Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2024

Making Safety Accessible

A year after a provocative New York Times story, helmet makers address the limited options for many Black equestrians.


In March 2023, The New York Times published an article describing the difficulties many Black riders face in finding properly fitting helmets for natural hair, an issue that poses a barrier to inclusion and safe access to the equestrian world. For the Black riders interviewed in the story, the issue around proper helmet fit was clearly not novel or surprising—but many helmet makers said they were introduced to the longstanding problem through the reporting. A few of those helmet companies promised further research and progress toward meeting the needs of Black riders. 

Just over a year later, The Chronicle of the Horse reached out to Black equestrians, industry professionals and helmet manufacturers to see what progress has been made since that story’s release, and how some Black riders have been seeing the conversation about helmet fit as a signal of inclusion and innovation in equestrian sports—or a lack thereof. 

When Chanel Robbins was featured in the Times story, the spotlight unexpectedly made her a poster child for the issue of helmet fit. Following her participation in the article, Robbins continued her deep dive into helmet manufacturing and design, and she started an Instagram account, @thehelmetqueen. Through her new platform, she could connect with other Black equestrians and share her growing expertise around fitting helmets to natural hair, including protective hairstyles like braids, twists and locs, which can increase head circumference.

At lesson barns, where riders often don’t own their own helmets, some Black equestrians find there are no well-fitting options for them. iStock Photo

“When it comes to protective styles, they are very, very important for Black people, because it keeps our hair from breaking,” Robbins said. “Because our hair is a little bit more coarse, it takes a lot longer for it to grow back, and [protective hairstyles are] very crucial in the way we look after it to keep it healthy.” 

Robbins, who lives in Simcoe, Ontario, said she’d once wondered if she was alone in the struggle to find a riding helmet that would comfortably fit her locs, and whether voicing her concerns to manufacturers was excessive. 

“In Canada alone I know only four or five Black equestrians. I used to think, ‘Maybe this is ridiculous. Maybe am being ridiculous about this. Maybe I’m just being dramatic,’ ” Robbins said. “Then somebody else would say, ‘I’m having the same issue,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh never mind, not being dramatic—not alone.’ ” 

Robbins taught herself the ins and outs of riding helmets by studying technical reports, researching safety standards, and reaching out to industry professionals for manufacturing insights. As @thehelmetqueen, she started getting requests to help other Black riders find and properly fit their helmets. Robbins had previously connected with Laura Qusen, chief operating officer at Tipperary Equestrian, before the Times article was published, and she was able to call on Qusen’s expertise when she needed insider information about manufacturing and fit. 

“I have helped people from England to the States,” said Robbins, who plans to open a mobile helmet-fit consultation business in Canada. “The whole point of my platform is to pass on any knowledge that I learned as a middleman between manufacturer and consumer.”

Robbins has found a niche bridging the knowledge gap between consumers and manufacturers—a role she claimed by being a voice for the demographic of consumers that manufacturers have often overlooked. 

‘Hey, I Like Your Hair’ 

Riding instructors also live in that middle ground between helmet manufacturer and consumer, often tasked with fitting students with a range of head sizes and hairstyles to a limited number of helmets, or guiding students’ first forays into helmet shopping. 

Brittney Chambers, who founded CBC Therapeutic Horseback Riding Academy in Sacramento, California, often works with beginner students who have no prior experience with horses or riding gear. She designed her therapeutic riding center as a “safe place to come to learn about horses.” The program serves able-bodied riders who can ride independently but includes students seeking mental health support or who want to ride in a low-pressure program. 

Chambers’ father was a Thoroughbred race horse trainer, so growing up, “the barn was my playground and my babysitter.” 

“My dad, he was huge on it,” she said, of her father’s commitment to safety. “It was instilled in us at a young age: You never ride without a helmet—ever, ever, ever.” 

“The request is not to create helmets specifically for Black hair. It’s to create products that are adaptable, because there’s a demographic of people that have adaptable needs.”

Abriana Johnson

When Chambers was in high school and working on her senior research project, she learned about therapeutic riding programs, and the idea sparked something in the teen. 

