Everyone who rides horses--no matter how experienced or how careful--eventually falls off. The key to safe riding is to accept this reality, and do your best to protect yourself from serious injury when your turn comes. Fortunately for today's riders, the technology of protective attire has taken monumental leaps forward. In the last 20 years, we've gone from strapless, hard-shell hunt caps with little more than decorative value to lightweight, safety-tested, foam-lined helmets capable of absorbing tremendous blows. Safety vests, unheard-of two decades ago, are now commonplace and continue to undergo revolutionary changes. Even the stirrup, an invention that dates back to the second century B.C., is now available in styles designed specifically for safety.
To the consumer, the sheer variety of helmets, vests and stirrups, and the technological innovations they represent, may seem intimidating. This article will introduce you to the range of safety products available and provide information on features, fit and appropriate use. After reading about these products, you may decide you don't really need a quick-release stirrup or a safety vest, but on the other hand, you may also realize that your helmet needs be replaced. Whatever your equestrian interests, there's never been a safer time to ride--or fall off--a horse.
"A good helmet," as one manufacturer puts it, "is like an air bag for your brain." Though nothing inside a riding helmet actually inflates on impact, Dru Malavase, who has worked with the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the U.S. Pony Clubs Inc. to develop helmet standards, says it's a fitting analogy just the same. "When you fall off a horse, your body will come to a stop when you hit the ground, but your brain keeps traveling at the same speed," she says. "It will slam into the inside of your skull, and may even bounce back to the other side and slam into it again. Many times, the worst injury to the brain is on the opposite side of the impact." A small bump to the brain can result in a minor concussion; a massive jolt can cause permanent brain damage or death. Since the mid-1970s, helmets have undergone a dramatic transformation to reduce the potential for head injury. The safety-conscious Pony Clubs formally adopted helmet standards in 1980, and manufacturers began making helmets to their impact-absorption specifications shortly thereafter. By 1984, the American Horse Shows Association (AHSA) had adopted the same standards, requiring junior riders in certain disciplines to wear approved headgear. Today, a wide variety of English and Western-style safety helmets are readily available for riders who choose to wear them.
Despite these advances in headgear technology, Malavase says, the equestrian community has been slow to embrace the riding helmet. "Riders are about as bad as any group of people when it comes to not wanting to wear helmets," she laments. The most common excuses--that the helmets are too heavy and too hot--simply don't hold up: Today's helmets are actually 75 percent lighter than older models, she says, and "studies have shown you are actually cooler in a white, ventilated helmet than you are in just your bare head." It doesn't help that top riders are often pictured wearing purely ornamental headgear. "It's really disappointing to see a high-profile rider in an unapproved, useless hunt cap or top hat," Malavase says. "It says in the AHSA rule book that no judge can discriminate against a competitor who wears protective headgear. So there's really no excuse."
This article first appeared in the August 1998 issue of EQUUS magazine.