hat can be used both in competition and for pleasure riding. These helmets are available in adult and children’s sizes and some have adjustable ratchets on the inside to ensure a snug fit. 

But there’s more

Once you’ve chosen your safety standard compliant headwear, you might want to consider a helmet cleaner and conditioner, or a polish for outer polycarbonate shells.  There are anti-odour and anti-microbial sprays for the inside lining and removable padded strips to help you customise your fit. Helmet covers and travel cases are also available to keep your investment clean and safe. 

Since the 1930s, helmets have come a long way with regards to function, fit and fashion, and are continuing to evolve as more high-tech and innovative materials are developed. There’s never been a safer time to be an equestrian!

Please note: the safety standards listed in this article were sourced from Equestrian Australia’s (EA) website: www.equestrian.org.au and were correct at the time of writing. However, the standards may change to reflect ongoing improvements to safety headwear. Any such changes will appear on the EA website. 

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