In Part 2 of our series about brain injuries, we look at the role of helmets in horse sport. Read Part 1, “Are You Current On Concussions?” here.
These days effective riding helmets are the norm in most of the sport horse world, and we have Dru Malavase and the U.S. Pony Clubs to thank for that.
A lifelong horsewoman, Malavese began teaching at the Mendon Pony Club (New York) in the late 1960s when her son, Dirk Malavese, was a member.
When the former District Commissioner of Mendon, Rufus Wesson, took over as USPC president in 1970, the issue of updating helmets landed on his desk almost immediately. The USPC had been receiving unsolicited accident reports at a time when no other group or discipline was looking for them, and the board of governors agreed to make reducing injuries a priority. The USPC had followed in the footsteps of the British Pony Club and always required a “hard hat,” but there was no international—or national— standard. Wesson, a former Kodak executive, started meeting manufacturers around the world, including Mario Plastino (whose family founded International Riding Helmets), a maker of riding caps who was experimenting with padding the inside of the caps to add extra protection.
When Wesson saw the experimental hard hat, he called Dru. Not only was she a friend and active rider, but her husband, Al Malavase, a former pro baseball player, worked as a manufacturer’s representative for a sporting goods company. Her home was littered with hockey and football helmets, and she knew a bit about that type of equipment.
“[Wesson] said, ‘You should get one of these for your kid and for yourself’—which I did,” said Dru, Bloomfield, New York. “I credit that prototype with possibly saving my kid’s life. He was wearing one foxhunting on his marvelous 13-hand pony who caught a foot on a wood-chuck hole, and when he fell off the helmet hit a sharp rock. He was well and truly concussed.”
So Dru started tackling the issue of getting better helmets onto riders’ heads on behalf of the USPC, uniting others interested in spreading the word. Her campaign got a major boost under tragic circumstances when Caroline Treviranus suffered a serious head injury during the show jumping portion of the 1978 World Eventing Championships (Kentucky). Her hunt cap fell off her head, and she spent weeks in the hospital recovering. Clarke Cassidy Jr., a member of the USPC Advisory Committee, wrote an incendiary guest editorial about the need for better helmets a month later in The Chronicle of the Horse, and the letters section of the magazine turned into a full-fledged debate on the matter.
As the helmet debate raged toward the end of the year, Dru found herself bedridden after fracturing a vertebra in the hunt field, so she got to work. Wesson had recently died, and Dru had his stack of USPC accident reports and related statistics, a pile of papers from safety advocates Margaret Taylor and Doris Bixby Hammett M.D., and plenty of time. Dru got the all clear from her doctor just in time to take her findings to the USPC and the U.S. Combined Training Association meetings, where she had everyone’s attention as she argued for safer helmets.
People started listening. Chronicle editor Peter Winants declared the magazine’s support for the safety helmet movement, and he announced on Feb. 2, 1979, that the Chronicle would “prohibit the use of pictures of bare-headed riders over fences” both editorially and in ads.
By the end of 1979, Dru started drafting a USPC standard for helmets. The U.S. Polo Association sent some prototypes they’d mocked up, and the head of the National Organizing Committee on Standards For Athletic Equipment sent her some batting and football helmets. She merged the three together and found a lab in Buffalo, New York, that would test the helmet to her prototypes standard in exchange for a small contribution to their coffee fund.
In 1981 USPC published the first list of helmets that passed their initial tests, and other organizations started distributing this immediately. Soon Girl Scouts of America required these helmets, as did some states’ 4-H clubs. By 1983 USPC required that all riders wear a helmet meeting their standard while mounted.
But Dru knew the standard wasn’t perfect. She convinced the USPC BOG to push the American Society For Testing and Materials (the organization is now known as ASTM International) to start a committee to create an equestrian helmet standard. So she attended an ASTM meeting outside Philadelphia, along with a slew of equestrians, biomechanical engineers, doctors, helmet manufacturers, athletic trainers and lawyers, and left as the chair of the new committee. Along the way she convinced the executive director of the Safety Equipment Institute to join the group and agree to test helmets in their labs to ensure each met the ASTM standard.
“In my innocence I thought we’d get it knocked out in six months, but it took until 1988 [to get] a standard finished and published,” said Dru, who still co-chairs the committee today. Helmet companies sent models to be tested over the next two years, and in 1990 helmets started showing up in tack stores with fluorescent red stickers marked ASTM F1136.90. The USPC, 4-H and Professional Association of Therapeutic Riding International (then the North American Riding For The Handicapped Association) were among the first to require their use, with other organizations quickly getting on the bandwagon. (See “How To Make A Helmet Rule” sidebar.)
