If not for the novel coronavirus, the 2020 Summer Olympics would have opened in Tokyo on July 24. And among the most dangerous competitions of the fortnight (even if not the most heavily watched) would have been “eventing” – an equestrian sport that combines dressage, show jumping in an arena, and jumping on a cross-country course.
Viewers rightly gape at feats such as an athlete clearing an 18-foot bar in the pole vault, but as risky as that looks, it’s nothing compared to riding a 1,500-pound horse over a distance of 2 or more miles where human and animal have to jump 40 or so obstacles at gallop speeds.
If anyone needs reminding of how wrong things can go, it was a fall at the third obstacle on the cross-country course at Commonwealth Park in Culpeper in May 1995 that left the late actor Christopher Reeve a quadriplegic.
While Reeve’s helmet did not spare him a catastrophic spinal injury, helmets are indispensable equipment for riders at every level and in every discipline. And improving their safety has become one of the latest projects for the Helmet Lab at Virginia Tech.
“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 lab founder Dr. Stefan Duma in a news release last spring.
Statistics bear out the concern: According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Neurosurgery, “Equestrian sports were the greatest contributors to sports-related Traumatic Brain Injury: 45.2%.” (Contact sports were a distant second at 20.2%.) Information from the Helmet Lab notes that one in five riders will suffer a serious injury in their lifetime, with beginners at greatest risk, and that the majority of riding-related visits to the emergency room are head injuries.
“When you’re on a horse, that puts your head about 8 to 10 feet off the ground,” Duma was quoted in the April 2019 release. “If you come off the horse for any reason, whether you’re thrown or you just fall, you end up with a much higher impact injury than people might expect.”
Launched in 2007, the Helmet Lab has created ratings not only for football helmets, but also helmets for soccer, cycling and hockey. In development are ratings for baseball and softball, snow sports, water sports and lacrosse, in addition to equine disciplines.
One important riding safety milestone was achieved about the 1990s, when traditional velvet “hunt caps” were widely eschewed in favor of bulkier but better engineered helmets. But as researchers at Tech point out, even the newer helmets have only been graded on a pass/fail basis, based on the current standard formula from the American Society for Testing Materials. This means that two different helmets could both achieve a “pass” and yet perform very differently, and consumers would have no way of knowing the difference.
Enter the STAR (“Summation of Tests for Analysis of Risk”) rating system, which aims to add a sport-specific metric to the basic safety standard.
Duma and Helmet Lab co-founder Dr. Steve Rowson conducted the first ratings on football helmets in 2011. Research looked at “acceleration-based brain injury” produced by head impacts, using helmet-mounted measuring instruments in the field and lab-based simulators such as customized pendulums and drop-towers that generate a variety of forces on all sides of the head gear being tested. Essentially, helmets that lower acceleration reduce the risk of injury; the type of padding they use is key.
In 2017, the lab did some preliminary research comparing equestrian helmets to other sports head gear, according to Dr. Barry Miller, director of outreach and business development for the Helmet Lab, and program manager of the Adaptive Brain and Behavior Destination Area. “We conducted further research thanks to a ‘JUMP’ crowdsourcing campaign this past fall (2019) comparing several equine helmets to football helmets,” Miller wrote in an email, “and it is obvious there is room for improvement.”
Miller gave a presentation about VT’s helmet safety research to the United States Hunter Jumper Association at their annual meeting in Denver last December, after which USHJA agreed to support a complete STAR project for equestrian helmets. Other organizations that have gotten on board include the United States Equestrian Federation (which oversees all equine sport), The Thoroughbred Idea Foundation and the Jockey’s Guild.
STAR research unfolds in three phases. Background and field work involves observing and understanding a sport’s physical conditions, such as the surface material of the venue where it takes place. From there, researchers develop laboratory systems that can simulate real-world injury scenarios – think crash test dummy, but with the focus on the head. Finally, the data are analyzed and applied to the performance of a broad sample of helmets available to consumers.
The goal is not just to give riders a more accurate assessment of the helmet they’re about to buy, but also to encourage manufacturers to improve the safety of their equipment.
Ultimately, an equestrian helmet STAR rating web page will be added to the site where the other Helmet Lab ratings can be found: https://helmet.beam.vt.edu/.
STAR evaluation doesn’t happen overnight. The process can take up to 18 months, assuming funding is in place. In yet another disruption courtesy of COVID-19, Miller noted that the USHJA was planning on “launching the project” just as the pandemic broke out. But as of press time, Miller informed The Roanoke Times that on July 24, the organization announced it will pledge $100,000 toward a $450,000 helmet safety research fundraising campaign.
“The importance of helmet safety, as we all have come to understand it, is of the highest importance to our health and well-being and that of equestrian sport,” USHJA President Mary Babick said in the announcement. “Our pledge to this campaign is not only a commitment to furthering research and technology in this field, but also a commitment to our equestrian community to help make it safer for all involved.”
Meanwhile, the Helmet Lab is still accepting donations from anyone who wants to support their equestrian helmet safety rating research. For information, go to https://www.helmet.beam.vt.edu/contact.html. USHJA also has a donation page at https://www.ehsi.net/.
“Equestrian sports have an unusually high risk of head injury, and I don’t think that’s widely recognized,” Duma stated last spring.