Craniology, Part II: Ventilation, Helmet Replacement and Future Technology

Lynne Kaye is an adult amateur eventer and groom for her husband at horse trials. Being a glutton for punishment, she is getting a Master’s degree at night and on weekends from Harvard. She researched helmets as part of a class assignment and is kindly sharing the information with EN.

Hannah Sue Burnett and Harbour Pilot at Luhmühlen 2017. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Part 1 of Craniology covered the basics of what wearing an ASTM-certified helmet will and will not do to protect you. In a nutshell, your helmet will:

  • Help protect your head from being cut by something sharp or jagged such as your horse’s hoof or a jump cup.
  • Slide to give you more stopping distance
  • Reduce the force on your skull on impact, reducing the risk of a skull fracture.

Your helmet will not:

  • Protect you against more than one fall.
  • Protect you against concussions or other traumatic brain injuries.

Part 2 discusses ventilation, helmet replacement, and what to expect in helmet technology in the future.

Vent-i-lation

One of the major differences from one helmet to another is the amount of ventilation the helmet provides. How much ventilation you want in your helmet is a personal decision, and there are plusses and minuses to both unventilated and heavily ventilated helmets. Since helmets influence how warm or cold you feel, they influence whether you feel comfortable enough to deliver your optimal performance.

One of the positives for ventilated helmets is that the vents allow airflow through the helmet which helps cool your head, particularly when you and your horse are in motion. Air moves from high pressure areas which are in the front of the helmet to low pressure areas which are in the back of the helmet.

Anything that reduces the amount of air that can flow in and out through the vents in the helmet impacts how well the vents cool your head. For example, if your hair blocks the rear vents, cooling capacity falls by 8-30%. If your hair blocks the front vents (and not the rear vents), cooling capacity is reduced by even more. If you ride in hot weather, a very lightweight, breathable helmet cover or none at all will allow the best air movement through the vents.

One of the negatives for ventilation holes is that they can impact how well your helmet shields your head from sharp objects. Very large, numerous vents leave room for sharp objects to penetrate your scalp. Ironically, they also reduce your helmet’s ability to shield your head from the sun’s radiant heat. Your head is the body part closest to the sun, so it absorbs the most heat from the sun on a sunny day. A standard baseball cap has tiny vent holes and shields 80% of radiant heat. Bicycle helmets have larger vent holes, so they shield 50-70% of the radiant heat. By extension, riding helmets probably shield somewhere between 50% and 80% of radiant heat, depending on the helmet style.

Researchers have found that humans make measurably better decisions and are more productive when they feel thermally comfortable – in other words, when they are the “right” temperature. For most people, the “right” temperature is somewhere between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. In a business setting, researchers found that when they made office workers in a Florida insurance company a more comfortable temperature typing errors went down by 40% and the volume of typing went up by 150%. And, these workers were in the safety of their own desks. When you are on a 1,000-plus pound animal with a mind of its own, you clearly want to be as close to the right temperature as you can be.

One of the key determinants in whether you feel the “right” temperature is whether your head is comfortable. Consequently, you want your helmet to have the “right” amount of ventilation – whatever that is based on the range of temperatures you find most comfortable, the weather conditions you ride in and how long and hard you ride.

What to Do With an Old Helmet

As Part 1 of Craniology illustrated, equestrian helmets need to be replaced after an impact even if the helmet shell looks good as new. Consequently, if you fall and your helmet just might, maybe, could have hit the ground, a jump, the wall of the indoor, your horse or anything else, it needs to be replaced.

If you purchased your helmet within the past four years, check to see whether the helmet brand offers an “accident replacement” program for used helmets. If so, the brand may offer a reduced price on a new helmet, and may use the helmet you fell in to study how well their helmets perform in real life falls and how to make future helmets better.

Some brands rely on retailers to facilitate helmet returns while other brands want you to work directly with them on the replacement. Note that in many instances, helmet brands either want you to have registered the helmet with them or the helmet needs to be accompanied by a sales receipt. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t have any sales receipts that are three months old, much less three years old. If you are like me, be sure to register your helmet when you buy it.)

If you are not returning your helmet under an accident replacement program, you need to dispose of the old helmet. The outer shell is probably made of plastic which may be mixed with other materials. The inner foam liner is probably made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), another type of plastic related to Styrofoam. The padding, harness and fastening clip may all be other types of plastic, or they may include leather or other materials. In some helmets, the cushioned liner that is closest to your head comes out for washing, and that is the only part of the helmet that is likely to be easy to disassemble.

Therefore, unless you live in a “zero-waste” city like Boulder, CO that offers special recycling options, it is hard to find a better place to put an old helmet than your trash can. Plastic does not decompose, so the problem with putting an old helmet in the trash is that it will end up sitting in a landfill for at least decades, and probably for centuries.

Hopefully, helmet brands will start offering helmets that have a second life or an entrepreneur will come up a wonderful, new use for old helmets. Giro currently offers the first bike helmet that is made of plant-based foam called expanded polylactic acid or E-PLA and a (at least theoretically) recyclable plastic outer shell. The market for bio-plastics is growing at 20% per year; so hopefully, the Giro bike helmet represents the very beginning of what will become a trend toward “circular economy” helmets that can be disassembled and composted, repaired or serve as sources of material for other products.