“I said, ‘Oh my goodness, horses can help people!’ ” she remembers. “I was young. I didn’t realize that riding could be therapeutic at the time.” 

Now, Chambers’ program—which exploded during the pandemic when COVID-safe outdoor activities were in demand—serves about 100 students, many of whom are Black and wear their hair in natural and protective styles. 

Chambers has received many helmet donations to her riding program, but ones from brands like Tipperary and Charles Owen helmets often get passed along to dedicated individual riders, because they aren’t adaptable enough to be shared between her students. 

“The only helmets that fit my Black riders are Troxels,” she said, citing the dial feature that allows the rider to adjust the helmet’s tightness. “For my kiddos that have the Black hair, I have to put them all in my large or extra-large Troxel schooling helmets.” 

Chambers is a doer, and when she sees a need in her community, she acts on it. “I have my master’s in administration, and I’ve built a lot of outside community programs,” Chambers said. 

Her systems-minded approach is what has allowed her to start her successful riding school and expand it—then literally write the book on it. When she opened up her social media platform, @brittneychorsemanship, to questions about lesson programs from followers, she started to see patterns in their questions, which activated her administrative instincts. 

Instructors were stumbling through awkward social interactions with students and parents, so they came to Chambers with questions about how to navigate concerns about a rider’s weight, how to peacefully part ways with a client, or how to handle questions about gear and fit—including helmets. She standardized her responses in a book, “How To Build Your Dream Equine Lesson Program.” Her goal is to help raise the standards—including safety standards—of riding schools. 

She wonders why helmet companies, which have received feedback from Black riders that helmets don’t feel right or are too small, haven’t found ways of integrating that feedback into their strategic planning and design. 

“I feel like it’s such a simple fix,” Chambers said. “Put out an ad and say, ‘Hey, we’re looking for people with this kind of hairstyle.’ Measure their head, and then make the helmet.” 

Until helmets are more adaptable, Chambers has worked language into her program’s policy that tells students and their parents, who may be unfamiliar with riding gear, how to prepare their hair to be ready to accommodate a helmet. Even so, she says there have been times when a child’s protective hairstyle made fitting even her largest helmets impossible. 

“It’s in our introductory packet. We put: ‘Your hair must be in a style where you can wear a helmet.’ So no high ponytails or buns or anything like that, so we kind of put it on them,” she said. “But for riders who have thicker hair like me, it’s still tough.” 


For students who are new to riding, early experiences of awkward, ill-fitting equipment can leave them discouraged at that vulnerable moment when they’re just finding the sport. She said she’d like to see helmets meeting the needs of Black riders, rather than Black riders having to conform hairstyles to existing helmet sizes.

“It just says, ‘Hey, I like your hair, and I want you to be able to keep your hair.’ So here’s a helmet I designed so that way you can keep your hairstyle—versus putting the pressure on us,” said Chambers, considering what it would mean to have inclusive sizing. “If [helmet makers] say, ‘Hey, we did this,’ it’s saying, ‘I recognize you, I see you, and you shouldn’t have to change.’ ” 

Abriana Johnson, who hosts the podcast “Black In The Saddle” and runs the branding consulting agency Black Unicorn Creative, would also like to see the helmet industry take the onus off of Black equestrians and make it easier for all riders to find helmets that fit. 

“People don’t want to change the industry, they just want to ride,” Johnson said. 

When Abriana Johnson was younger, she didn’t regularly wear a helmet. “It wasn’t until I got older that I was like, ‘Wait a second, I’m relying on my brain to make money. I really do need to think: So how do I protect that?’ ” Photo Courtesy Of Abriana Johnson

Johnson sees this moment, where the equestrian industry has been called to reflect on exclusive helmet designs, as an opportunity for innovation. Updates to helmet sizing would benefit Black equestrians, as well as other riders who need more variety in helmet sizes. 

“The request is not to create helmets specifically for Black hair; that’s not the ask,” Johnson said. “It’s to create products that are adaptable, because there’s a demographic of people that have adaptable needs.” 

Rethinking Accessibility

Last year, following the New York Times piece, Shelly Watts, the former CEO of Muirneen Equestrian, hosted a town hall on helmet accessibility. A representative from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International was in attendance, and she returned to her team inspired to think about helmet accessibility within their community. 