So What Does ASTM/SEI Certified Mean, Anyway?
ASTM International was formed by a group of scientists and engineers in 1898 to set a standard for the steel used in the growing railroad market. Today the group creates voluntary safety standards (more than 12,000 exist) for a variety of industries, from nanotechnology to environmental toxicology to building materials to, yes, sporting equipment (equestrian footing and safety vests are covered as well).
More than 30,000 members volunteer on individual committees that write ASTM standards. They meet twice a year and comprise a variety of stakeholders (or not—anyone with $75 can join) from loads of industries. The ASTM F1163 sub-committee includes helmet manufacturers, doctors, lawyers, engineers and others connected with equestrian sport.
And the SEI? That’s the Safety Equipment Institute that the original ASTM F1163 committee decided would actually test the helmets to make sure they met the ASTM standards (the SEI has recently become a subsidiary of ASTM International). To get a model of a helmet approved, a manufacturer must send each size, each with all the possible shell/ liner combinations, to a lab in Belcamp, Maryland, which specializes in sports helmets. The tests for the helmet include being subjected to ambient, cold, wet and hot environments for a minimum of four hours, then hammered using anvils. There’s the flat anvil, which hits the helmets at a rate of 6 meters/second. (“That’s a very stringent impact test that accounts for the height of a rider sitting on a horse,” said Frank Plastino, who helped create the original ASTM F1163 standard and still serves on the committee. He also owns International Riding Helmets, and Mario Plastino is his uncle.) There’s also a hazard anvil, cut at a 45-degree angle, meant to simulate fence posts cut at a similar angle. Frank explained that the test is nearly identical for that of bicycle helmets, but bike helmets use a curbstone anvil instead of a hazard one.
Is ASTM F1163 the best standard? Depends on whom you ask. For more than a decade the ASTM standard was arguably the strictest widely used standard, but the current British (PAS 015) and European (VG1 01.040 2014-12) standards are often viewed as tougher. The Snell Foundation has a decidedly stricter standard, E2001, that’s used by only a handful of helmet manufacturers.
Roy Burek, managing director of Charles Owen helmets, has been actively involved with ASTM International and co-chairs the committee with Dru. The way Burek sees it, the superiority of the ASTM standard depends on your priorities. For example, the European standard includes a test to mimic being kicked in the head by a horse wearing studs, something not required by the ASTM standard.
“The people in ASTM say, yes, but that means the ventilation holes will be smaller, and ventilation is very important,” said Burek. “And anyway, how many people do you know that have been kicked in the head by a horse wearing studs? If that happens we’ll call it an unlucky accident.”
Helmet manufacturers have to balance conflicting consumer desires: stiff yet soft; strong but slim; ventilation and protection from studs. Some helmets are multi-certified—say approved by both ASTM and PAS—so a scrupulous consumer can customize the amount of protection he or she wants.
“The most important thing is to wear the helmet for the accident you’re going to have,” said Burek. “If you were going out on a highway, and you can choose to drive either a Volvo or a tank, you’re going to take the Volvo. If you’re going to Afghanistan, you’ll want the tank.”
But Dr. Lola Chambless, an eventer and neurosurgeon, doesn’t see a huge difference between the British, European and ASTM standards.
“I’ve done some deep dives into assessing the helmets when I was consulting about polo helmets,” she said. “After spending a lot of time on it, the ASTM standard is good. Various other standards are subtly different. There’s no data that show that one [certified] equestrian helmet is safer than another. The most important thing is fit: A helmet has to be well fitted to be safe. If you get a better fit, you can say it’s safer.”
Each time the ASTM updates a standard—it’s only happened a handful of times since the original 1990 writing—the name reflects the change. For example, the current F1163-15 standard was approved in 2015. That 2015 change was a minor one that only affected a handful of helmets. It’s been 13 years since the ASTM truly toughened the safety standard for riding helmets.
And now there’s change in the air. At the time of writing, the F1163 group is considering two possible updates to the rule. One would, in layman’s terms, require that helmets be tested in a way that mimics an accident at slower speed, which corresponds with hitting on a softer surface.
“The committee decided they want to push to increase the level of safety,” said Burek. “These [slow] accidents happen every day. A fast accident happens once every four or five years. These are the things you might be facing every week, and we’d like to add better protection for that.”
The downside? The helmets probably must be a bit bulkier, and they definitely would need a design upgrade. As it stands now, all ASTM/ SEI 1163-15 certified helmets—that’s the one you ride in—would fail.
“We’re talking about 1/8-inch in extra thickness and perhaps an ounce more in weight,” said Burek.
