Horseback Riding Helmets: FAQ Back »

Use of helmets in horseback riding is becoming more popular. Below are the answers to some common questions regarding equestrian helmets and their use.

Why wear a helmet?

Injuries to the brain can have life altering consequences and horseback riding is the leading cause of sports related traumatic brain injury in the US (Winkler et al., 2016). Wearing a helmet reduces the chance of and severity of these types of injuries. More information regarding injury statistics can be found in the articles titled Equestrian Injury Statistics and Recognizing Concussions in Horseback Riders.

Do helmets reduce head injuries?

Using helmets during horse-related activities reduces the risk of injury and significantly decreases hospital admission, intracranial injury, and head injury severity (Bond, Christoph, & Rodgers, 1995). More detailed information is available on this topic in the article Equestrian Injury Statistics.

What does it mean for a helmet to be ASTM or SEI certified?

In 1988, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) passed Headgear Used in Horse Sports and Horseback Riding, Standard No. F. This was the first set of standards specifically for equestrian headgear passed by the organization. Most helmets marketed today exceed the safety standards set by these organizations, but it is still good to check and make sure that helmet contains a label certifying that standards are met. Look for a helmet that meets both ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) and SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) standards for equestrian use. For more information on this topic and reading certification labels visit the article How Helmets Work.

Can I use my bike helmet for horseback riding?

No, bike helmets are built to different standards. Bike helmets are often similar in construction to equestrian helmets, but focus their design on the most typical kind of bike crash of going over the handlebars. Equestrian helmets are built to withstand side impacts better and are built to handle falls from greater heights. The few dollars more that you may spend on a helmet built for the job are well spent.

Who should wear a helmet while riding?

Helmets are recommended for anyone while mounted on a horse or pony. Riders of all ages and skill levels have suffered head injuries. More information can be found on the relationship between experience and injury rates in the article Equestrian Injury Statistics.

How does older experienced riders’ decision to wear helmets influence younger riders?

Children and less experienced individuals in a sport look up to the more experienced riders. Riding culture and family use have been identified as factors affecting attitudes about helmets. A study of horse organization publication photos found that children and teens were more often portrayed wearing helmets than adults and only 15% of elderly riders were portrayed wearing helmets while mounted (Jennissen, Waheed, Harland, & Denning, 2012). Additionally, researchers found through a focus group analysis that “. . . the perception of children and youth is that if adults do not wear them, helmets must be meant for inexperienced riders or just for children” (Reed, Novak, & Heath, 1998). Use of helmets by experienced riders can help promote use of helmets in young riders.

Do riders in western disciplines need helmets?

A study of horse-related injuries in a rural community in Canada, where western riding predominated, found similar rates of head and neck injury (17%) to studies involving other types of riding (Thompson & von Hollen, 1996). Rodeo participants may face even greater risks. Between 1980 and 1995 the Justin Sports medicine Program collected data from Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events. Concussions comprised 38% of rodeo injuries (Hammett, 1997). Researchers reviewing data from many studies have advocated increased use of protective gear in all equestrian activities.

Are helmets recommended for day to day work on the ranch?

Helmet adoption in rural areas may be even be more important than urban areas because of the increased travel time to medical help in rural parts of the country. A study in New Mexico found that many horse-related fatalities occur in remote locations where delayed access to treatment may have contributed to the death (Lathrop, 2007). Preference for cowboy hats may have slowed helmet adoption in rural areas. However, there are now helmets made to look like cowboy hats available. In addition, some riders embellish their helmets to make them look like cowboy hats. Care should be taken that embellishments do not interfere with the helmet’s protective ability. Some helmet manufacturers also sell brims for added sun protection specially made for their helmets that do not interfere with their protective ability.

Is there a need to wear a helmet if no jumping is involved?

