Written by: Teresa Pitman

For thousands of riders every year, their ride ends up with a trip to the emergency room. We look at helmets, safety vests and stirrups – how they protect, and how effective they are.

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We never plan to get injured when we saddle up our horses. Yet for thousands of riders every year, their ride ends up with a trip to the emergency room.

 

Kenda Lubeck, Farm Safety Coordinator for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, and a former eventer who now focuses on dressage, says to make riding safer, no matter what discipline you ride, we should first be looking at safe environments and appropriate training for both horse and rider. Personal protective equipment – helmets, body protectors, and so on – are really the final step on the list of safety precautions, says Lubeck. Regardless, we all want to be sure we’re investing in the safest safety equipment.

Helmets – Protecting the Melon

Which helmet is the safest? That’s not a question with a clear answer. Jenny Beverage of Troxel Helmets explains: “Tell me all the parameters of your fall and impact, and I’ll target a helmet for you.” In other words, if you could predict exactly how you’d fall – the speed, the distance, the part of your head that would hit the ground first, and the surface you’d land on – you could create the perfect helmet. But with so many unpredictable factors involved, helmets are designed to provide a broad range of protection.

Individual companies do research for their own products. Beverage says, “Troxel has an aggressive research program, especially related to the newest traumatic brain injury (TBI) and related insights from scientists. For example, we are learning more about rotational impacts and low-velocity impacts and TBIs.”

Out of this research, new design elements for helmets may emerge, and if they prove successful the ASTM (American Society for Testing Materials) may add them to their own requirements. Through this process, Lubeck says, helmets overall become safer. Research on head trauma in other sports such as football, hockey, and cycling is also fed into equestrian helmet design and testing.

Are the more expensive helmets better than the cheaper ones? No, according to research by the Equestrian Medical Safety Association (EMSA). While all approved helmets meet the minimum standards, the EMSA found that, based on limited data, the least expensive helmets actually tested the best.

The more expensive helmets do have some advantages – more features (such as vents for cooling), a variety of stylish designs and fabrics, and even bling. Ultimately, the safest helmet is the one the rider wears – and that means whenever someone is working around horses. A 2014 study conducted in Kentucky found that head trauma frequency was equal between mounted and unmounted equestrians. Two of the three deaths in their study were due to severe head injury from a kick. The researchers recommend riders should wear helmets when working around horses as well as when riding. As well, a 2005 study found that about 30% of the horseback riding-related injuries that require emergency room visits are caused by a person being kicked by a horse.

Fit impacts the effectiveness of a helmet. It should fit snugly (but not tightly) around the entire skull and sit just above the eyebrows. If wiggled, the skin around the forehead should move with the helmet. The straps, when done up, should allow conversation but tug if the mouth is opened wide.

Beverage says, “The number one issue is feeling good about your helmet and being comfortable in it. Ask yourself: is your helmet comfortable in hot weather? Does it fit your style of riding? Does it fit the varied ways you wear your hair? Is it comfortable for your full range of riding activities?” A style or design that fits your personality also makes it more likely that you’ll wear the helmet. For younger riders whose heads are still growing, or those who frequently change their hair styles, a helmet with an adjustable fit system may be a safer choice, she adds.

The EMSA notes that helmets should be replaced according to manufacturer specifications, which can range from every three to eight years. However, since helmet foam is made for one-time use, if a helmet has been in a crash or dropped onto a hard surface it is no longer as protective even if it shows no visible damage and should be replaced.

Body Protectors – The first line of defense

Lubeck says the jury is still out when it comes to protective vests. A 2015 Dutch study reported that “The current safety vest (body protector) does not significantly reduce the risk of torso injury.”

The EMSA is slightly more positive, based on their review of research: “A body protector is mainly useful to prevent minor penetrating injuries [such as kicks], bruises, abrasions, possibly some rib fractures and probably some shoulder injuries.” They can’t protect against spinal injuries, internal injuries, or injuries to the lower abdomen, which is not covered.

Despite these limitations, Lubeck believes it is safer to wear a body protector than not. Equestrian Canada agrees, at least for one sport: regulation requires that eventing competitors must wear a body protector for the warm-up and during the cross-country and recommend that the vest meet or exceed ASTM-approved standard F1937 or BETA Level 3 body protector standard. (Note that body protectors carrying the BETA 2000 Level 3 label have not been produced since 2011 and should be replaced with BETA 2009 Level 3 body protectors, a step which British Eventing is implementing on Jan. 1, 2018, at its competitions.)

