The label “ASTM/SEI certified” is something the U.S. dressage community has become more familiar with since the passing of the new mandatory helmet rule in January of this year. The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) writes safety standards for riding helmets, draws up testing procedures and safety requirements for the specific risks and then publishes standards that can then be adopted. So that riders can have confidence in their choice, the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) operates a method to check and identify that the manufacturers follow them. If it doesn’t bear the ASTM/SEI logo, be cautious in purchasing that helmet. Many manufacturers make models that don’t comply.
But it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, riding helmets have made quite a transformation over the last century, and the Charles Owen Company has been at the center of the progress. In 1911, Charles Owen began manufacturing helmets in the east end of London for the military. By 1928, the idea to cover the cork helmet with a hard exterior covering created their first motorcycle helmet. And by 1938, the company developed its first horse racing helmet with its patented head-fitting system chosen by the winning jockey for the famous Grand National steeplechase.
“It was this adoption of helmets by jockeys that led to a major reduction in death from skull fracture on the racetrack and pointed Charles Owen toward the future of safety helmets for equestrian sport,” says Roy Burek, Managing Director of Charles Owen & Co. “Believing that standards should be met, Charles Owen became a founding member of the committee to develop the first motorcycle helmet standard in 1953, which set the benchmark for many of today’s modern standards.”
In 1963, the equestrian riding hat introduced riders to a new system of certification that is still the most stringent in the world, the British Kitemark®—a registered certification of quality and safety. This mark requires regular batch testing—one out of every 20 helmets made. SEI tests annually. This extra testing identifies defective helmets much more readily and for a company like Charles Owen, it means testing almost every week.
In 1984, the first helmet was made to two standards as customers sought the protection offered by a racing helmet but with the elegance of velvet. “It was with the large-scale adoption by the show hunters and jumpers for juniors that saw the first helmet made to meet three standards and three certifications,” says Burek. “This was a major technical challenge that required the helmet to adapt to so many accident situations that often the designers were faced with two opposing solutions to meet all three standards.”
Today, Charles Owen has one of the most diverse collections of triple-certified equestrian helmets in the world and finds itself at a very exciting time in head protection. “Much research has been done in the 1960s and ‘70s on traumatic brain injury,” says Burek. “In the past few years, we have been pleased to develop an instrumented helmet with an on-board computer in collaboration with Simbex and the University College Dublin. At last we have a method to assess the effects of concussion and how helmets can be developed in the future.”
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