KBR / MOFD Equestrian Safety Series

What's Your Head Worth? - Real Events

Breaking your helmet and walking away from it...

Original publication: February 21, 1990
Revised January 14, 1999
Revised May 17, 2003
Revised August 2, 2012

Those of you who watched the TV series "Rescue 9-1-1" in 1990 may recognize the name, Lana Fox. She was the lady who rescued an accident victim from a burning car on a highway near Rodeo, CA when everyone else ran away.

Lana used to be our neighbor. I say "used to be" since her luck ran out one day when a green Arabian youngster she was mounting bolted and stuffed her head into a utility pole. The resulting injuries were fatal. In fact, as we discovered, around that time there had been at least a half dozen fatal equestrian accidents in the region centered by Contra Costa County, and several more which resulted in serious injuries. Many of these accidents included blunt trauma to the head from fixed objects and/or horse hooves.

In response to this gruesome trend, a number of us produced the "Equestrian Crash Course" and use of helmets in the area increased dramatically. Interestingly enough, fatal equestrian accidents correspondingly declined. Around the barn we have on occasion had the usual "unscheduled flights" from such expected activities as horses and riders falling at a gallop or becoming unseated on a jump, however on June 8th, 1997, we discovered potentially serious accidents can happen almost anywhere.

I had just finished giving a fairly green 14hh gelding a half hour workout and another rider hopped on to cool him out. They wandered over to the "tie area" where the relief rider was calmly sitting, chatting with another rider who she expected to join her for a cool down ride. Meanwhile a rather boisterous filly was eating from a manger nearby, and although she was tied, she lunged at the 14hh gelding which she thought was getting too close.

A timid sort around other horses, the gelding startled which in turn startled a third horse tied nearby setting up instant commotion. Although the rider tried to regain control, the little horse gave a few big league spinning bucks and the rider came off, landing on her head and shoulders hard enough to break her helmet.

Fortunately the helmet did its job and absorbed the impact. Although bruised and temporarily stunned, the rider checked out OK and resumed her activities around the stable.

This closeup shows the point of impact. The shell of this lightweight Troxel EQ is designed primarily to protect the Styrofoam liner, with the liner providing the major element of head protection. The ground was hard enough to crack the outer shell under high impact.

This closeup shows the helmet lining. The impact to the head dissipated through the lining, manifesting itself in this large crack. It is our opinion that this damage is not suggestive of any failure of the helmet. We believe the helmet absorbed and dissipated the impact as it should have, as evidenced by a total lack of any blunt trauma injury to the rider's head. At minimum, this helmet saved a trip to the emergency room.

The point of this report is not to express concern about the apparent damage to the helmet. It did its job. We mailed it back to Troxel who replaced it for a $15.00 service charge. The interesting aspect here is that when one least expects it, sitting quietly on a well exercised horse, the unexpected can happen with violent results. Therefore the wearing of helmets is always appropriate, not just when working at speed or over jumps.

For those of you who have linked over here from the KBR World of Wild Horses and Burros, unseasoned horses, whether feral or domestic, can behave unpredictably when one least expects it. While this may not be cause for alarm, it is reason enough to be properly prepared and properly equipped; with a properly fitting saddle, good headstall and reins with an appropriate size bit for the horse's mouth, boots with heels which won't get hung up in the stirrups and, of course, head protection. In addition to having the right equipment, all gear should be regularly inspected and maintained. In this manner you can meet the challenge and have an exciting and rewarding time with your equine subject while minimizing the chances of an unscheduled trip to the emergency room or morgue.

This post script was subsequently received from Theresa Jane Bishop who writes:

Dear KBR (Willis & Sharon)

I just finished reading the article, "What's Your Head Worth".

I spent today getting a cat-scan after tripping, falling and striking my head on a workbench at my home. The accident occurred 11-4-97. I am still suffering from headaches. The reason I mention all of this is simple, If I can get a serious injury in my own home, doesn't it make sense to wear a helmet when engaging in a potentially dangerous activity such as horseback riding?

My horses are of the "bomb-proof" variety, yet things happen. Please keep up the campaign to encourage using helmets at ALL times horses are involved.

I look forward to healing and working with my horses again. Rest assured, I will have a helmet on.

Thanks, Teresa, for the really relevant comments! Here's hoping you get back on your feet and horses soon!

Judy Mentzer passed along this snip from the Troxel website

Bicycle helmet standards were developed based on the types of things a bicyclist does- shapes and types of hazards they might encounter, force of impact, retention system strength etc., were all defined as reasonable approximations of what occurs when a cyclist falls. Equestrian helmet standards were developed in accordance with equestrian activities in mind.

For instance, two of the fundamental differences between the ASTM bicycle helmet standard and the ASTM equestrian helmet standard are because equestrian riders are more likely to fall on the backs of their heads, compared to bicyclists who almost always fall to the side or front, equestrian helmets are required to extend somewhat lower in the back. The added protection would not be significant to a bicyclist, but can be very important to someone riding a horse.

Whereas the bicycle helmet test uses a round impact anvil (to simulate a stone for example) that may be encountered in many road accidents, the equestrian helmet test uses a sharp edged anvil like an inverted V, for two reasons- (1) the sharp edge is a reasonable substitute for a horse's hoof, and (2) it approximates the top of the pointed fence posts that are common around riding arenas, pastures and jumps.

The equestrian helmet standard was developed by the people experienced in the equestrian industry, with the intention of providing the best standard for their particular application. The parallel is true of the bicycle helmet standard, and the football helmet standard, and the hockey helmet standard, and so on. The bottom line is, wear the helmet that was designed for the activity you're doing.

Browse the American Medical Equestrian Association (AMEA) newsletters for more information related to certified helmets and riding injury prevention. Still unconvinced of the need to wear ASTM/SEI certified headgear? The video, "Every time...Every ride..." has been made available by the Washington State 4-H Foundation to educate riders about the need for protective headgear and the possible consequences of riding without it.

Thanks, Judy, for the info!

Linus L. Tumbleson of the Washington State 4-H Foundation writes:

The Washington State 4-H Foundation has produced a 24 minute horse helmet safety video which demonstrates the need for SEI protective headgear. Interviews, blended together with excellent footage of horse in a wide variety of sports, show the benefits of wearing the proper helmet--as well as the unfortunate consequences of riding without one.

The URL for information is http://4h.wsu.edu/videter.html. For further information you can contact the foundation at 253-445-4570.

Footnote: Washington State horse organizations and the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle have done a great deal of research into equestrian related head trauma. Their findings contributed significantly to our "Equestrian Crash Course" project.

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