A study has fuelled discussion on whether technology to help absorb rotational forces should be incorporated into riding helmets.

Insurance firm Folksam analysed helmets available in Sweden and tested them in right-angled and slanted impacts, running a computer model to measure rotational forces around three points.

They claimed the capacity to absorb rotational energy — said to be a major contributor to brain injury — “varies widely” among manufacturers and argued a test for this should become part of “legal helmet requirements”.

The study favoured the EQ3 and EQ3 Lynx helmets from Swedish firm Back on Track, the only ones to use the Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) — a patented technology, also developed in Sweden. The technology is widely available in cycling and skiing helmets, but has so far made little impact on the equestrian market.

Folksam’s tests claimed the EQ3 Lynx MIPS helmet performed “30% above average”, with the EQ3 MIPS and Charles Owen’s leather-look Ayr 8 collecting the runner-up spots as “good choice” hats in the study.

Folksam argued that, overall, the results showed the industry should do more to design hats to “absorb energy more effectively”.

“The initial objective of helmet standards was to prevent life-threatening injuries but, with the knowledge of today, [they] should preferably also prevent brain injuries resulting in long-term consequences,” the report said.

Back on Track founder Erland Beselin was the first to release equestrian helmets with MIPS.

“I cannot understand why the healthcare system is not tremendously interested in this field,” he said.

Riders though, he noted, had demonstrated a lukewarm response to the technology.

“People are not heavily into safety — they think it’s good it exists, but they will still select the fashion helmet,” he said.

“The change will come from better understanding of what head injury means for you; there could be enough difference with MIPS to prevent serious damage.

“If you want the fashion helmet competing that’s fine — but ride in the other helmet at home.”

‘Unfair bias’

Some experts have argued that the Folksam study is unfairly biased towards rotational impacts, as the equations it used doubled the significance of this in testing.

It did not use a test headform with a “scalp” — the method the human body has already evolved to reduce rotational forces to the skull, or take into account the full spectrum of forces riding helmets need to cater for, including penetrative and crush impacts.

Others have disagreed with the insinuation that only MIPS protects well against concussion.

“Most people don’t understand standards, which work as a combination of different tests to replicate different kinds of accidents,” explained Claire Williams of the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA).

“A hat with great mechanical strength will be rigid, which is great if you fall off and a horse lands on top of you but, if all hats had very rigid shells, a kick might go straight through. When people ask what’s the safest hat, I say, ‘What type of accident are you going to have?’”

A European standard for testing rotational forces is, however, already in the pipeline, and discussions to formulate one have been rumbling for some time in a committee called Working Group 11 (WG11).

Charles Owen director Roy Burek, who sits on WG11, said finding a test that is repeatable and accurate, given the variables, has proved challenging. It is hoped a standard will be finalised for vote within 18 months.

“We’re fairly confident we know how to get a similar, repeatable result using low-cost equipment that doesn’t add too much cost on testing,” he said. “It comes down to criteria; all the papers show when correlating with injuries, linear and rotational kinematics both matter and it’s important how they’re combined to come up with pass/fail criteria.”

New products

Although it is hesitant over the real significance of MIPS as a technology, Charles Owen announced last week it is working on a jockey skull, a jumping/dressage hat and a wide brim that will all be available in January, adding to its MIPS range for polo. The company has had the licence to use the system for two years.

“When [hat standard] SNELL came in it was really good at helping develop helmets that were more protective when a horse fell,” Mr Burek said. “It’s similar with MIPS, which will aid in situations where the scalp is not able to absorb the severity of the blow — but you need to have it inside a good helmet to start with.”

“MIPS has poured a lot of money into education, but of course there are engineering solutions out there that do similar. We’ve got a patented technology within this area of dealing with tangential forces, but all these things add cost. You need the right support from the consumer.”

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Mr Burek said discussing MIPS will “help move technology forward”, adding: “I just don’t know how much reduction in injury we’re going to see within the equestrian world. We are quite different to motorcyclists going at high speed, who hit [grippy] road surfaces, rather than grass.”

Champion brand director Helen Riley, whose hats were not included in the study, said: “Anything that promotes discussion is good”.

“This report is very interesting, however until WG11’s work is complete and the test houses implement the recommendations, as well as update their test rigs to be able to test rotational forces, manufacturers are unable to demonstrate that their technologies work,” she said.

“Ultimately, hat standards will need to be written with rotational impact as an additional performance requirement. There are products in the market which protect against rotational forces, however this cannot be substantiated until we can officially test against this criteria.

“In the mean time, all manufacturers are able to do is make hats which protect against multiple impact scenarios and hope when a rider has an impact, it is right for that kind of impact. Hat manufacturers make hats which are good all-rounders which have stability and can cope with crush, penetration and flat impacts as well.”

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