Brain displacement of five to seven millimeters – the width of three nickels – can result in impaired brain function, possibly leading to loss of consciousness and/or a concussion.

Stefan Duma, the Harry C. Wyatt Professor of Engineering, director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences and co-founder of the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab, emphasized the importance of protecting the human head as he talked about research findings on horse riders’ helmets at a recent dinner event at the Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center (EMC) in Leesburg, Virginia.

Equestrian sports-related injuries account for 50,000 trips to the emergency room each year – more than any other sport in America.

"We here at the medical center, not only care about our equine patients, we also care about the people that are associated with them and that's why it's a privilege for us to have Stefan to talk to you about some of the research involving helmets and equestrian sports,” Dan Givens, dean of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, said in introducing Duma.

The EMC is one of three teaching hospitals of the veterinary college. “We offer 24-hour emergency treatment and diagnostic services for all ages and breeds of horses,” EMC Director Michael Erskine ’84, DVM ’88, said in preliminary remarks. “We have an exceptional team of equine specialists, and some of our clinicians are here with us today.”

The Virginia Tech Helmet Lab recently published results from a study on equestrian helmet ratings  Forty equestrian helmets were rated using the Helmet Lab’s STAR evaluation system.

“We created this STAR system, what STAR stands for is the summation of tested analysis of risk,” Duma told the dinner’s audience. “If you're going to buy a helmet, you're not going to look at 30 charts or 25 scatter plots and try to sort out what time it was best in what condition to what acceleration. So, we created this equation, which combines all of that. We can do hundreds of laboratory tests, submit everything in the one value. That gives you a single point of how well a helmet performs and you can compare that to other helmets. That's the STAR system.”

A lady trying on an equistrian helmet
Betsy Manierre tries a Duma approved riding helmet on for size. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

The study was made possible with support from equestrian enthusiast and philanthropist Jacqueline Mars and three national equestrian foundations: The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association, the U.S. Equestrian Federation, and the U.S. Eventing Association, who collectively raised more than $425,000 in research funds.

Duma said the Helmet Lab’s next project would focus on equestrian vests, both regular and inflatable, studying effects on the head, neck and thorax, the latter being a “wild, wild West” when it comes to similar research, Duma said.

Duma co-founded the Virginia Tech Helmet Lab in 2007. The lab’s research began with groundbreaking research into football head injuries and helmet engineering but has since expanded to many sports and recreational activities.

“Thank you for allowing us to gather a very special group of equine enthusiasts and leaders in the field,” Givens said. “ As key influencers in the community, you can help raise awareness and improve rider safety with the latest information on helmet ratings and recommendations.”


Written by Kevin Myatt, Writer/Editor for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.


Andrew Mann
Director of Communications and Marketing