The good news is that all riding helmets sold in the US and Canada have to meet certain safety standards, so no matter which one you choose, you know you (or your child) will be protected.
Why wear a Riding Helmet?
Contrary to popular belief, the majority of horse related injuries occur during pleasure rides and not while engaging in higher risk activities such as jumping or racing. Even the calmest, best trained horses or ponies can be unpredictable at times and even the most experienced riders can fall off. One doesn't have to fall far to hit their head with enough force to cause brain damage, paralysis or death. Head injuries are the leading cause of hospitalization and death amongst equestrians.
As a mother, a life long horse enthusiast and nurse, I am well aware of the importance of a well fitted riding helmet. The most common excuse for not wearing a helmet I hear around the barn is "I don't want my hair to get messed up". I also hear "but I'm a good rider" and, my favorite, "my horse never spooks or acts silly."
Well...what would you rather have - messed up hair or a messed up brain? And, as anybody who has been around horses for any length of time knows, ANY horse will spook under the right (or should I say "wrong"?) circumstance. Last week as I was riding my well trained "bomb proof" gelding down a quiet country road, an old muscle car flew past me doing 50 mph. It was bad enough that he left us coughing in his dust, but as he braked then re-accelerated around a corner, his car backfired. To my dismay, it turns out that "bomb proof" is just an expression as Scooter turned into a racing lunatic. He broke into a full gallop as I held on and tried to get control of the situation. Luckily I stayed on...I'm not sure how I did it, but I did. I could have easily ended up on the ground, or worse, it could have happened when one of my daughters was on him.
I was wearing my helmet that day and continue to do so every time I ride. I also insist that my 3 daughters do the same. Just like wearing a seatbelt in the car, it has become a habit for them. They have been riding since they were very young and don't even question it (which is a small miracle as anybody with a teenage daughter would know how important their hair is!).
In order to be confident that your helmet will provide you with the maximum protection, make sure that you purchase one that is ASTM (American Society of Testing and Materials) or SEI (Safety Equipment Institute) approved. There are several companies that manufacture approved riding helmets including Troxel, Ovation, IRH, Charles Owen and Tipperary. Nowadays, helmets come in all styles. I'm afraid that the same can't be said for colors (black is timeless, right?). You should try on several to find one that fits snugly and looks good.
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I wear a Charles Owen because I find that it is comfortable and I like its classic look. All 3 of my daughters wear different helmets but one thing they have in common aside from being ASTM approved is that they fit is adjustable so that they always have a perfect fit. The real benefit of the adjustable strap is that the helmet can grow with them. Your riding helmet should fit snugly and should not pinch or give you a headache but should not wiggle if you shake your head.
You should wear your helmet straight on your head. If the brim is tipped up, your forehead is vulnerable. The chin strap should be comfortably snug and secure.
To care for my helmet, I use both a deodorizer and special cleaner that is made specifically for riding helmets. It is best not to buy a used helmet as you have no way (aside from obvious cracks) if it has been involved in an accident. There can be unseen damage that may make the helmet less effective in the event of another fall. You should also replace your helmet every 4-5 years, regardless of how much you ride. This is important as the protective material within the helmet weakens over time. This is why older helmets don't fit as snugly and lose their effectiveness.
With everything we know about safety today, there really is no reasonable excuse not to wear a riding helmet!