Part 2: Dr. Barry Miller Answers More Of Your Questions About Helmet Ratings

The Chronicle of the Horse

December 13, 2022

Welcome to Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Barry Miller, director of outreach and business development for the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, answering some of readers’ biggest questions about the Helmet Lab’s equestrian helmet ratings released last week.
Our interview covered a lot of ground, so we’ve divided it up over two days. Today, Dr. Miller answers questions about helmet fit, the correlation (or lack thereof) between price and quality, concussions sustained in high- versus low-energy falls, and the most important factors to consider when shopping for your next helmet. Click here to read Part 1, where we discussed how to interpret the scores, get answers to commonly asked questions about the Helmet Lab’s testing protocols, and get Miller’s take on why helmets with MIPS technology performed the way they did.
One interesting observation from the ratings was that helmet cost and helmet efficacy seemed to have little relation to each other—of the only two helmets to receive five-star rankings, one retails at $460 and the other at $58, a dynamic seen throughout your ranking list. Is this something you can shed light on?
We see that in ratings for all of the sports we cover. Price doesn’t always dictate performance. Helmet design, geometry, structure, materials can all make a difference. I would also say, the certifications a given helmet had to pass will make a difference—if it had to pass a crush test or a penetration test [for Snell certification, for example]. Our ratings may be dictated somewhat on the number of certifications or the type of testing it was certified for.
The cheap helmet, maybe it passed ASTM only, [a certification that] doesn’t have some of the other pulsing components that others do. Even though it performed well, it may not be the most durable helmet.
Riders generally are told that they should replace their helmet after a fall, and they assume riding helmets are designed to sustain just one major impact. How did your testing processes account for this? What’s the best policy for riders to follow after falls?
One helmet is hit front, back, side, at low energy. The next helmet, front, back, side, at high energy. So each helmet is only hit one time in any given location at any given energy level. But we do the tests twice, which is why we needed four of each helmet.
[A helmet should be replaced after] a major impact or a significant impact. If you drop a helmet off of a chair or something, you don’t need to replace it. We’re talking significant impact energy and obvious helmet damage, because we just don’t know how it would perform [after such an impact]. It may be OK, but it would depend on where you hit your head. If it had a crack down the front, and you hit the back of your head, it probably wouldn’t matter. But you don’t know where you’re going to fall and hit your head.
You’ve mentioned previously that falls in equestrian sport happen in different situations—from a high-energy fall while galloping cross-country to a low-energy tumble taken when you grab the neck while coming off at the walk—and the test results show how each helmet performed in both a low- and high-impact energy situation. How can riders use this information and your ratings to find the helmet best for their specific sport?
If they want to do a deeper dive in helmet performance, we have more specifics [on each helmet on our website]. Obviously looking at the ratings, helmets in the four- and five-star categories probably are the first good step. And then depending on the type of riding that you do, you might do a deeper dive and see how that particular helmet scored with the lower energy versus the higher energy impacts that you are concerned about.
Were there design, material or other commonalities among the top-scoring helmets that caused them to perform as well as they did? Is there information here that helmet owners (or those shopping) can use to extrapolate from the models you did test to apply to those not currently on your list?
We’ll know more as things develop and we do a deeper dive on why certain helmets performed better than others, whether it is geometry, thickness of the shell, technology included, padding densities—is it thick, soft? How much of each? There are a lot of things that affect helmet performance.
Readers have asked about the importance of helmet fit and how well the shape of a given model fits the shape of an individual’s head. Is the best-ranked helmet the best ranked for everyone because of its construction, or how should shoppers balance ratings with fit and feel?
The critical piece is that the helmet stays in place prior to that initial impact. We chose a helmet to fit our NOCSAE (National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment) head form, which was 58 centimeters. But we don’t want to pre-compress any padding—that’s the critical piece. Helmet performance is probably going to be basically the same unless [it is so tight that] you pre-compress padding, or it’s so loose that it doesn’t stay in place. You want it to comfortable enough so that you can wear it, and you don’t want it so tight that it is pressing on your forehead where you get a headache; that it doesn’t decouple [move independently] from your head [in a fall]. You want it to stay in place but comfortably.
We standardize the head form, and we order helmets to fit the head form. We wouldn’t test it if it didn’t have a comfortable tight fit.
The factors to consider [when shopping for a helmet] are:
• What type of riding do you do? What level of protection do you need? Do you need a crush-proof helmet, like a Snell-certified helmet, in case you have a rollover event? Not many helmets have that.
• How often do you use your helmet? Pick a helmet that fits appropriately, that feels like it fits your head well—there’s all different shapes, sizes, hair.
• And then price, depending on how often you ride, when you ride, and type of riding is going to make a difference too. All those go into an informed helmet purchase for any given rider. You may pick a helmet, and I may pick a different one.

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