As relaxing as a trail ride or quiet hack can be, horseback riding comes with some risk of injury. One of the worst kinds of injuries you can sustain on horseback is a head injury. Thankfully, there is a way to protect yourself and reduce your risk of serious harm during an unintentional dismount: wear a helmet.
For decades, helmets were looked down upon in the ever-daring equestrian world. Show hunters reached for thin, velvet hunt caps over anything with true protection. Barrel racers avoided helmets in favor of western hats. But times are changing. More and more equestrians, from trail riders to polo players, are now choosing to wear head protection. According to the American Medical Equestrian Association, ASTM/SEI-approved riding helmets have reduced the incidence of serious head injuries by 50%.
If you’d like to play it safer and protect your noggin, it’s time to go helmet shopping. Luckily, there are many types of horseback riding helmets to choose from. Here are some of the most common ones.
Traditional Velvet Helmets
Traditional velvet helmets are modeled after the hunt caps that were so popular in the Show Hunter, Jumper, and Field Hunter disciplines up until the early 2000s. These helmets offer advanced-level protection, but they are covered in velvet or velour, often with a traditional black bow at the nape of the neck. The harness is often made from leather.
Traditional velvet helmets are not as popular in the Hunter-Jumper world as they once were, but riders who favor traditional attire still wear them. If you plan to do any fox hunting, you’ll fit right in wearing a traditional velvet helmet.
Premium Show Helmets
Premium show helmets have become the norm in most Hunt Seat disciplines including the Hunters and the Jumpers. These helmets are usually black with a smooth exterior. They typically have a brand logo or emblem on the front and sometimes a stripe of lighter-colored material running from front to back. Some brands let you “customize” these helmets by adding stripes of color or your initials.
Premium show helmets tend to be well-vented and highly adjustable. Some have a dial in the back that you can turn to adjust the fit. The liner is often removable and washable. If you plan on showing in English divisions and want to look fashionable, this is the type of helmet to shop for. Even if you mostly plan on hacking at your home stable, a premium show helmet offers comfort, style, and adjustability.
Skull Caps or Jockey Skulls
Jockey skulls are likely the toughest style of riding helmet on the market – and they look tough, too. This style of helmet does not have a brim. The lack of the brim ensures jockeys can see clearly. There is also some concern that if the rider falls off in just the right way, a brim could catch on the ground and cause their neck to snap back. So the safest design for a jockey is a brimless hat. Some jockeys put fabric covers with brims over their hats to look more stylish.
Jockey skulls are also worn by eventers when riding cross-country. Like jockeys, cross-country riders are at a higher risk of falling and catching the brim of their hat on the ground. Some eventers also wear their jockey skull in the show jumping portion of the competition. Others have a premium show helmet they switch to for this phase.
Polo helmets feature a similar interior design and safety features to other riding helmets, but they are typically made in bright colors and patterns so they stand out on the field. The liners are generally designed to absorb sweat, and they can be removed for washing. Polo is a demanding sport, so you can bet those polo players are washing their helmet liners often.
In polo, there is the additional risk of being hit in the head with a ball or stick. So, polo helmets are made with shock-absorbing liners that can withstand this type of impact. If you’re going to play polo, even at a low level, it’s a good idea to wear a helmet made specifically for this sport.
Plastic helmets are designed with a protective, shock-absorbing interior, but the exterior is made from simple, often colorful, plastic. If you’re a new rider or someone who trail rides casually, a plastic helmet is really all you need. They’re more affordable than other options. Today’s plastic helmets are lightweight, well-vented, and sometimes even adjustable with a dial system.
You might assume that because plastic helmets cost so much less than premium show helmets or velvet helmets, they must not be as protective. However, the evidence suggests otherwise. Virginia Tech regularly reviews popular horseback riding helmets for safety, and they’ve found many of the most popular plastic helmets to be just as safe as more stylish and expensive models.
If you compete in barrel racing or rodeo events, you will also see a lot of plastic helmets. Some of the popular brands make them in fun, rodeo-inspired patterns and colors specifically for barrel racers.
Western Hat Helmets
Horseback riding helmets caught on in the English world before they became widely accepted in the Western riding world. The western hat is stylish and steeped in tradition, and many riders struggle to part with it as an element of their attire. If you’re struggling to choose between a western hat and a helmet, there is an in-between option to consider. Western hat helmets are true, protective helmets, but they are styled to look like western hats.
Western hat helmets are becoming more popular with ranch riders, trail riders, and folks who show in Western Pleasure classes. They don’t look exactly like a western hat, but they suit western attire a lot better than a velvet helmet or a skull cap. Riders also tend to enjoy the sun protection they get from the wide brims on these helmets.
If you’d like to reduce your risk of head injuries when horseback riding, a helmet is the way to go. Each helmet style has something different to offer in terms of comfort and design, but every style offers protection and security. Regardless of what helmet you choose, check to make sure it is ASTM/SEI certified, as this means it meets the relevant safety standards. Also, make sure your helmet fits properly. If this is your first time buying a helmet, consider visiting a tack shop in person so a professional can measure and fit you.
Horseback riding can be risky, so it’s always wise to protect yourself. Another way to keep yourself safe is to improve your training and connection with your horse. If you’re looking to move past some blocks or challenges in your training, check out Easy Horse Fix. Our instructional videos help riders like you overcome common horse issues intelligently and systematically.