Research on equestrian helmets at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab is Fully Funded

Virginia Tech Helmet Lab

It’s about time that riders have enough information to compare the safety performance of different equestrian helmets — and that’s finally going to happen now that the Virginia Tech Helmet lab has been fully funded to study equestrian helmets. More than $425,000 was raised through the collaborative efforts of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA), the U.S. Eventing Association (USEA), helped by a major matching grant from Jacqueline Mars.

One hundred percent of the funds raised will support the research to help develop an equestrian-specific rating system, providing riders insight into how helmet models compare when looking at safety and protection. In addition to the financial fundraising component of the program, USEF has shared important data on falls and injuries from USEF competitions, which will be used in the research and development of the Equestrian STAR rating project at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab.

To date, the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab has developed STAR helmet ratings for sports including football, youth football, soccer, flag football, cycling, and hockey. Since 2011, Virginia Tech researchers have been providing unbiased helmet ratings that allow consumers to make informed decisions when purchasing helmets. The helmet ratings are the culmination of over 10 years of injury biomechanics research with special attention to concussions and which helmets best reduce concussion risk (

“Since we started the Helmet Lab, I’ve gotten more phone calls about equestrian helmets than I have about any other sport except football,” said Stefan Duma, who founded the lab and today directs the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science.

Since 2011, Virginia Tech researchers have been providing unbiased helmet ratings that allow consumers to make informed decisions when purchasing helmets. The helmet ratings are the culmination of over 10 years of research on head impacts in sports and identify which helmets best reduce concussion risk. This work is done as part of Virginia Tech’s service mission and is 100% independent of any funding or influence from helmet manufacturers.

This tour of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab shows their testing set ups for a variety of sports.

Why rate helmets?

Although all helmets currently being sold satisfy minimum safety requirements specified by standards organizations, not all helmets are created equal. Two helmets that “pass” the same standard may offer different levels of impact protection. And equestrian helmets are typically certified based on the very high impact energy head injuries, without evaluating their ability to protect against concussions and other “milder” injuries. In addition, riders currently have no way of knowing the variations in performance among helmets.

Prior to the Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings, consumers had no way of knowing which helmets were better than others. Given that helmets are a safety product, this information should be available to consumers. In fact, there have been organizations that rated equestrian helmets in the past — in 2018 one study conducted by a Swedish insurance company showed that not all “approved” helmets provide equal protection and back in 2003, there was an initiative spearheaded by the Mark Davies Injured Riders Fund in the U.K., which provided comparisons. That research was widely disputed by helmet manufacturers and soon disappeared from the Internet.

What I remember about the research that I’ve seen (and I used to have a copy of the British report), safety did not necessarily correlate with price, and some of the most expensive/trendy helmets, did not perform as well as their more humble counterparts.

Interestingly, Virginia Tech has already started to evaluate the performance of equestrian helmets (the bolding for emphasis is mine).

They’ve already conducted preliminary tests, measuring the performance of six different helmet models with respect to the existing standard. All six helmets passed, but the results revealed wide variation in performance and significant room for improvement: the best equestrian helmet was still far less effective at managing impact energy than top-performing football helmets subjected to the same test. The researchers presented the data at the World Congress on Biomechanics in Dublin, Ireland, in 2018.

Virginia Tech Lab wants to help Protect Equestrians

What do the Virginia Tech helmet ratings mean?

The Virginia Tech helmet ratings identify which helmets best reduce concussion risk. More stars equate to better protection, with 5 stars representing the best available helmets. With this data, equestrians will have the opportunity to choose the safest helmets. It may also spur manufacturers to create helmets that do more than just meet minimum standards. Don’t get me wrong, ASTM standards for helmets have definitely improved helmet safety, but when I read about what’s happening with football helmets, bike helmets and protective gear for other sports, I can’t help but feel that equestrian sports need to step up their game and move toward performance rather than tradition.

How are ratings determined for helmets?

Through a series of impact tests, helmets are evaluated using 2 fundamental concepts: 1) each test is weighted based on how frequently players experience them and 2) helmets that lower head acceleration reduce concussion risk. The impact conditions and weightings are sport-specific, and inclusive of the broad range of head impacts that athletes are likely to experience. These methods have been published as peer-reviewed articles in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering.

Will 5 star helmets prevent concussions?

No helmet is concussion-proof. Any athlete can sustain a head injury, even with the very best head protection. The helmet ratings identify the helmets that best reduce your chances of sustaining a concussion. With that stated, helmets are only one piece of the equation to minimizing concussion risk. Good coaching, riding within your ability, and using common sense are all important. Wearing an ASTM-approved helmet is a great first step. But wouldn’t it be even better if you knew which helmet would give you the best protection?

The anticipated timeline for completing the rating system is 18-24 months. The fund remains open for donations. Any additional money raised will go towards accelerating the development timeline. Your tax-deductible donation can be made directly to the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, with 100% of all funds going directly to this research.

2 thoughts on “Research on equestrian helmets at the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab is Fully Funded

  1. Hello, Liz, this is an interesting topic and I’m glad one that is being researched. I used to ride motorcycles. Despite fellow bikers sneering at me, I always wore a helmet.
    The problem was the helmet itself was designed to protect you from a force of no more than 5 MPH. FIVE. Even a kid on a tricycle goes faster than that. And…if you dropped the helmet, even on a soft surface, the manufacturer’s ”owner’s manual” said you had to get a new helmet!!!!
    So…while I have always worn a helmet while riding, still, I do so HOPING that it will protect my brain and skull. I don’t expect it to do much more than keep me from cracking my skull. And I always wear a vest, too.

    1. I’ve always wanted to be able to reference independent safety testing for helmets because the little that I’ve been able to find out has underscored that not all helmets are created equal. If I’m going to shell out $$ for a helmet I want to have more reference points about safety. Unfortunately, one of the things I remember from the original research (long pulled down) is that larger sized helmets don’t protect as well as smaller ones. Not much I can do about that! I currently ride with a MIPS helmet as it was the best choice I could make at the time. I don’t wear a vest, although logically, I know it’s a good idea. I’m lazy and it’s uncomfortable.

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