Helmet Trends for the Future

While the helmet you are wearing today does not safeguard against concussions or other traumatic brain injuries, it is likely that a future generation of helmets will offer that protection. A significant amount of investment is being made in R&D for traumatic brain injury prevention, and new, improved helmet technology is likely to follow.

A helmet that contains the Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) is likely to be the first equestrian helmet that claims to reduce the risk of TBI. The theory behind the system is that angled impacts cause the brain to rotate and the rotation causes concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. The technology aims to redirect and spread out brain rotation by inserting a very thin layer of low friction material between the outer shell and the inner lining of the helmet. This thin, low friction layer provides a small amount of additional movement when the helmet experiences an angled impact. MIPS AB, an affiliate of Bell Helmets, owns the technology and licenses it to helmet brands in the same way Intel provides its technologies to PC makers as “Intel Inside.”

MIPS is the hot, new technology in U.S. snow sports and bicycle helmets, and it must be stimulating sales because the number of snow sports and bicycle helmets containing MIPS is mushrooming rapidly. In Europe, the Back on Track EQ3 equestrian helmet contains MIPS. (The Back on Track EQ3 is not ASTM certified and does not appear to be available in the U.S.) Consequently, MIPS equestrian helmets will probably be on the market in the U.S. within the next few years.

Although, MIPS is the hot, new thing in helmet technology, not everyone is buying its benefits. In particular, the non-profit, consumer-funded Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute is not a big fan of the MIPS helmets it has seen. When MIPS equestrian helmets become available in the U.S., if you are considering one, you may want to read the most recent Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute review of MIPS bike helmets and examine how the MIPS layer is added to the riding helmet you are considering. (A number of helmet brands such as GPA, KASK and Uvex make bicycle and snow sports helmets as well as riding helmets, and the materials and manufacturing processes for bike, snow sports and riding helmets are relatively similar.)

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute reviews all the new bike helmets that come out each year, so it should have up-to-date information on the state of the technology when equestrian MIPS helmets arrive in the U.S. Today, the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute’s issues with MIPS helmets are that the effectiveness of the technology has not been proven, the MIPS layer in many helmets only covers a small area and may not actually slide as it is supposed to, and the back of some helmets have a large area without a foam liner, leaving part of the bicyclist’s head less well protected than by non-MIPS helmets.

Other technologies that help prevent TBI are likely to be available in equestrian helmets in the future. At least some of these helmets may use R&D created as part of the Head Health Challenge. The Head Health Challenge is the National Football League’s competition aimed at developing new materials and techniques for preventing concussions and other head injuries. Charles Owen (a leading British equestrian helmet brand) is participating in one of the partnerships funded through the Head Health Challenge.

The Bottom Line

Helmets are a very important piece of equestrian safety equipment. Since helmets influence how warm or cold your head feels, they influence whether you are feel comfortable enough to deliver your optimal performance.

The benefit of vents is that they increase air flow which can help keep your head comfortable on a hot day. The negative aspects of vents are that they reduce your protection from sharp objects and they may reduce the amount of radiant heat the helmet shields. Helmets come with a variety of ventilation designs. The best ventilation design is one that fits your personal thermal comfort zone and riding situation. If you have a vented helmet and want it to work effectively, keep the vents unobstructed by hair or a heavy helmet cover.

If you fall in your helmet, it needs to be replaced. Some of the helmet brands offer accident replacement programs, so if you purchased your helmet within the past four years, it is worthwhile to check. Only registered helmets or those accompanied by a sales receipt are eligible for some accident replacement programs. Be sure to register your helmet when you buy it.

Wearing a helmet can protect your head against sharp objects and skull fractures, but as of today, it will not protect you against a concussion or other traumatic brain injury. New helmet designs that can provide protection against concussions and other TBIs are likely to be coming. The first design that is likely to be marketed to provide protection against TBIs is a MIPS helmet.

A growing number of MIPS helmets are available for snow sports and skiing, and the first riding helmet with MIPS is available in Europe. Not everyone is a fan of MIPS, so if you are interested in a MIPS helmet once they are available, do some research to ensure a MIPS helmet will provide better protection than the one you are wearing. Other technologies to protect against TBIs are likely to be developed. Some of them may come out of the Head Health Challenge.

Helmets do not protect your head against the full range of head injuries, so even when wearing a helmet, it is important to ride following the same practices you learned in drivers’ education class (adapted for horses, of course):

  • Plan ahead for the unexpected
  • Ride a horse whose speed and direction you can control (OK, at least most of the time)
  • Be prepared to respond to other riders, horses and other animals you may encounter
  • Do not expect other horses and riders to do what you think they should do
  • Respect other horses and riders that are sharing your space
  • Be aware of footing and weather conditions, especially when they are changing, and respond accordingly
  • Be alert and avoid distractions such as texting, eating, and watching videos while mounted.

Wear your helmet, replace it if you fall, practice safe riding, and Go Eventing!

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