PATH is one of the leading organizations educating and credentialing therapeutic riding centers and instructors. According to its website, the nonprofit organization includes nearly 800 member centers and 4,800 certified professionals, who support 46,600 adaptive riding students. At many PATH programs, the riding centers are responsible for providing helmets to students; if adaptive riding aims to be inclusive, the team realized that helmet fit could be an obstacle to that mission. 

“Everybody should have access to horses: [That’s] the fundamental belief of what we do. And PATH has a standard of wearing helmets for safety,” said Aviva Vincent, who chairs PATH’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee. “So if you can’t wear a helmet for safety, because of a physical disability, a limitation, the sizing doesn’t fit—whatever it is—then there is a space to understand why, and what’s happening there, and have a conversation, because that directly impacts accessibility.” 

Vincent and PATH CEO Kathy Alm met with Watts to strategize. The team wanted to understand the atmosphere of helmet accessibility among their membership, then develop responsive organizational practices to ensure a sense of belonging in all PATH riders. 

“It’s really about, ‘How can we shift accessibility of helmets to better impact the accessibility of horses?’ ” Vincent said. To pinpoint how the issue presented in their community— and in what numbers—PATH looked to its instructors. Vincent, who has an academic background, designed a survey to gather data about the culture of helmets in PATH centers, including instructors’ comfort and confidence in safely fitting helmets to students.

“Everybody that completed the survey are instructors of Equine Assisted Services, so it’s a kind of a subset population within the equine industry,” Vincent said of the survey’s 201 responses. Of those, more than 80% of respondents said that their organization was responsible for providing helmets to students. 

In analyzing the feedback, Vincent and Alm were especially interested in PATH instructors’ response to the question, “Have you felt uncomfortable while fitting a helmet for a student?” About 46% of instructors responded that they had at least felt minimal discomfort or more while fitting a student’s helmet for a riding lesson. 

Asked to clarify, respondents could choose options connecting their discomfort to fitting for protective hairstyles, religious head coverings, physical disabilities, or that the conversation about fit would impact their lesson time. Nearly half said that their discomfort with helmet fit was related to a protective hairstyle, and about 38% of instructors said they’d had to limit or restrict a student’s participation because their center did not have helmets to accommodate the rider’s needs. 

PATH says that this survey is the first step in an evolving project to make their centers more inclusive, safe and culturally responsive. 

“This is an ongoing conversation that has impacted so many people that have both turned away from riding because of this issue and also have made significant changes to their lifestyle because of it,” Vincent said. “We have a colleague who literally shaved her head because that was the only way to get a helmet to fit.

“And it’s not just about hair,” she continued. “It’s also about disability or special needs access. So this is truly a cultural and accessibility issue, to make [Equine Assisted Services] a place of belonging for anybody who wants to be with horses.” 

Inviting Helmet Makers To The Table

PATH representatives consider this conversation an evolving one and plan to dive deeper into understanding how discomfort impacts their instructors’ ability to safely equip students with riding helmets. They say they’re “leaning in” to the project of developing, and educating instructors in, culturally appropriate practices. 

The PATH team also felt an urgency to get their data into the hands of helmet outfitters, who they knew could directly impact the adaptability of the helmets. Alm, Vincent and Watts held a meeting with manufacturers and distributors to share the results of their survey. 

After a New York Times article came out last year featuring Chanel Robbins, the rider created @thehelmetqueen as a platform where other Black equestrians could find and connect with her. She’s since collaborated with the team at Tipperary to create a helmet fit guide for Black equestrians, but she said that riders need to shop for the correct fit without brand allegiance. Photos Courtesy Of Chanel Robbins

“Some of [the manufacturers] really pushed back in challenging ways. There was an air of some questions around, ‘But how much are you really doing in adaptive riding lessons that warrants the safety standard of a three-day eventer at the Olympics?’ ” Vincent said. “And Kathy and I pushed back to say, ‘Just as much, because we’re on the back of a horse.’ So we really reset the conversation to: This is an accessibility conversation, regardless.” 

