How Helmets Work Back »

Head injuries account for 10-30% of equestrian injuries and the majority of horse-related fatalities. Wearing a properly fitted helmet is an easy and effective way to reduce the chances of incurring a head injury in case of a fall from or with a horse. This article explains the mechanism of how helmets work, how to properly fit a helmet, and how to care for a helmet.

How Helmets Work

The equestrian helmets of today generally consist of a hard-outer shell, liner, and a harness. The compressible helmet liner is the component credited with protecting the brain. Instead of a sudden stop, the foam compresses on impact and decelerates the head more slowly. It is important to note that after a fall the liner will not expand again and the helmet’s effectiveness is reduced (Figure 1). This damage may not be visibly apparent on the outside of the helmet. A new helmet should be obtained after a fall involving impact to the helmet. Many manufacturers offer discounts or replacement programs of high end helmets in the event of a fall. A fastened harness keeps the helmet in position in the event of a fall. A proper fit is needed for a helmet to work correctly.

Figure 1. This helmet was sawed in half after a fall and shows the compression of the foam. Credit: S. Kotow, labeled by S. Mastellar.

Helmet Quick Fit Guide

  1. Look for the label.
    Only use ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) and SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) certified helmets. 
  2. Prepare your head.
    Thick or long hair can affect helmet fit, so be sure to have hair styled as you would when riding.
  3. Measure.
    Most manufacturers have measurement/fitting guides online to help reduce the amount of trial and error in finding a helmet that works for you.
  4. Try it on.
    The helmet should fit snugly, but comfortably. Some people have heads that are more oval or round, so one brand may not work for everyone.
  5. Adjust.
    Most helmets have pads and/or dials to fine tune the fit of the helmet. However, these fine adjustments should not be used in place of obtaining a helmet with the best fit. The chinstrap should be tight enough that it will hold the helmet in position. Check the manufacturer guidelines for further fine-tuning fit.
  6. Check.
    The helmet should be level front to back. Moving the visor should cause the forehead skin and eyebrows to move with the helmet. The helmet should not wobble when the head is shaken side to side or up and down.

Remember that a proper fit is important for both comfort and safety. View a video demonstration of helmet fitting for more information.

Certified Helmets And Their Labels

Not all helmets are created equal. Most helmets marketed today exceed safety standards, but it is still wise to check and make sure that helmet contains a label stating 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. The last two digits in the ASTM standard number refer to the standard year. The letter following those two digits refers to changes to the standard within that year. In Figure 2 the label indicates this helmet meets the 2004 standard.

Figure 2. ASTM/SEI label in a helmet. Credit: S. Mastellar, May 2016

Helmet Testing

Testing conducted on helmets at the SEI laboratory can be viewed in the Every Time Every Ride video. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all organizations that promote or sanction horseback riding require ASTM/SEI certified helmets.

Helmet Care

Always follow manufacturer instructions for the care of your helmet. Avoid dropping the helmet, especially on hard surfaces. Also, avoid leaving the helmet in direct sunlight, such as the back window of a vehicle. Consider replacing a helmet for the following reasons:

A fall or impact has occurred.
Some manufacturers will provide a replacement at a discount.

The helmet is 5-6 yrs old.
This recommendation is in order to take advantage of any new safety standards. However, recent research on bike helmets indicates that the useful life of a helmet may be longer, as long as it is in good condition (DeMarco, 2015).

Signs of hard use are apparent.
The following list is from helmet expert, Dru Malavase. Malavase served on several national equine organization committees including the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Safety Committee collecting data on equestrian injuries and making policy recommendations.

  • Harness pulling loose from helmet
  • Squeeze clips with broken teeth
  • White helmet turning yellow
  • Black velvet helmet turning beige
  • Surface cracks, holes or dents
  • Chunks missing from the liner
  • Liner squashed down in places
  • Shell or liner cracked through


There are a significant number of head injuries resulting from horseback riding. More information regarding injury statistics can be found in the articles titled Equestrian Injury Statistics and Recognizing Concussions in Horseback Riders. Helmets work by decelerating the head upon impact. Certified helmet models undergo rigorous testing to ensure that they meet international safety standards. A properly fitted and cared for helmet maximizes protection in the event of a fall.


  • Carmichael, S. P., Davenport, D. L., Kearney, P. A., & Bernard, A. C. (2014). On and off the horse: Mechanisms and patterns of injury in mounted and unmounted equestrians. Injury, 45(9), 1479-1483.
  • DeMarco, A. (2015). New Research Shows Helmets Can Retain High Performance for Decades. Equestrian Medical Safety Association News, XXVIII.
  • Hughes, K. M., Falcone, R. E., Price, J., & Witkoff, M. (1995). Equestrian-related trauma. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, 13(4), 485-487.
  • Jagodzinski, T., & DeMuri, G. P. (2005). Horse-related injuries in children: A review. Wisconsin Medical Journal, 104(2), 50-54.
  • Liestman, L. (1996). North American Horsemen's Association: Bodily Injury Damage Statistics Report January 1, 1992 through December 31, 1995. Equestrian Medical Safety Association Newsletter.
  • Malavase, D. (1997). Helmet Life Span. Equestrian Medical Safety Association Newsletter, VIII.
  • Thomas, K. E., Annest, J. L., Gilchrist, J., & Bixby-Hammett, D. M. (2006). Non-fatal horse related injuries treated in emergency departments in the United States, 2001–2003. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(7), 619-626. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2006.025858
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