Wearable Helmet Tech Could Improve Horseback Rider Safety

A new sensor cap designed just for helmet wearers is giving feedback that could not only improve fit but also lead to better diagnostics and treatment when riders fall.
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Wearable Helmet Tech Could Improve Horseback Rider Safety
This cap designed by researchers at Western Michigan University has 16 pressure sensors that provide a “map” of pressure across the head under a riding helmet. | Photo Courtesy Dr. Massood Z. Atashbar
You’ve heard of pressure mats for your horse’s back under a saddle. But what about a pressure “mat” for your head? Riders get lots of pressure—and sometimes, not enough—under their helmets. A new sensor cap designed just for helmet wearers is giving feedback that could not only improve fit but also lead to better diagnostics and treatment when riders fall.

“There are millions of concussions every year (in a variety of sports), and many of these people were wearing helmets,” said Massood Z. Atashbar, PhD, director of the Center for Advanced Smart Sensors and Structures in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo. “We hope our device can have a positive impact by saving lives and improving quality of life (for injured athletes).”

Their device is a soft, flexible, sensor-filled cap that riders can wear under their helmets. Developed by Atashbar and his colleagues, the cap includes 16 pressure sensors that provide a “map” of pressure across the head under the helmet. The goal, he said, was twofold: increase the protective quality of helmets by helping improve fit, and in the event of accidents guide medical personnel to precise details about the head injury.

“The main objective of wearing a helmet is to protect the head, mainly by absorbing shock,” Atashbar said. “But if the helmet doesn’t fit properly, especially if it’s too loose, then it can’t do the job right. The problem is a lot of people don’t like a fit helmet; they want it loose.”

People shouldn’t wear helmets that are too tight either, though. What they need, he said, is a helmet that fits their heads (much like horses need a saddle that fits their backs)—but it’s not always easy to figure out how.

“That’s why we started to work on this,” Atashbar told The Horse. Over the past three years, he and his team, co-led by doctoral student Simin Masihi, developed a 1-millimeter-thick cap packed full of valuable—and highly informative—pressure technology. “It can pinpoint which areas of the helmet are loose, where you need more cushioning or more inflated shock absorbers to get a proper fit,” he said.

Available in three sizes, the cap could be useful in tack shops to help people select their helmets, said Atashbar. Better yet, riders could have their own cap to monitor fit as children grow or helmet cushions change shape over time.

But getting the right fit is only half of what the cap can do, he said. Ideally, riders should wear the cap under their helmets every time they ride. If they fall, the pressure sensors would pick up critical details about the blow to the head, which could provide important information to doctors caring for the rider.

“The cap would provide data about the force of impact, the direction it came from, what part of the head was hit, and whether the head was tilted backward or to the side,” said Atashbar. Knowing how a rider falls and how they hit their head can help doctors know how to approach treatment and what to look for. But falls are rarely filmed in a way that’s useful for medical staff, and patients—especially with head injuries—usually can’t remember what happened well enough to explain it.

The current prototype includes a small wire coming out of the back of the cap, allowing for real-time communication with a mobile app. Future versions, which will likely include a variety of fashionable color choices, will have the wire embedded into the cap, said Atashbar. The researchers hope to have a commercial product available on U.S. markets within a year.


Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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