PATH’s survey also gathered statistics on helmet brand usage within member centers. Although the survey found that just 6.5% of participants’ riding centers used Charles Owen helmets, PATH representatives said that the company was exceptionally responsive to the information shared. 

“At least one manufacturer, Charles Owen, was very engaged in wanting to help our industry with this issue of helmet fit or protective hairstyles,” Alm said. 

When the Chronicle reached out to Charles Owen for more information about their engagement with PATH, a company representative declined to comment. 

Tipperary, which PATH found was used in 50% of its centers, has also been active in the conversation about helmet accessibility in relation to protective hairstyles, and more recently, assistive devices like cochlear implants. Tipperary’s team is researching possible solutions that would accommodate cochlear implants, and it’s using information from PATH’s survey to shape its approach to the question of helmet fit for protective hairstyles. 

“The connection with PATH has been fantastic because it’s just bringing this information to light for us,” Qusen said. “There is always a solution, and we’ll find it.” 


Since the Times piece, the Canadian-based helmet maker has developed a working relationship with Robbins. Together, they came up with an idea to create a visual guide that will help Black equestrians navigate fit challenges. Qusen called this the first step in an ongoing process; they hope to understand whether the needs of riders with protective hairstyles can be met with current products and specific information on helmet fitting, or if these issues are better addressed through product design. 

“So essentially, it’s a grouping of common hairstyles for Black equestrians, or people of color, which we know that those hairstyles are the ones that tend to have fit challenges,” Qusen said of the guide, where Robbins will model a range of hairstyles with helmets. “The booklet takes each of those hairstyles and offers either adjustments to the hairstyle itself that still maintain the style, and the protection that that style offers to hair, while fitting within a helmet.” 

Qusen feels that one of the difficulties facing riders is that the very nature of helmet fitting is complex: On one hand, the consumer experience has been largely moved online, where shoppers have an incredible amount of choice but no ability to test fit options; a size that fits in one helmet might not translate to the same size in a different model or brand. (Qusen compares the endeavor to shopping for jeans.) However, trying helmets in person also has its issues, as retailers often offer a limited number of brands and sizes, and employees may not have the knowledge to properly fit a range of heads and hairstyles. 

“It’s tough to travel to the 500-plus tack shops across North America, to make sure that [employees are] all super well trained. There are a lot of people who’ve been working at these tack shops for, you know, 5, 10, 15 years, who own that knowledge, and they own it really well; they know what they’re doing. But what if they’re not working that day?” Qusen said. “So there’s an information gap. It’s not for lack of trying; it’s just a reality of this situation.” 

As they launch the visual guide, which aims to support both consumers and retailers, Qusen and Robbins also plan to offer Black and POC equestrians virtual helmet fitting consultations. Through those conversations, they want to gather data and suggestions from individuals to improve later iterations of the visual guide, and potentially inform product development down the line. 

“Phase 1 is this booklet to identify the problems that we know exist, with the hairstyles that are pretty common that tend to cause some of these fit issues,” Qusen said. “And within that is this data gathering that we want to do; that is so we have everything in an organized format and can pinpoint issues like: OK, the booklet solved one through 10, but it didn’t solve 11.” 

“A lot of times helmet companies want to talk about things that make dollars and cents, right? And the lack of innovation does not make dollars or cents.”

Abriana Johnson

The Chronicle also reached out to representatives for helmet maker Back On Track USA, which was featured in the Times story last winter. In that article, CEO James Ruder expressed surprise that Black riders found the functionality of helmets wanting. Over email, he shared the company’s plans to release a new and more adaptable helmet design in 2025. 

“Back on Track has made considerable progress in addressing the topic of helmet safety while also addressing fit and comfort to better accommodate a wider range of hairstyles,” Ruder wrote. “The new helmet will have advanced adjustment features including dual arm adjustments, 360-degree sizing adjustments versus the traditional 180-degree adjustment, and pocket adjustable inserts for exact sizing and comfort.” 