Former Troxel owner Dr. Richard Timms, M.D., introduced the second proposal, which would require a crush protection test—i.e. pushing the sides of the helmet toward each other— which aims to protect riders when horses fall on top of them. This would put the U.S. standard back on par with the European one, which already requires a measure of crush protection. The little-used but stringent Snell standard already has an even stricter crush requirement.
Not everyone on the committee thinks the proposals are a home run. Frank, for one, thinks the crush protection requirement is far too low to be effective in real-world situations of these often-catastrophic horse fall accidents.
He explained that the force being proposed for the crush test is 900 Newtons, or just over 200 pounds of force.
“We want to make the safest helmet, but it doesn’t relate to the real world when you’re only using [that] requirement,” he said. “We would be sending out misleading information by telling riders that we’ve adopted a crush test that would be perceived to make the helmets safer, when they’re not.”
Dru acknowledged that Frank’s facts are right: The crush requirement should be higher to be more effective. But she considers the proposal a decent place to start.
Progress on increasing helmet standards is slow going thanks in part to the fact that they’re run by committee, but also because there’s no pressure from equestrians to drastically improve helmet design. On the contrary, Burek pointed out that riders are usually disappointed to hear about possible new standards, lamenting that they would have to buy a new helmet. Plus, there haven’t been any proven technological breakthroughs that could create a much safer helmet without dramatically changing its look.
Burek recently became an honorary member of Cardiff University (Great Britain) and supervises HEADS ITN, a 3.4 million euros project focusing on safety standards and accident reconstruction within various sports with high incidences of head injuries, including equestrian.
He’s working on developing a new helmet material that could help absorb more energy in case of a fall to reduce the chance—or severity—of a head injury. Right now Styrofoam primarily serves to absorb shock in a helmet, and Burek’s group is looking at folding structures similar to origami that start small but can expand to a large area and are resistant to force. There are challenges as well with 3D printing this new material thanks to its design. “Our group has also been working with a vet school in Dublin to drop recently deceased horses on top of head forms to try to work out what sort of forces are involved [in catastrophic accidents] because we’d like to get the best science-based standards that we can,” he said.
The best helmet, of course, is the one that you will actually wear.
“We try to develop the best possible safety helmet for the purpose of who is using it,” said Frank. “It’s not a perfect science, but without question the rider is a lot safer with a safety helmet on than not.”
Once ASTM/SEI-approved helmets hit the shelves, not everyone was enthusiastic about buying them. The American Horse Shows Association “Rule Book” “strongly encouraged” but didn’t require approved helmets for hunter/jumper riders, which meant no one at the top of the game was strapping them on. For a time, junior hunter/jumper riders had to wear helmets with chinstraps (a rule one insider described as “one of the worst decisions by the AHSA, ever”), but most pros donned Pateys or similar hats. These, of course, were labeled—and functioned—as “items of apparel” only.
Early attempts to mimic the plastic- and leather-harnessed, low-profile hats popular in elite show rings in the 1990s were awkward at best, and the helmet companies had focused their approved helmet efforts on their current core market of summer campers and therapeutic riders, who valued affordability over fashion. So despite that “strong encouragement” from the AHSA, trainers didn’t exactly push for their students to strap on these “bubble hats.” It didn’t help that some big names in the sport spoke out vehemently against mandating safety helmets.
Though conversations about requiring approved helmets in hunter/ jumper competition had increasingly been happening at the AHSA since 1990, there wasn’t much momentum to mandate them for most of the decade.
Enter Joe Dotoli.
In 1999 one of Dotoli’s students suffered a fatal accident while wearing an unapproved helmet at a competition, leaving the New England horse community stunned. Ironically, the student’s parents had purchased her an approved one, which the student declined to wear because of peer pressure.
Dotoli turned his grief into action. He got himself onto the Zone 1 board of the National Hunter Jumper Council (a precursor of sorts to the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association) and was immediately appointed chair, earning a seat on the NHJC board of directors. From there he earned a spot on the AHSA board, and he started to move to make helmets the law at horse shows.
Acutely aware of the vanity keeping riders in items of apparel, Dotoli chose the carrot over the stick. He called a meeting of the six ASTM/SEI-approved helmet manufacturers and offered them a business proposition: He was going to get a rule passed mandating helmet use at AHSA shows in two years, and he needed them to develop a hat that riders would accept. The six CEOs in attendance shook his hand and went back to work on helmets for this new market, leaving Dotoli with a major promise to fulfill.