Air Vests – an extra layer of protection

We all know about the benefits of air bags in cars: air vests operate on the same principle. The vest shields the chest, thoracolumbar spine and upper abdomen, offering some protection against fractured ribs and damage to underlying organs, including the liver and spleen. Manufacturers claim added support and reduced ‘shear’ forces to the thoracolumbar spine. Note, however, that air vests can only be worn over body protectors in competition.

While body protectors have been in use for many years, air vests only became popular around 2010. British rider Oliver Townend was wearing an air vest in 2010 when his horse fell on top of him at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Townend survived the horrendous crash and credited his inflatable vest with minimizing his injuries.

Air vests (Hit-Air, Point Two, Helite) are currently not certified, except for the EquiAirbag which is only sold in Europe. The EMSA notes that currently any research on air vests is manufacturer-sponsored and not independent. The scientifically unproven assumption that they provide added protection and their endorsement by famous names in the sport have added to their appeal. The Medical Equestrian Association (MEI) in the UK warns that when riders and horses somersault together, the rider may not leave the saddle sufficiently to activate the air vest until it is too late. Other downsides to the vests include that they are expensive; sharp objects may puncture them; they are bulky when worn over body protectors; the gas canisters must be replaced after deployment; and accidental deployment is common and the explosive sound may spook the horse.

Safety Stirrups – don’t be a drag

Riders wear boots with heels to prevent their feet from sliding through the stirrup and being trapped in a fall. As Lubeck points out, if the stirrup is too large or too small the rider still runs the risk of getting a foot stuck and being dragged or kicked by the horse. Safety stirrups are designed to release the rider’s foot in these situations.

There are three main types of safety stirrup. The Peacock Fillis brand features a heavy rubber band that makes up one arm of the stirrup that will break away during a fall. Other styles are solid but one side of the stirrup is curved, so that the foot can slip out sideways. A newer style has a second inner arch in the stirrup and this will separate from the top of the stirrup during a fall, releasing the rider’s foot.

Lubeck notes that none of these are perfect: sometimes the rubber band, for example, will break away during a challenging riding maneuver – and that in itself can cause a fall. They do go a long way to reduce the risk of being dragged, however.

Every time, every ride

Other safety accessories include extra-long reins which allow the rider to tie one or two safety knots; rubber reins; reins with stoppers; super-grippy gloves (some riders prefer cotton because wet leather-on-leather can be slippery); shatter-proof sunglasses to protect the eyes from UV rays and tree branches; the list goes on. Ultimately, “The safest piece of safety equipment is the one you will wear every single time you are working with your horse,” reminds Lubeck.

Thanks to testing agencies and ongoing research, riders can count on certified helmets and body protectors meeting rigorous standards. Beyond that, you want to find equipment that will meet your needs for fit, comfort, and style.

When A Vest Is Not Enough

In 2014, 30-year-old Canadian eventer Jordan McDonald and his horse had a rotational fall at a cross-country fence in England while wearing a popular body protector brand which was not ASTM-certified. He suffered fatal chest injuries, including multiple broken ribs. At the inquest into his death, there were recommendations that the wearing of approved body protectors be made mandatory. McDonald’s wife, Shandiss, told reporters that her husband had no idea that the vest he used was not approved, but medical expert Michael Whitlock summarized that even a BETA Level 3 body protector would likely not have protected him from such a severe crush injury – a finding to which assistant coroner Tim Hayden concurred at the conclusion of the inquest.

TUCK AND ROLL

Sometimes your best safety equipment can be your own body. It is a natural reaction for riders to land with arms outstretched to break their fall, so not surprisingly, upper limb and collarbone injuries are the most common cause for riders needing hospital treatment.

Smart coaches are increasingly instructing their students how to fall, or “tuck and roll,” as part of basic safety training. Cross your arms in front of your chest, tuck your head down and bring your knees up in front of your body to form a ball. Roll away perpendicular to the direction your horse is moving to decrease the chance of being crushed or trampled. This takes practice to become automatic (and be sure to practise while wearing your helmet and body protector). US eventer Jimmy Wofford wrote that he survived to be an Olympic athlete because he was taught these survival skills at age 10.

If landing feet-first is not an option, there are some good videos online that show how jockeys survive high-speed crashes – search “Tuck and roll fall training.”