In our trail or pleasure helmets, we want something easy to wear, cool, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive. We insist on an ASTM/SEI certified helmet. These helmets are designed to meet safety standards set forth by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and are tested by the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) tests to ensure they do. Any riding hat that does not meet these standards is not a safety helmet.
Fit is everything, as evidenced by the new and varied systems manufacturers have developed. For the most part, we found the new gadgetry tougher to use than old-school methods. Dial-fitting systems allow wearers to turn a dial on the rear of the helmet to tighten or loosen. They have the advantage that you can adjust your helmet while you’re wearing it.
The disadvantage is that these dial systems are all plastic-based, and while none did break during our tests, they feel as though they could, if you went one click too far. Also, sometimes long hair gets caught in dials. Although feasible, it’s sort of awkward to crane your arm around the back of your head to dial your helmet tighter.
The helmets we tested mostly worked fine over ponytails, but Troxel has a special barrette-like fitting system that makes ponytail-wearing even easier. It allows a ponytail to slide through the back. You adjust these by squeezing and pulling the plastic device closer together to tighten or farther apart to loosen, another trick that is a little tough to do behind your head. Some Troxels also have a flip-fold system, and one of the Horkas we tested has an unusual zipper-type of rear-fitting system.
Tipperary and Del Mar include removable padding, which uses the old-school concept that more padding forms a helmet more closely to your head. The pads come with the helmet and get placed within the helmet liner. This is a pain at the outset, but once they’re in, you’re done. Besides the laces, we like these best. They do make it harder to pass helmets around, but they usually make a helmet fit snugly and with a more personalized fit than the dials do.
The International helmets we tested had some exposed foam in their design. Even though foam is what protects heads, we don’t like having it out and available for damage without even a plastic shell. The helmet is no safer with the plastic shell — the foam is what protects your head — but we like to have our foam covered if our helmet is living at a barn where it is likely to get nicked and dented in daily use.
Helmet visors are either integrated — that is, they are part of the plastic shell that comprises the helmet — or attached, which means they are a separate piece of plastic. We prefer integrated visors because we don’t have too many occasions where we want to remove a visor. And the visors that are attached but not removable seem flimsier and likelier to snap off than their integrated counterparts.
Jumper styling is in, even for schooling helmets. Horka and Del Mar make helmets with the “skunk” stripe popularized in the jumper ring. Manufacturer logos are also big — from the Tipperary to the Aegis to the Horka, companies are stamping their products. (The USPC seal on the Aegis helmets means that Aegis donates to them, not that it is the helmet specifically endorsed by the U.S. Pony Clubs.)
Simplest was best when it came to fit. All our testers, with all their differently shaped heads, raved about how well the Charles Owen helmets fit. Even with all the new fitting systems available, the Charles Owens prove that old-fashioned laces and plenty of padding are the way to go. Our testers appreciated that these helmets resisted side-to-side shifting so well.
However, the Charles Owens are not particularly well ventilated — only one of the three we tested has any ventilation holes. They got pretty hot on warm days.
Two of the models didn’t have visors, which is because they were designed for jockeys, exercise riders and event riders, who aren’t looking for visors. They’re expensive, but they’re not a bad value, given all their features. Still, it seems that $280 is more than we need to spend for any schooling or trail helmet. We’ll save these for the show ring, eventing, foxhunting, or maybe even breezing racehorses.
The Tipperary Sportage fit all of our requirements for a trail helmet. It’s lightweight, has no exposed foam, and it’s well-ventilated. We also like that its integrated visor is small — large enough to help with harsh sunlight, but not so big that it obstructs vision. The Sportage has plenty of foam padding, which helped it fit and prevented rocking. We liked the leather accents and logo, as well. If Tipperary found a way to make the liner removable, this helmet would be perfect. And, at $59, it’s a good value, too.
However, the Best Buy award goes to the Del Mar Classico. It has a less-than-ideal attached visor, but it’s nice and small. This helmet comes with pads to customize fit, a removable mesh liner, no exposed foam, and a decent amount of padding. It retails for $39.95.