Choosing a Safe Riding Helmet

Choosing a Riding Helmet for Safety, Fit, Style and Price

Girl wearing black riding helmet.
A helmet helps protect your head. Image Credit:Westend61 /Getty Images

I’m glad you’ve made the decision to wear a helmet. I’ve experienced what it is like to have a head injury twice. I’m glad that by wearing a helmet you’ll save yourself that same very unpleasant experience.

Helmet Safety Standards

The first thing you will want to look for in any helmet is the appropriate safety standards. In the United States, look for ASTM approved helmets. The ASTM or The American Society for Testing and Materials tests all types of sports and work equipment setting testing and safety requirements for all types of helmets, including equestrian helmets.

Helmets are subject to drops, sharp and blunt blows, subject to extremes in heat and cold, and tested for harness strength. If a helmet bears the ASTM certification, you can be assured that it is made to pass at least the minimum standards set by the ASTM.

You may also find horse riding helmets approved by Snell, SEI, Kitemark, Standards Australia, EN, and PAS and other safety standard organizations. Snell, SEI and Kitemark helmets are not approved for FEI level competition. Although the international rules of horse sport set out by the FEI matter little to the backyard rider, you can be sure if you buy a helmet with one of the FEI approved certifications, you’ve got a safe helmet.

As you shop for a helmet, you may come across ones that say “For Dress Only” “Apparel Only” or have no safety standards certifications stamped inside. These helmets are made only for the ‘look’ and may not be as safe as an ASTM approved or equivalent helmet.

They are sold on the same racks as approved helmets, and may look identical. Oddly, there is little difference in price too. There is a very sad story on the Riders4Helmet website about a girl who inadvertently bought this type of helmet. Her family hopes by sharing this story about wearing an unapproved helmet tragedies of this type can be averted.

Helmet Style

The style of helmet you choose is entirely up to you and there are more to choose from than ever. If you are a western rider, consider Troxel’s attractive Cheyenne or Sierra models. I have to agree that the cowboy hat style helmets look large and chunky. For showing I’d think I’d prefer a helmet cover that matched my outfit. Companies like Zocks and Tail Wags offer fun and colorful helmet covers . I have two styles of helmets. I use a schooling helmet for at home and have a velveteen covered hunt cap style for show. Both of course are ASTM approved.

If you are planning on jumping you might consider a skull cap or eventing type helmet. These helmets cover more of the head along the back and sides, but there is no brim that might obscure the rider’s vision with the head tipped down. Some people feel that a solid brim might cause the rider’s neck to bend back and cause whiplash in the event of a ‘face plant’ type fall. Most helmets now have break-away brims, making this less of an issue. One thing that skull caps don’t have is a lot of ventilation, which might be uncomfortable in warm weather.

One helmet I owned had a see-through brim. I loved this for riding through the trees.

I could put my head down, and protect my face from twigs, but still see where we were going. So as you’re shopping for a helmet, think of where you’ll be wearing it and choose accordingly. A velvet show helmet may look lovely, but will quickly get scratched on trail. A schooling helmet might not be appropriate in some show rings. But if you’re not worried about those things, have fun choosing from the many great colors and designs manufacturers are offering.

Fitting a Helmet

To get the best fit, you’ll need to try some helmets on. First of all, measure your head with a tape measure. Place the tape just above your eyebrows, where the circumference of your head is the greatest. This will give you a general size to work from. Some helmets are sized small, medium and large and others will have measurements by inches or centimeters.

Write your measurement down, and take it to the tack shop with you. Use your measurement as a guideline for finding size and start trying on helmets.

The reason your measurement is only a guideline is because some helmets fit different shapes of heads differently. For instance, I have a round head, and find some helmets uncomfortable. Others I know who wear the types of helmets I can’t claim they have an oval shaped head. So size is not the only thing to consider. That’s why it’s hard to buy a helmet online. It would be easy to think you bought the right size and then find the helmet was uncomfortable.

Once you have the helmet on your head, leave the harness undone and tip your head back and forth, and side to side. The helmet should sit firmly, not sliding forward or backwards. The helmet should be snug, but not tight. Remember that the linings will compress with use, so take that into account. Do up the harness and notice how the helmet feels. It should feel secure but not like your head is being squeezed. Pay attention to any pressure points that may become irritating. The helmet should be between one half (1.25 cm) to one inch (2.5cm) above the eyebrows. If the helmet looks perched on your head or sits too low, try another style.

Buying Used Helmets

Should you buy a used helmet? The answer to that is--no. You won’t know exactly how old the helmet is if you can’t read the stamp inside, and you won’t know if it has any internal damage from an impact. Most manufacturers recommend replacing helmets about every five years. The price of a new helmet is not that great that it’s worth the risk to buy a used one.

Helmet Price

One thing people worry about is that they can’t afford the helmet that will give the best protection. There is no need to worry about this, as all approved helmets are made to the same standards. When you pay extra, you may not be paying for extra safety. You’ll be paying for name brand and design. A $200 helmet may not be appreciably safer than a $50 helmet.

And since they do need to be replaced every few years and definitely after an impact, you’re better off buying one you can afford to replace.