In 2003, Virginia Tech placed the first sensors inside football helmets to measure head acceleration data that could characterize concussions.
Nearly two decades later, the university’s Helmet Lab is on the cusp of adding equestrian sport to its arsenal of public safety information on helmet use and unveiling its STAR (Summation of Tests for the Analysis of Risk) ratings system for helmets.
At the Equestrian Symposium, held Aug. 11-12 in Blacksburg, Va., Drs. Steve Rowson, Stefan Duma, Mark Begonia, and Barry Miller educated a group of equestrian stakeholders on the progress of their equestrian helmet research. The Helmet Lab began their study nearly four years ago, but the project was brought to the finish line with support from USEF, the United States Hunter Jumper Association, United States Eventing Association, and Jacqueline Mars, who collectively raised more than $425,000 in research funds in December 2020.
“With the same impact, there can be very different biomechanical responses between helmets. We felt a responsibility that everyone should have this information,” said Rowson, the Helmet Lab Director. “Not all helmets are the same just because they meet a [pass/fail] standard. That’s true for skull damage, but not concussions.”
The STAR ratings for equestrian helmets are designed to complement existing helmet certifications and fill in the gaps relating to concussion risks. The information, set to be released by the end of the year, will allow the public to search helmets by certification type, helmet type, brand, and more to make more informed choices on the helmets they wear and purchase when riding. They also will educate manufacturers on how to improve the safety of their helmets.
“The equestrian space has one of the noisier standard spaces, which makes it complicated for a manufacturer,” Duma said.
The Helmet Lab evaluated 26 helmet models and 104 helmets in 312 tests, quantifying elements like actual drop height (where a rider is positioned when actually parting ways with a horse), what body parts are impacted when falling, liner and rotational impacts, and surface, among other factors.
The STAR value is the theoretical number of concussions someone would sustain if their on-field exposure matched the laboratory impacts. It is calculated by multiplying exposure (as a function of impact location and velocity) and concussion risk (as a function of linear and
rotational headform acceleration). The ratings correlate with real-world injury rates; the lower the STAR value, the better the star rating (one to five stars, with five stars being the highest-rated helmets).
“It’s similar to a New Car Assessment Program. We took a system that works and translated it to the sports world,” Rowson said.
The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab’s work began with football helmets but has now expanded to youth football, flag football, hockey, cycling, soccer, and snow sport. Equestrian will be the newest addition, as the research is in its final phase. The test methods began with video analysis of 100 equestrian falls, followed by laboratory system comparison, on-site field testing, and impactor surface comparison on both dirt and sand surfaces—the “extremes” of hard and soft footing. The final phase is in process and involves the final calculations of STAR values and the publication of star ratings.
“We’ll often throw a football helmet in there. A football helmet is the most advanced designed and optimized helmet. We’ll also evaluate a ‘bare’ or no-helmet situation to show what the helmet is doing [helping with],” Duma explained. “If an equestrian helmet is producing similar numbers to a [highly rated] football helmet, it probably doesn’t need improvement.
“Football is a multiple head impact sport,” he added. “In equestrian, exposures are very different, and we have much lower numbers.”
Following presentations, attendees to the symposium visited the lab for a behind-the-scenes peek at testing procedures with Virginia Tech students that participate in program research.
To learn more about the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, click here.
To learn more about the USEF Helmet Safety Fund, click here.