Riding Helmet Construction: A Comprehensive Guide


When it comes to horseback riding, safety should always be a top priority. One of the most important pieces of safety equipment for riders is a brain bucket – aka horseback riding helmet. A well-designed riding helmet, specifically an equestrian helmet, is crucial for helping protect against traumatic brain injury (TBI) and even death in the event of a fall or accident. But how? Let’s dig into the many layers of riding helmet construction to see what’s up in the layers – the outer layer, the shell, the expanded polystyrene (EPS) liner, the headband, and the equestrian-specific features.


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Safety Ratings of Horse Riding Helmets


  • If you love acronyms, well, here are some more. Helmets can be certifited from reputable organizations such as the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI) and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). These organizations have established rigorous safety standards for riding helmets to ensure that they provide adequate protection against head injuries.


  • SEI is an independent organization that tests and certifies riding helmets to ensure that they meet specific safety standards. An SEI-certified helmet has passed rigorous performance testing and meets the required safety criteria.


  • Similarly, the ASTM is an internationally recognized organization that develops and publishes technical standards for various products, including riding helmets. ASTM F1163 is the standard specification for protective headgear used in horseback riding.



guenter in a riding helmet on a horse

Even fancy Olympians wear helmets.


Understanding the Basics of Riding Helmet Construction


  • A typical riding helmet consists of four protective layers: the outer layer, the shell, the expanded polystyrene (EPS) liner, and the headband. Each layer plays a vital role in ensuring the helmet’s ability to protect your noggin during a fall or other accident.


The Outermost Layer


  • The outermost layer of the hat has two functions – one asethetic and one safety. This layer is what you see and thus can be plain as day or decorative. As a safety feature, it allows your head to continue slipping across the object or ground during a fall. The energy is then dispersed away from your brain.


The Role of the Outer Shell in Protection


  • The outer shell of a riding helmet is the first layer of protection against external impact. It works to spread the impact’s force over a larger surface area before the force is transferred to the inner layers. Carbon fiber is a popular material for the outer shell.


  • Carbon fiber is lightweight and wildly strong, with great impact resistance. It’s also a key component for protective hats for other sports. The idea is that this outer carbon fiber layer provides protection against fractures and other awful head injuries.


inside of a riding helmet showing the padding

Hopefully, your helmet’s liner is washable!


The Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) Liner


  • The expanded polystyrene (EPS) liner is a critical component of a riding helmet. It acts as a microscopic bubble wrap for the head, absorbing and dissipating energy from an impact to prevent bruising of the brain and concussion.


  • The small beads that comprise the EPS liner will pop under impact and act like a cushion. This action acts to absorb and distribute the energy from an impact, reducing the risk of serious head injuries.


  • But here’s the kicker about this EPS layer – once the bubbles have burst, the helmet is a no-go. Even dropping your riding safety helmet will damage this layer enough that you need to buy a new riding hat.


The headband


  • The headband also had two jobs – to fit your head, and to protect against the forces that brain shear. And what is brain shear? That happens when your brain rotates or moves within the skull, creating damage. Also known as a liner, this headband layer molds to your head for optimal fit. Luckily for most of us, the liner is washable so your helmet doesn’t become a giant science experiment.


Advanced Helmet Technologies for Enhanced Safety


  • Ready for more acronyms? Various helmet technologies that enhance safety and protection for riders are found in riding helmet construction: MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) and proper ventilation systems.

MIPS Technology Explained


  • MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System) is a revolutionary technology designed to reduce rotational forces on the brain during an impact. It is a low-friction layer between the outer shell and the EPS liner that allows the hat to move independently of the head, mimicking the brain’s natural protective mechanism.


  • This rotation happens during an impact. As the helmet rotates slightly, the rotational forces are directed away from your brain, helping to reduce the risk of TBIs and concussions.



The Significance of Proper Ventilation


  • Proper ventilation is another crucial aspect of riding helmet design for enhanced safety and comfort. You definitely want a proper ventilation system in your brain bucket to regulate temps and airflow. This is mainly to keep you cool and prevent overheating.


  • And another bonus of proper ventilation is that it helps your helmet not grow as much odor-producing bacteria and other things that should remain out of our imaginations.


Design and Aesthetics in Riding Helmets


  • While safety should always be the top priority when choosing a riding helmet, design and aesthetics also play a role in the selection process. You probably want something with style and safety. Hopefully more safety than style.


horseback riding helmet on a girl at a horse show 


Some Stylish Helmet Options


  • Can you have too much bling? Probably not.


  • You can also find different textures, like suede, matte, and ultra-shiny outermost layers. Not to forget about colorful accents in the different panels of the helmet.


  • And speaking of colors – black and navy are not the only choices – plenty of pinks, purples, and other fun colors are there for the choosing.


  • Accessories such as helmet covers, brim decals, and chin straps in different colors or patterns can be used to personalize a riding helmet. You typically only see helmet covers with jockey skulls, but on rainy days perhaps you want some protection.


  • And I’ll bet that you can find a whole set of saddle pads, horse boots, rider apparel, and helmets that match.


The Evolution of Riding Helmets Over Time


Riding helmets have evolved greatly in terms of design, materials, and safety standards. Their evolution reflects a continuous effort to provide riders with the best possible protection and comfort.


Historical Milestones in Helmet Design


  • The history of riding helmets can be traced back to ancient times when riders used various head coverings for protection. All I can imagine is a giant, super heavy, suit of armor helmet. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the modern riding helmet as we know it today began to take shape.


  • In 1850, the first safety hat for horse riders was patented by an American inventor named George Henry Bailey. This early design featured a hard outer shell and a soft inner lining for added protection. It’s a good start for riding helmet construction!


  • Over the years, helmet design continued to evolve, with improvements in materials, construction, and safety standards. In the 20th century, the introduction of lightweight materials such as fiberglass and, later, carbon fiber revolutionized helmet design, making them more comfortable and effective in protecting against head injuries.


  • At some point in the not-so-distant past, disciplines like dressage began to require helmets at all levels of competition instead of top hats. I hope I’m not the only one who has noticed that helmets are becoming more accepted by all disciplines.


girl jumping a horse wearing a helmet


That famous study


  • You may have also read about Virginia Tech’s helmet study, where they basically put all sorts of sports helmets through the absolute wringer to find the safest ones. I am certainly not the only one who was *shocked* that more affordable helmets. Champion, Tuffrider, and IRH helmets for the win, and other big brands made appearances, like GPA and Charles Owen.


See the results of the rankings here.




When should I replace an equestrian helmet?


At least every five years, even if the helmet has not been involved in a fall. If your helmet was dropped or involved in an accident, it’s time to shop for a new one. Which brings up the point of not buying a used helmet. Ever.


Can I wear a bike helmet as a horseback riding helmet?


It’s a no. While bike helmets may provide some level of protection, but it’s not enough to be around horses. Bike helmets don’s share the same components as riding helmet construction. Also, try and avoid sharing helmets at riding schools. You don’t know the history of that helmet, and you may never find the best fit for your head and hair.


Are MIPS riding helmets worth it?


MIPS riding helmets are worth considering if you want that enhanced protection against rotational forces on the brain. While MIPS technology may increase the cost of a helmet, better safe than sorry.


What size riding helmet do I need?


The best thing to do is meet with a helmet fitter at your local tack shop. Your helmet sizing is based on measuring your head’s circumference, and that’s a starting point. You still need to try many brands and styles to get the most comfortable one.


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