Safety Equipment Signals Belonging—Or Not 

Many riders and industry professionals hear about the steps toward progress for more inclusive riding helmets, and are left wondering why other helmets, like those used in football, readily accommodate larger heads and protective hairstyles, while the largest equestrian helmets cap out at a circumference of 61 centimeters. 

Barry Miller, director of outreach and business development for the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, sees room for innovation, but he guessed that equestrian manufacturers haven’t jumped on the opportunity because they don’t see a demand for larger or more adaptive helmets. 

“Obviously, there’s much better sizing for these guys, but [football] helmets fit really tight in general, so I think it gets a little bit more compacted than maybe what an equestrian rider is used to,” Miller said of the versatility of football helmet design. 

“I don’t know why an equestrian helmet couldn’t make some sort of modular plastic outer shell that you can just adjust it a little bit, and then the padding moves with it,” he added. 

Miller was recently contacted by an instructor who was struggling to find a helmet large enough to fit her student, a Black equestrian with a protective hairstyle. After an unsuccessful search, Miller eventually had to recommend a bike helmet—“Some helmet is better than no helmet,” he said—because there simply wasn’t an existing riding helmet in his size. 

When a rider wears a helmet that must be forced tightly over dense hair or hard hairstyles, Miller said an overly snug fit can jeopardize the effectiveness of the helmet in a fall. These helmets are designed to decouple from the movement of the head, so that in a fall, the helmet material—not the head—absorbs the energy of the impact. 

“That fit needs to be snug enough to stay in place for that initial impact. And then, you do want the helmet to what we call ‘decouple’ from your head,” Miller said of finding the sweet spot for helmet fit. “Normally, a slightly looser fitting helmet does a little bit better than a tight helmet, because it decouples a little bit easier—moves a little easier.” 

And of course, improper fit isn’t just unsafe. A rider who feels awkward and uncomfortable in a tight helmet, or one that’s made for a different sport entirely, won’t have the same experience as a rider who isn’t experiencing discomfort or embarrassment. 

“People coming into this industry don’t want to feel othered,” Johnson said. “They want to feel safe and confident in whatever the product is, right? And if it doesn’t fit, or if it doesn’t feel good—you know, it’s hard to apply outside leg when you have a migraine, and your temples are being crushed.” 

For manufacturers, the question of expanding helmet size comes down to money. They want to be sure, before committing to the additional cost of safety testing a larger head form—which each helmet maker must provide to the testing companies and can cost tens of thousands of dollars—that the market supports the investment. 

“One of the reasons that those sizes are harder to come by is because they don’t follow the typical head mold that’s used for ASTM and SEI safety standards,” said Vincent of what she learned in PATH’s conversations with manufacturers. “The head form is not tiny, tiny, and it’s not particularly large, so those helmets end up needing to be custom, which puts the price much higher. 

“So that’s a conversation that we’ve actually been having directly, of, ‘Well, how do we make those sizes more part of the mainstream?’ ” she continued. “The question from the distributors that’s come back to us is, ‘How many people are actually saying that that is a need? Like, is it only five people? Or is it 500 people?’ ” 

Johnson, who often consults with equestrian businesses, isn’t naive about the realities of capitalism. Still, she would like to see helmet makers working toward innovation when it comes to creating adaptable helmet designs. From her work connecting with Black equestrians, Johnson knows that there is a growing market that is “wide open,” she said. 

“What is the commitment to the status quo? That’s larger than helmets, right? That’s industry-wide. That’s how it’s always been; it’s been justification for a lot of decision making,” Johnson said. “A lot of times helmet companies want to talk about things that make dollars and cents, right? And the lack of innovation does not make dollars or cents.” 

Chambers, who sees so many young Black riders at the very beginning of their equestrian journeys, feels that if manufacturers invest in inclusive helmet designs, it could help sustain Black riders’ interest and sense of possibility in the sport. 

“Now, if there was a person with dreadlocks on that made the U.S. Olympic team, I bet you there’d be a helmet that fit them,” Chambers said. “But [manufacturers] are going to be catering to big lesson programs like me, and the ones who want to try to make it to the top—because we do have students that have big dreams and goals. It’s not just for the high-end people; you’re catering to the bottom to bring them up.” 

This article originally appeared in the May 2024, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.



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