Sydney Moriarty is a lifelong hunter/jumper rider and a second-year medical student at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine. In 2021, she graduated with a B.S. in Clinical Neuroscience from Virginia Tech, where she worked at the Helmet Lab assisting on the Equestrian STAR helmet rating project. Moriarty gave a presentation on the history, future, and current research around equestrian helmets, body protectors, and air vests. Here are five key takeaways from her presentation:
1. Better testing leads to improved results.
Organizations like the ASTM test helmets for their effectiveness in preventing head injury in a fall and certify equipment on a pass/fail basis. The recently published Virginia Tech STAR Ratings are focused specifically on concussion risk and give tested helmets a numerical score based on the number of concussions that would occur out of 30 impacts, meaning a lower score is better (i.e. a score of 1.0 means there would be one concussion out of 30 impacts.)
“Helmet safety has come a long way in the past 40 years,” said Moriarty. “We’ll continue spreading evidence-based information as a community and question the research that’s coming out. It’s a good thing to question if it starts discussion and that discussion leads to improvement.”
2. Body protector and air vest research is inconclusive.
The benefits of helmets have been well-established by testing, research, and data from the past several decades. Body protectors and especially air vests are newer and less widely used, so their benefits are less established. Moriarty highlighted four different studies on body protectors and/or air vests, all of which showed different results. Furthermore, there aren’t yet safety standards in place for air vests.
The potential protection that body protectors and air vests could provide from spinal column injury, rib fractures, and organ damage merits ongoing research.
“There’s huge room for improvement in chest protection with more research, testing, and looking more into injury biomechanics,” said Moriarty.
3. More data leads to better outcomes
Much of the data research on equestrian safety comes from emergency room admittance statistics, which don’t always provide full information about the conditions that led to the fall or the type of equipment a rider was using.
The sport of eventing now collects data on both horse and rider falls that includes where a fall occurs—whether that’s at a jump, in between jumps, or on the flat—and injury rates, among other things. This has allowed the sport to make meaningful changes such as safer cross-country jump designs. Expanding data collection across disciplines could help inform decisions to make the sport safer for participants.
4. Community education a key component of safety.
Identifying a concussion quickly is a key component of recovery, and trainers, barn staff, and other riders can be integral to that process, especially when a fall occurs at home. There are online resources where anyone can receive training in recognizing concussion symptoms. ImPACT testing can teach riders how to assess their own symptoms. Many high school and college athletes now complete SCAT5 testing, which provides a baseline score which can later be used to test for symptoms of concussion after a fall.
Avoiding repeat concussions is essential to recovery. Moriarty suggests that an established post-concussion protocol for equestrian sports would provide some clarity for riders, trainers, and medical professionals around when and how to return to riding after a head impact.
5. Attitudes about helmets have changed, and change takes work.
In 1993, just a few years after the first rules around helmet use in equestrian sports were implemented, a study found that most equestrians were still not choosing to wear helmets when riding at home. The same study found most riders surveyed recognized that helmets could prevent head injuries and felt safer when wearing them, however, nearly all the respondents had a negative opinion toward helmets in general. Helmet use could be mandated in the show ring, but normalizing use at home came about in part due to targeted education efforts that appealed to individual riders and organizations like 4-H and Pony Club.
Resistance to helmets remains high in western and saddle seat disciplines where they are not part of the traditional look. However, it was only a short time ago that hunt caps and top hats were the norm in hunters, jumpers, and dressage, and there was opposition to helmet mandates in those disciplines. With expanded understanding of the risks of concussions and the benefits of helmets, along with improved helmet technology and style, it didn’t take long for those disciplines to evolve to incorporate safety with their traditional attire to create a safer sport.