Dotoli started with the low-hanging fruit: kids. After plenty of politicking (and promising the western contingent at the AHSA he wouldn’t force their riders to give up their cowboy hats) he finally advanced a rule that mandated that junior riders had to wear approved helmets at hunter/jumper shows, kicking in for the 2002 show season, with adults following in 2006. And as of April 1, 2012, all riders mounted at showgrounds were required to wear safety helmets.
“It’s tremendous,” said Dotoli, who was honored by the U.S. Equestrian Federation with the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award, in part because of his relentless work pushing helmets. “At first we started with about six manufacturers, and now we have something like 30. You can barely find an unapproved helmet anywhere. I walk on the showgrounds every now and then and look around and smile. You see everybody wearing them, and most people don’t remember that it wasn’t required. It’s cool to go look around at a horse show with 1,000 horses and know you had some part in making things safer.”
Sidebar: Effecting A Culture Change
Serious riders in the sport horse world have accepted helmets in the show ring thanks to education, high-profile accidents, top riders accepting the trend, and often, rules— even if an ever-dwindling number of dressage riders haven’t retired their top hats yet. So what will it take to get the rest of the horse world on board? We asked numerous experts from within U.S. Equestrian Federation-sanctioned breed associations to weigh in.
The USEF breed affiliates generally don’t require helmet use in non-jumping classes, and while several have rules that promise not to penalize for use of protective headwear it’s still unusual to see a helmeted rider in national-level competitions. Many of the arguments used by the affiliates will ring familiar to those who followed the tough transition to federation-mandated safety helmets: They go against tradition; they don’t look good; “it’s my head so my decision;” and the weight or design of the helmet feels uncomfortable.
The No. 1 argument? “We don’t jump, therefore our sports are less dangerous.”
USEF statistics about head injuries at competitions do indeed reflect fewer overall head injuries at breed shows versus the other disciplines, but the results need more detailed analysis about the relative percentage of injuries per entry, which is on the USEF Safety Committee’s to-do list.
Colleen McQuay has one foot in the national-level hunter/jumper scene and another in the national- and international-level reining scene as she runs McQuay Stables in Tioga, Texas, with her husband, double FEI World Equestrian Games gold medalist Tim McQuay.
“As you might guess, the cowboys and cowgirls are very traditional about their fancy cowboy hats,” said Colleen. “They are, however, aware of all the concerns and have already followed the FEI rules of wearing a helmet if you are a junior showing FEI reiners. This does have the older generations worried, as you may guess.
“I think we in the reining industry are seeing a new wave of clients that are not necessarily old-school cowboys,” she continued. “They are coming into the sport more for enjoying the sport than the tradition of it. We’re seeing some of the new-age parents coming in, and their younger kids are wearing helmets.”
Still, Colleen pointed out that her granddaughter, junior hunter rider Carlee McCutcheon, dons a cowboy hat when she gets on her Quarter Horses for reining, much to her grandmother’s chagrin.
One high-ranking employee at a USEF breed affiliate, who asked not to be named, said she knew about a fatal schooling accident. She’s educated; she had seen the USEF presentation on concussions and knew the statistics on head injury—but she still couldn’t fathom wearing a helmet to ride. She acknowledged the disconnect, and when asked what it would take to get her to wear a helmet she went silent for a moment then said only law would do it—not that she wanted that.
Numerous breed representatives pointed out that insurance requirements often require riding academies to mandate helmets—a relatively new phenomenon—and that’s very slowly trickling upward to intermediate junior riders who continue to wear them, but when these riders transfer to show barns most hang up their hard hats. Despite the increase in head injury awareness, those I spoke with from the breed communities have admitted it’s slow going. Morgans require helmets for leadliners (and some have been keeping them on when they graduate to walk-trot), but there’s no real interest in expanding the rule.
Judy Werner, chair of the USEF American Saddlebred Committee, said she’s seeing the needle move a bit at the introductory level, though it’s still a hard sell to experienced competitors. At lower-level competitions that feature academy classes riders are helmeted. Werner could think of no high-profile rider who’s suffered a major head injury à la Courtney King Dye to act as a wake-up call to fuel a helmet movement in the Saddlebred world or any of the other breed worlds.
That said, there is an amateur competitor active in the Saddlebred community who suffered a significant head injury at home and follows his doctor’s orders to never get on another horse sans helmet—even at the World’s Championship Horse Show (Kentucky).
Werner compared the move towards helmets to riding bicycles: Thirty years ago children didn’t wear bike helmets, and now a bike purchase for a child inevitably includes a helmet. Ditto those who take up skiing and snowboarding.
“I’ve had trainers say to me we should have started pushing helmets a long time ago,” said Werner. “I really think if we could have something that looked more traditional, more like a derby, it would be an easier sell.”
Check out the author’s blog entry about writing this series.
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