Debilitating injuries can occur during flatwork and even at a walk. One example is US Olympic dressage rider Courtney King-Dye. In 2010 she suffered a traumatic brain injury after her horse tripped and fell during schooling while she was not wearing a helmet. Three years later, on April 1st 2013 the United States Equestrian Federation required ASTM/SEI approved helmets for all levels of dressage (Dressage News, 2013).

Will wearing a helmet put me at risk for heat stroke/exhaustion because of poor ventilation?

Manufacturers have responded to equestrian feedback regarding the comfort, weight, ventilation, look, and cost of their helmets to increase adoption. Today’s helmets are lightweight and well ventilated. When researchers measured heat strain in Australian stockmen working cattle wearing helmets or felt hats they found no difference in heat strain between the two types of headgear (Taylor, Caldwell, & Dyer, 2008).

Will wearing a helmet affect my balance?

Manufacturers continue to make helmets even more lightweight. A large helmet weighs between 1-2 pounds, which is as light as some felt cowboy hats. The average human head weighs approximately 10 -11 pounds making the weight of the helmet insignificant to a rider’s balance.

Where do physicians and health practitioners stand on the use of equestrian helmets?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all organizations that promote or sanction horseback riding require ASTM/SEI certified helmets. The American Medical Association also has a policy of recommending helmets for all equestrian activities.

Will wearing a helmet protect me from all head injuries?

Wearing a helmet doesn’t automatically make an equestrian safe. In fact, helmets have been found not to protect against facial injuries. Head injuries can still occur to people wearing helmets, especially when those helmets do not meet safety standards or are improperly fitted and are dislodged during a fall (Zuckerman et al., 2015). Experience and safety training are also important in reducing incidence of injury. Although, 56% of equestrians surveyed in Washington state stated that they feel safer when wearing a helmet (Condie et al., 1993).

Can helmets serve as a substitute for safety training?

Helmets are not a substitute for understanding horse behavior or other safety training. Completion of an equine educational program is a protective factor in reducing equestrian injuries. For example, a study of North Carolina 4-H youth documented that taking riding lessons and having personal experience owning a horse resulted in better safety skills scores (Beck, 2008). As there has been a decrease in horses used for work in the US, fewer Americans have daily exposure to horses to gain a deeper understanding of horses and horse behavior.

What horse behavior is most likely to cause a human injury?

Understanding why horses spook or being able to predict a spook would be helpful in reducing injuries. Two studies, one conducted in a Canadian community where western riding predominates, and one conducted in Kentucky, found that 27% of horse-related injuries were the result of spooking (Camargo et al., 2015; Thompson & von Hollen, 1996). In both studies spooking was the number one cause of horse-related injury. Therefore, the leading cause of equestrian-related head injury is something that is unpredictable in nature.

What will helmets of the future look like?

Helmets might not always look like they do now. An American equestrian helmet manufacturer has won a grant to develop a new material with promising impact absorption properties as part of the Head Health Challenge program. Inflatable body protectors are now used in some horse sports, such as eventing. When horse and rider are separated, a ripcord is pulled, inflating the vest before impact with the ground. Inflatable bike helmets are being made in Europe using motion sensors similar to those in smart phones that count steps or rotate the screen when the phone is turned. A US patent has been filed along these lines for use in helmets. Equestrian helmets have a history of using technology developed first for bike helmets, so it is possible this is in the future of the horse industry.

Where can I find more information about safety?

Interacting with horses in a way that sets you up best for successfully avoiding injury takes practice, awareness of surroundings, and an understanding of horse behavior. Hands on instruction is the gold standard, but there are several free resources available via the internet. The following list is based on information summarized by a journal article in Injury Prevention (Worley, 2010) with a few additions:

Additional Horse Safety Resources

SDSU Extension (iGrow)

American Youth Horse Council


Center for Disease Control (CDC)

Equestrian Medical Safety Association

National Ag Safety Database

Saddle Up SAFELY

A collaboration between University of Kentucky Healthcare, College of Agriculture, and community groups

WSU Extension

4-H Youth Development Program

United States Equestrian Federation (USEF)


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