by Bonnie Navin, Esq.
Wearing a riding helmet is the first step to preventing head injuries when horseback riding, but wearing a properly fitted helmet is even more important.
As a plaintiff attorney, calls to my office have increased from injured equestrians or family members of injured riders. Often they question whether their head injuries are the result of a failed helmet design.
Also a competitive rider, I recently sought to purchase a new helmet, but after the experience, I found I had more questions than answers. I walked in, told the tack shop owner what I wanted — and they pointed me to the wall of helmets.
No one offered to “fit” the helmet for me nor did anyone provide written instructions on the proper fitting. I also found no instructions in the helmet’s box. I was curious to see that an employee was assisting a parent of two children looking for riding helmets. The comments the tack store employee offered really caused me concern.
First, the tack store worker told the mother the helmet should have some “give” so it doesn’t give the child have a headache. Additionally, she said the chin strap rests on the rider’s chin and not underneath. Both tips contradict helmet manufacturer recommendations.
While every helmet may not be designed in the manner it should be, some injuries are the result of the safety device not being worn properly. Pick up an equine magazine or look on the internet and it isn’t hard to find photos of top professionals clearly wearing their helmets incorrectly.
For those who ride with their hair up in a pony-tail and also down – did you know you should own TWO helmets? One helmet cannot fit properly with both hairstyles. An approved riding helmet is designed to fit in a locked manner on your head. It locks in a few different ways.
-The chin strap should allow for one finger width under your chin to the harness.
-The helmet should rest two-finger-widths above your brow.
-Fit the helmet from behind to be sure it is tight across the back of your skull base and neck.
Traumatic brain injuries can lead to damages in the millions of dollars. So who is responsible to ensure an equestrian’s helmet has been correctly fitted? Responsibility first lies with the manufacturer to ensure the helmet has been designed and tested to reduce the amount of damage to the rider. Next, the manufacturer must include either written instructions or a short video to explain how the helmet is to be worn.
The store owner selling the helmet is required to train their staff on how to properly assist their buyers on the proper fitting of the helmet.
Horse trainers and others who hold themselves out as professionals in the industry must ensure their clients are wearing their helmet in the manner in which it is intended. Some trainers see their riders do not wear a properly fitted helmet, but do nothing to correct the situation. Should the rider fall and the helmet either not work or cause further injury, the trainer could be held liable.
Show officials, including stewards, that witness a rider wearing a helmet incorrectly have a duty to counsel the rider to correct the fit. Many show managers hide behind the rider release to release their liability on this topic, however, that is a false sense of security in many instances.
Like any other piece of riding equipment, adult riders and the parents of young equestrians have the responsibility to understand how helmets should be worn.
Even if you haven’t had a fall, but your helmet is old, it may be time to get a new one. Helmet manufacturers recommend replacing your helmet every 3 to 5 years. For more information regarding your helmet’s specifications go to the manufacturer’s website for additional information.
If you are questioning whether your helmet was improperly designed after a fall with a resulting head injury, be sure you retain the helmet. It is important to package the safety device so no one can adjust or change the helmet.
Do not put the helmet back on your head. How you wore that helmet at the time of the fall will be called into immediate question and having the helmet will assist the review of a possible claim should the design be called into question.