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Rider Safety - Food for Thought

by Stefanie Reinhold

Small investments in the rider's safety that make all the difference

"Injuries from contact with horses are often serious and lead to significant morbidity. Head injury remains the predominant cause of death. Prevention of death from horse-related trauma is synonymous with prevention of head injury. One wonders how many of the serious and fatal head injuries ... might have been prevented by the use of modern approved riding helmets. Apart from helmet use, other safety initiatives are salient, including mechanical equipment such as safety stirrups and protective vests."
(Kentucky Medical Center, Dept. of Surgery 1)

Dear horse friends!

I am writing this article for a reason. Having had my share of serious riding accidents in my youth, I recently got away with minor injuries after falling off my horse thanks to God and my trusty 'uncool' riding helmet, pictured here after the crash:

[insert pic of me with bubble head helmet at accident spot, and one pic of the crashed helmet]

It's not really important what happened and how, let's call it rider error or bad judgement, but one thing's for certain: things happen when humans and horses interact. There are forces at work like for instance the sheer muscle power and speed a 1200 lb animal can muster. The dynamics can propel you against a gate, a wall, a tree, an oxer or simply the ground with tremendous power.

"A fall from two feet (60 cm) can cause permanent brain damage. A horse elevates a rider eight feet (three meters) or more above ground."
(American Medical Equestrian Association)

The best of riders fall off or with a horse, get hit by a branch, fall victim to a vicious flock of turkeys or to unexpected noise from construction equipment. Even a two inch sparrow can - at the wrong place at the wrong time - cause our equine friend to panic and leave us in the dust. Some accidents are avoidable altogether by using good judgement, getting proper training etc. However, there will always remain a risk connected with equine activity that puts your health and life at risk.

This risk can be minimized by using the following safety precautions:


"A human skull can be shattered by an impact of 7-10 kph. Horses can gallop at 65 kph."
(American Medical Equestrian Association)

Yes, a helmet - depending on the model - can make you look like a cone head, a bubble head, an alien, an insect or any other association you might have, it will give you 'helmet hair', make you sweat in the summer, make it hard to wear your favorite hat in the winter and have a number of other cosmetic disadvantages.
However, contrary to the common belief, it does NOT make you LOOK LIKE a COWARD, or UNCOOL PERSON! Rather wearing a helmet is a sign of INTELLIGENCE and PREPAREDNESS, like wearing your seat belt on a plain.

"Bicycle helmets reduce traumatic brain injuries in bicyclists by 88 percent... The effectiveness of ASTM/SEI equestrian helmets is estimated to be comparable."
(National AG Safety Database)

In order to provide the best possible protection, a helmet must fit properly. See what Laura Clough, Product Specialist at SmartPak says about helmet fit:

"(...) There are a wide range of different helmet styles currently available and the fit can vary significantly between different manufacturers. Because helmets must be both ASTM and SEI certified you can be assured that they have all been tested for safety and will provide equal protection. However, a helmet that does not fit properly will not provide adequate protection in the event of a fall regardless of the certification.

The best way to ensure the proper fit of your helmet is to begin by measuring. The measurement that you take will determine the helmet size that you wear. Once you have established your size, you will be able to try on different styles with the help of your instructor or barn manager to determine which helmet is the best fit.

When taking measurements for your new helmet, use a tape measure marked in centimeters. Because centimeters are a smaller unit of measure they will offer a more accurate reading. The measurement should be taken around the circumference of your head at the widest point above the eyebrow bone, over the bump at the rear of your head and just above the top of your ears. I have included a chart for converting centimeters into a helmet size below:

Measurement in cm Corresponding Helmet Size
49 - 6
50 - 6 1/8
51 - 6 1/4
52 - 6 3/8
53 - 6 1/2
54 - 6 5/8
55 - 6 3/4
56 - 6 7/8
57 - 7
58 - 7 1/8
59 - 7 1/4
60 - 7 3/8
61 - 7 1/2
62 - 7 5/8
63 - 7 3/4
64 - 7 7/8
65 - 8

A helmet should be snug without being tight and should stay in place independent of the harness. You can check by having someone hold the brim of the helmet while it is on your head, and gently moving the brim up and down. The helmet should be snug enough to move your eyebrows.(...)

Laura Clough
Product Specialist
SmartPak - Smarter Horse and Dog Care

Answering to the riding public's demand for fashionable and safe helmets, there are a number of quite attractive options for all disciplines on the market now:

[insert product examples]


Unfortunately, there are still incidents where riders are dragged by horses which result in severe injury or death.
How does this happen? The rider loses balance and falls off to one side while the foot is still in the stirrup. The boot gets stuck in the stirrup, the rider hits the ground but the foot is keeping the rider attached to the horse. The horse keeps running, the rider has no chance to free himself, injury occurs.
Why does this happen? Traditional stirrups are rigid and do not give when the boot gets stuck. Once the rider is caught in this unfortunate position, they trap the boot until something gives (boot, horse, or leg).

Safe riding is becoming more and more popular as old 'tough guy' beliefs are replaced with more sensible approaches. There are a number of very interesting and safe stirrup alternatives on the market for both the Western and English rider:

  • Do you have a story on how your helmet or safety stirrup or any other rider safety device saved your life or kept you from greater harm?

  • Do you have images you'd like to share about your experience or your helmet?

  • Do you have some expertise around riding accidents and injury prevention and would like to share your knowledge?

Please email me and I'll be happy to share them with the visitors of this website. I will not publish your personal information, just first name, last name initial, town/state and story/picture.

Thanks for reading and happy safe trails!

Further reading: