four equestrians wearing various colors of horse riding helmets

Everything You Need to Know about Horse Riding Helmets


Are you getting ready for your first ever riding lesson? Or just looking for more information on helmet shopping before your next competition? Whatever you need, you’ve come to the right place! We’ve attempted to answer all of the most common questions about horseback riding helmets in one single article. Whether you need to know the best way to clean a helmet liner, how to check if your helmet fits, or are curious to know how horse riding helmets are made, we’ve got the answers right here. 

Why Wearing a Horseback Riding Helmet is Important

Horseback riding helmets can be a controversial topic depending on what type of riding you do and what level you ride at. Many equestrians believe that if you’re riding on a steady horse and you’re a good rider, you won’t need one. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. There’s a reason professional riders and trainers wear a helmet and often a safety vest too. Any horse can spook at a strange object or in a stressful situation. Even Olympic riders fall off and sustain serious injuries, and they’re some of the world’s top equestrians.  

Horseback riding is an inherently dangerous sport. The statistics about horse riding injuries are eye-opening. A  2016 study that analyzed data from the National Trauma Databank between 2003 and 2012 found that 45.2 percent of traumatic brain injuries were related to horse back riding. This percentage dwarfed all other causes of concussions and brain injuries, including the often-criticized contact sport of football. 

Traumatic brain injuries can be life-changing and even fatal. Recovery can take months and many equestrians never fully heal.  Signs of a concussion include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Problems with balance
  • Glazed look in the eyes
  • Amnesia
  • Delayed response to questions
  • Forgetting an instruction, confusion about an assignment or position, or confusion of the game, score, or opponent
  • Inappropriate crying
  • Inappropriate laughter
  • Vomiting

Unfortunately, these symptoms are only the tip of the iceberg. Traumatic brain injuries can have  long-lasting impacts on the patient. These include sleep disorders, emotional changes, mental health problems, neurodegenerative diseases, and seizures. It can take years to re-learn how to function as well as prior to the injury and some of the symptoms may be permanent.  

Luckily, there are many ways we can keep ourselves safe on horseback. Taking lessons and learning how to ride safely is a great place to start. There are also organizations like  Landsafe Equestrian that specialize in teaching riders how to safely fall off a horse. But at the end of the day, wearing a horse riding helmet is the best way to avoid becoming just another statistic and prevent traumatic brain injuries. 

For more information on how equestrian helmets protect you from traumatic brain injuries, see  this blog

How Horse Riding Helmets Work

Charles owen how horse riding helmets are made

Horseback riding helmets are specifically designed to protect your head when falling off of a horse. They should not be substituted for helmets designed for other uses, like bicycle helmets or motorcycle-style skullcaps. 

Since different brands may manufacture helmets in different ways, let’s focus in on a  Charles Owen helmet to find out exactly what’s inside. The outermost layer, known as the finish, is what you see when you look at a helmet. Made out of velvet, suede, leather, or plastic, the finish makes equestrian helmets beautiful and refined. This layer covers a hard fiberglass shell that is curved to spread the impact of a fall over a wider surface area and prevent skull fractures. 

Next we get to a layer of Expanded Polystyrene, also called EPS. This material is made out of microscopic beads that are placed in a mold and expanded with steam and pressure. When the helmet hits the ground, these beads burst in order to absorb and dissipate energy from an impact. This is why it’s so important to replace a helmet after it hits the ground, even if the outer shell looks okay. The EPS beads could have burst, leaving you with less protection the next time you fall off.

The innermost layer of a horseback riding helmet is the liner or headband that adds comfort and moisture-absorption. The liner also has the important safety function of allowing your horse riding helmet to slide slightly across the skull and reduce the forces that could cause brain shear. 

Let’s compare this to the materials used to make a bicycle helmet. While some very expensive helmets may use higher quality materials, the standard  bike helmet found in most US households does not match the quality of materials used in horse riding helmets. Most bike helmets are molded out of EPS and covered in a layer of PET, which is the same thin plastic used to make water bottles. The helmet will be reinforced with either nylon or metal buried in the foam. These helmets are lightweight, airy and not nearly rugged enough to protect your head when you fall off a horse.  

Which Horseback Riding Helmet is Safest?

So, now we know why a bicycle helmet isn’t safe to wear while horseback riding. But which horse riding helmet is the safest? This is a more complicated question than it sounds as it depends on what type of riding you’re doing, if you’re competing, and how different brands fit. All of the helmets that we sell on are safe, but you can start to narrow down which one is safest specifically for you by starting with  this blog which will walk you through the best helmets for different disciplines. 

There are several different organizations that regulate the safety of horse riding helmets. These organizations include the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI), the British Standards Institute (BSI), the Standards Australia International (SAI), the European Union Commission, and the Snell Memorial Foundation.

Each of these organizations have different standards and tests for helmet safety, which are marked on the labels with the initials of that specific organization and the standards the helmet meets. For example, our IRH XLT helmet meets or exceeds ASTM F1163-15 standards, which is to say that it meets or exceeds the criteria specific to horse riding helmets set by the American Society for Testing and Materials.  

Some helmets are dual or triple-rated and have passed safety expectations set by multiple different organizations. For example, nearly all Charles Owen horseback riding helmets are triple-certified to PAS015, VG1 and ASTM F1163-15. The PAS015 was the standard developed by the BSI and must be met for all horse riding helmets manufactured and worn in Britain. VG1 01.040 2014-12 is the newest standard developed by the European Union and was created based on criteria set by the BSI. While ASTM is an American organization, these standards have been adopted by Canada and Mexico as well. Because Charles Owen helmets are triple certified, they can be worn in the European Union, America, Canada, Mexico, and Great Britain. 

When competing, the majority of horse shows, particularly international competitions, will require equestrians to wear a helmet that meets the standards of the local regulatory organization. For example, equestrians riding in the United States must wear a helmet that meets ASTM standards at minimum. 

All of these standards ensure that helmet manufacturers are creating safe and effective products. No one standard is considered safer than another. However, if you’re determined to find the safest helmet, consider searching for one that is certified to multiple different regulations. This means that the manufacturer will have had to meet a wider variety of requirements, instead of just conforming to the standards of one organization.

Fit Comes First!

western horse riding helmet girl on white horse

The safest horse riding helmet is the one that fits you the best. Accidents can happen with poorly-fitted helmets. Imagine riding a cross country course or show jumping round with a helmet that’s just a little too big for your head. Your horse leaves out a stride before a fence and you get left behind. On landing, your head snaps forward and your too-loose helmet slides over your eyes. In a sport like show jumping or cross country, you and your horse are traveling at a fast pace. You need to be able to see in order to react and prevent an even more dangerous accident. If you’re unable to pull up your horse, you could wind up blindly crashing. 

Alternatively, a helmet that’s too tight can also be dangerous. If it’s too small it may not fully encapsulate your head and instead will sit up too high, almost perched on top of your skull. Unfortunately, this reduces its effectiveness and may render it completely ineffective depending on how high up it sits. When your horseback riding helmet sits up too high there is extra space between the very top of your head and the upper crown of the helmet. If you fall off with your helmet like this, your head won’t be cushioned but will instead have room to slam into the inner wall of the helmet itself. A helmet that is too small for your head can also be extremely uncomfortable. You may find that it pinches at either the front or back or on the sides, causing headaches and taking your concentration away from your ride. 

Many equestrians fall prey to the common misconception that helmets are roughly the same round or oval shape and that as long as you know your head size, any brand helmet in that size will fit you. Unfortunately, fitting a helmet is a bit more complicated than that. A size 7 Troxel helmet will fit very differently from a size 7 in an IRH or Charles Owen. This is because each brand has a different mold to fit differently shaped heads. Just as every person has a particularly shaped body, we all have unique head shapes as well. One person may love the more oval shape of Charles Owen helmets and find that it fits snugly, without compressing the forehead or back of the head. Others may feel more comfortable in the round shape of a Troxel helmet. 

As we age our bodies grow and change. After all, very few people wear the same size jeans at the age of 50 as we did in high school. Our heads grow and  change in size as well, just like the rest of us. Just because a Troxel helmet fit you when you were growing up doesn’t mean that you will always wear a Troxel brand helmet. For that reason, it’s important to regularly check the fit of your current helmet and have your helmet fitted every time you buy one. 

To check the fit of your helmet, start by evaluating where it sits on your head. A good rule of thumb is that the front should sit no more than one to two fingers above your eyebrows. This ensures that it is not sitting too high or too low on your head and is fully encapsulating the skull. Don’t cheat by pulling it forwards or backwards. Make sure that the back of the helmet covers the base of your skull and sits above your neck. 

If your helmet is sitting in the right spot on your forehead, it’s time to check if the shape of the helmet molds to the outline of your head. To do this, run your finger just to the inside of the liner along the inner edge of the helmet. Are there particular areas that feel snug or loose? You may feel some extra space at the very back of the helmet. Don’t be alarmed-- this is due to the convex nature of your skull where it meets your neck and is normal. If you feel a lot of room at the front and back of the head, but can barely get your fingers around the sides of the head, then the helmet is probably too oval and you may benefit from trying a helmet like the  Charles Owen Round JR8

On the other hand, if you feel a lot of space at the sides of the head and it seems to pinch at the front and back of the head, then it’s probably too round. You may want to try a more oval-shaped brand. Brands like this include all non-round specific Charles Owen helmets, as well as IRH. 

When buying a new helmet, it’s important to consider how you’ll be wearing your hair while riding, both at home and at competitions. Putting your hair up underneath your horse riding helmet has recently become  controversial as some believe that it adds space between the skull and helmet and reduces its efficacy. The slippery hair can cause the helmet to be less secure on the head and move if the rider is jolted. 

However, many English riding disciplines still require hair to be worn up underneath the helmet, such as at hunter/jumper shows. If you think you’ll be competing with your hair worn tucked up beneath your horse riding helmet, it’s important to be fitted with your hair up, not down. You may have to go up a size or change to an oval-shaped helmet in order to accommodate your hair, particularly if you have very voluminous or long hair. 

Which Horseback Riding Helmet Should You Choose?

western horseback riding helmets red and white paint horse running after barrels

Helmet shopping can be a lot of fun. At, we carry a wide variety of helmets in different colors, shapes, and styles to accommodate your riding helmet wishes. Helmet manufacturers have become much more creative than a few decades ago, when the material available was velvet and the color choices were between black and brown. Now, there are  glossy helmets with gold vents, navy blue and rose gold helmets, and helmets with designs such as  dreamcatchers on the sides. 

But with this many options, how do you know  which helmet is right for you? Choosing a helmet is a personal choice based on a variety of factors. Many equestrians pick a helmet depending on what discipline they ride in. For example, fox hunters require very traditional black velvet helmets while dressage riders can have some bling, like gold accents. As horseback riding helmets have become more popular at rodeos, Western riders can now choose their favorite Western-inspired design. 

For more information on Western riding helmets, check out our blog.

Other equestrians make the choice based on comfort, instead of its appearance in the show ring. Some helmets have a lot of venting, like the  TuffRider Starter Horse Riding Safety Helmet. A number of helmets feature  wide brims that provide more protection from the sun and rain, making them a popular choice for trail riders or those who ride outside the majority of the time. 

Remember to prioritize these three things when shopping for a horse riding helmet:

  1. Fit! The safest and most comfortable helmet is the one that fits you the best. 
  2. Competition rules. Keep in mind the rules regarding your show outfit when choosing a helmet. You don’t want to buy one and find out you can’t wear it at your next show.
  3. Your personality. Have some fun with your helmets-- or don’t! Whatever you prefer, choose a helmet that makes you happy and showcases your style.

Still can’t decide? Maybe  this blog will help. 

I Just Bought My First Helmet… Now What?

helmet bag for horse riding helmets

Congratulations on buying your very first helmet! You want to make sure you take excellent care of it. Remember, this is what’s protecting you from concussions and traumatic brain injuries. Be mindful of how you treat it. If you drive back and forth from your barn, it can be tempting to leave your helmet in your car. It’s super easy and convenient and you know you’ll always have it on hand for lessons and ride time. But subjecting a helmet to the extreme temperature changes that take place in a car can greatly  shorten its lifespan. Instead, keep your helmet at your house or in your barn locker.

Clean your helmet regularly by removing the liner and throwing it in the washing machine. If your liner is not removable, clean it using a helmet-specific cleaner and deodorizer. It’s important to wash the liner regularly as a build-up of sweat, makeup, and dirt can break down the liner and significantly shorten its lifespan. Not to mention that a dirty cloth pressed against your head could irritate your skin.

Anytime you fall off a horse, the EPS that provides cushioning and impact absorption inside your helmet will break down. Unfortunately, the microscopic beads that make up the EPS will burst on any impact, even if you aren’t wearing your helmet. If your helmet drops on the floor, falls off a table, or is laid on the ground and accidentally kicked by a horse walking by, you should replace it. Every impact, no matter the source, reduces its ability to effectively and safely protect you in the event of a fall. Think of your helmet as a pet or child. Clean it regularly, don’t drop it, and don’t leave it in a hot car. 

After buying your horseback riding helmet, there are several  equine helmet accessories that we recommend purchasing. A helmet bag makes it easy and convenient to carry your helmet from place to place. The cushioned inside protects the helmet from damage and keeps it clean. There are several different color options and patterns, so you can match your equestrian style with ease. Just like a purse, make your  helmet bag part of your barn outfit. 

If you want to keep your helmet fresh for competition without buying a second one, a cover is a great idea. Flexible spandex covers fit snugly over top of your helmet and protect it from sun damage, dirt, dust, and scratches. Some covers even have flexible peaks to provide sun protection for your eyes and face without compromising the safety of the helmet. Speaking of sun, if you live in an area that’s hot all year round or has humid summers, you might want to check out the  TuffRider CoolMax helmet liner. This moisture-wicking liner keeps your head cool and dry while you ride. 

For more of our equine helmet accessory recommendations,  check out our blog on the subject.

Have More Questions About Helmets? We Can Help. 

At, we pride ourselves on being your go-to website for good quality, sensible helmets that are designed to keep you safe. With business origins in 1992, our long-standing reputation of manufacturing innovative and economical products has expanded across a wide range of equestrian apparel, including helmets. That’s why we offer brands like Charles Owen, TuffRider, Troxel, and IRH. We believe that these helmets help our customers enjoy their horses safely.

If you didn’t find the answer to your horseback riding helmet questions in this article, chat with a knowledgeable rider right now via the message box in the lower right hand corner. 

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