We love our horses and we love riding. But as much as we are passionate about our sport and may hold onto the glamorous image of our hair blowing in the wind as we gallop with our equine partner across a meadow, along a beach, or towards a jump, safety is also something we should be equally passionate about.
Horseback riding at all ages and levels is one of the most dangerous sports we can participate in. According to Parachute Canada (Canada’s national charity dedicated to injury prevention), our horses are fast, really fast, and some can reach speeds up to 60 km/h. Impressive, right?
This fact has another side to the thrill ‒ we’re talking the spill. There are more injuries per hour in the saddle than during motorcycle or auto racing. Parachute offers up these sobering stats: Per 1,000 injuries in equestrian activities, two are catastrophic – meaning the person has severe injuries to head or spinal cord that result in life-altering impairment or death.
Approximately 70 per cent of equestrian deaths are the result of head injury. Closed head injuries (where the injury doesn’t open up the brain or skull but rattles or otherwise traumatizes the brain) are among the most common equestrian injuries and are frequently associated with not wearing a helmet. Helmets can help prevent skull fractures and although they don’t protect entirely from concussions, have been shown to lessen the severity.
Injuries most commonly occur when a rider falls or is thrown off the horse. A study of 150 horse-related injuries in rural Alberta found that two-thirds resulted from the horse’s behaviour and one-third from riders taking risks or failing to remain alert. Lack of supervision is another risk factor that can contribute to injury.
Understatement alert! Wearing a helmet isn’t a recommendation, it’s a requirement. Certainly, in some provinces it is also the law for riders under the age of 18 years, but seriously, everyone should ride with a helmet no matter what your age.
Sure, today’s high-tech riding helmets aren’t necessarily as cute or pretty as the old velvet hunt caps of yore. Think of those gorgeous images of Jackie Kennedy fox hunting in the 1950s and it’s easy to want that look every time you head out on your horse or pony – especially in the Instagram era. Thankfully, modern manufacturers like Samshield, Charles Owen and 4K, among many others, have made design and fashion as much of a priority as safety, so there is ample choice of style, shape, colour and embellishment to satisfy even the pickiest rider.
If you’re still not convinced, remember March 3, 2010? American dressage rider and coach Courtney King-Dye certainly does. That was the day the horse she was riding tripped and fell – while walking – and she was not wearing helmet, resulting in a Traumatic Brain Injury. Courtney spent four weeks in a coma and three months in rehab learning to walk and talk all over again. She is one of the sport’s most well-known advocates for helmet safety and is involved with riders4helmets.
Now that you’re convinced and are already online shopping or heading to your local tack shop for an upgrade or update on your headgear (and yes, there are cool Western styles as well), there is also the matter of how often to replace your helmet. The prevailing rule has always been “if it strikes a hard surface” or a vague “every five years.” Now, most of us assume that the clock starts ticking on our new helmet from that first moment we put it on our head. Right? Wrong!
“Manufacturers recommend replacing the helmet five years from the manufacture date,” Stephanie Cowle, director of Knowledge Translation at Parachute. “The helmet materials are affected over time, meaning they are less protective than when the helmet was manufactured and tested for safety. There are many factors that contribute to this deterioration, including exposure to sunlight and UV rays and temperature fluctuations. These factors can be at play even when a helmet is stored in a box.”
You read that right. Manufacture date, not purchase date. So, to ensure you get maximum use out of your new helmet, ensure that it was manufactured the same year you are buying it. Otherwise, that 2019 helmet you bought in 2020 is already one year closer to retirement.
Safe riding everyone!
Parachute Canada’s Safety checklist for Equestrian Helmets:
- Currently there is no CSA Group standard for equestrian helmets. American (ASTM) and British (SEI) standards are internationally recognized for these items.
- Check the helmet label to make sure that it has been ASTM / SEI approved.
- Each helmet should have a safety harness bolted to it, including a strap that comes under the chin and is fastened by a buckle or snap.
- Make sure the helmet fits snugly against the head.
- Discard damaged helmets or helmets that do not meet current safety accreditation standards.