Over the past two years, the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab researchers analyzed more than 100 videos of riders falling off horses. The researchers measured the hardness of the sand, dirt, grass, and synthetic surfaces under foot at equestrian events.
The researchers dragged dummy heads and necks and pendulums and other equipment including boxes and boxes of helmets out to Virginia Tech’s equestrian facilities to simulate falls.
Then the team of researchers from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics took all that data back to the lab to recreate those events in a series of controlled, quantitative tests. They used those tests to assess 40 equestrian helmets from different manufacturers.
The result is the first set of equestrian helmet ratings from the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab.
Equestrian sports account for 30 million rides in the U.S. every year and 50,000 trips to the
emergency room for concussions and other brain injuries. That’s more than any other sport in America.
“Most people are surprised to learn that,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor
of Engineering and the Helmet Lab’s founder. “But when you think about the height of a horse and the distance a rider would fall, that translates into a high impact energy.”
If a rider’s head hits the ground in a fall, the helmet can determine whether the rider makes it through without an injury.
That’s why the helmet lab wanted to determine which helmets perform better than others. Of the 40 models included in this initial set of ratings, two earned the top score of five stars. Eleven earned four, and the rest earned three or below.
Price isn’t necessarily a predictor of quality: One of the two five-star helmets retails for $460, and the other for $58.
The ratings apply to falls that occur during walking, trotting, galloping, jumping, and the wide variety of other horse movements that can occur in equestrian disciplines including hunter-jumper, eventing, and dressage.
The lab’s extensive testing also shed more light on what happens during real impacts in the equestrian arena and illuminated some gaps between the required safety standards these helmets have to pass before going on the market and the actual impacts they’re subjected to when a rider is wearing them.
“Standards for equestrian helmets are typically based on severe impacts,” Duma said. “What we found is that a lot of riders come off at lower velocities, and many helmets are too stiff to effectively cushion those softer impacts. The helmets that perform better are able to deal with different energy levels.”
Virginia Tech’s ratings also go beyond the existing standards by using a formula that considers the rotational acceleration that occurs when a rider’s head hits the ground, in addition to linear
This is the lab’s ninth major ratings release since researchers began rating helmets in 2011. They have tested and rated helmets for varsity, youth, and flag football; soccer; cycling; hockey; snow sports; and whitewater sports, transforming the science of sports safety by giving athletes, parents, and coaches unbiased, quantitative data they can use to choose the safest equipment.
The ratings for each sport come together through a meticulous process of translating metrics from real-world head impacts into evidence-based test methods that assess helmet performance under realistic conditions.
The equestrian ratings, and those for the other sports the lab has studied, are available on the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings website, along with the corresponding test methods. That allows companies to use the protocols to evaluate designs and prototypes, optimizing a new helmet’s safety profile before it ever hits the market.