To wear or not to wear – that is the question. Most of us are actually used to wearing them at home, but what about when we travel? Do we do as the Mongolians, and go without, or lug our own riding hat from home as a dangly carry-on addition? In the end, although we strongly recommend wearing a riding helmet (because really, who can think of a good reason NOT to…), it’s a personal choice. Here are three things to consider when making your decision.
1) The local scene.
No riding helmets in sight. Many Mongolians, in the countryside especially, start riding by the age of 3 and 4. Unlike many in the west, travelling by foot and by horse comes at the same time for Mongolians, with the same comfort level of slow learning, daily practice, and necessity from a young age. Their mounts are also smallish, averaging 13-15 hands, and even the kids who race as jockeys ride bareback – with no helmets.
That said, a lot of this is simply due to lack of availability and a long tradition of strong horsemanship. I’ve seen Mongolians fall off, but…not very often! And Mongolians don’t go in for recreational dangers like jumping. Just yak wrestling and such. With modern times and smart phones has certainly come at least the desire for protection, though – especially on motorbikes, the riskiest and deadliest form of travel on Mongolia’s icy roads. Even here, genuine helmets seem nearly unavailable or prohibitively expensive, and anything from construction hats to bicycle helmets can be seen zooming around, on and off road.
For better or, really, for worse, some of us who have been riding a bit too long with the Mongolians forego the helmet on horseback, at times, as well. For me, it’s not very smart – 2 mild concussions over the years have left me feeling lucky but not very cautious. I suppose I feel some sort of solidarity with my local colleagues and friends, who don’t have access to safety gear outside of our company, and partially I just fear the illusion of safety that a helmet brings; no matter what, not falling off and always being vigilant is the only way to keep your neck, wrist, back intact. But as all riders know, worldwide – everyone falls off sometimes, and everything from the tread on your boot to your rain jacket material and level of dehydration can be crucial factors in keeping you safe, not just the helmet you wear. Even if you’re confident that you rarely get tossed off, a lot can happen while mounting and dismounting your Mongolian steeds out on the steppe – let’s just say they’re not used to standing still! And Mongolians do tend to hop up and gallop off in one smooth move…
So where does that leave us?
2) Availability and safety standards
Although some brilliant entrepreneur (or small trekking company, perhaps) may soon bridge this gap, there are currently very few riding helmets available for sale in Mongolia. I’d actually say…none. I think I saw one velvet beauty in a souvenir shop on the main drag last year, but you could probably ship yours from home for less than that! While everything under the sun is apparently manufactured down in China, it just hasn’t yet found a market in Ulaanbaatar. A few outfits offer rental, but the international safety standards for riding hats don’t make it easy to offer helmets without a serious commitment to quality and oversight.
We care about your safety, so if we are to provide helmets we would like them to adhere to international riding helmet safety standards – that means proper helmets, marked as such, maintained/monitored, and taken out of commission if they’re ever properly tested in a serious accident. Take a look here for the nuts and bolts, but be warned, it involves phrases like “ASTM F1163, Snell E-2001, SEI, and CE VG1.” Good luck!
Check in with us at Zavkhan Trekking (firstname.lastname@example.org or @TrekMongolia on Facebook) or your Mongolian outfitter for current options on rental and buying.
3) Types of Helmets
Beyond safety standards, there are only a few things to know about choosing a helmet to buy, borrow, or rent. No need for showing helmets (those lovely velveteen traditional helmets in formal blacks and browns) but go for any schooling or trail-riding edition that takes your fancy. Choose something comfortable and easy to clean, obviously, as well as well-fitting and adjustable. A good helmet will cost anywhere from $50-100 USD, but it may be a good idea to buy something you can try on in person or return cheaply, if need be. Remember, your brain is worth it! To ensure proper fit, riding helmets come in much more specific sizes than bike helmets! Durable coverings, sun-shade add-ons, and fun colors are a bonus!
And sorry, bicycle helmets absolutely won’t do – apparently, certified horse riding helmets are put through some of the toughest tests for helmets out there, and though bike helmets may pass ASTM standards, they generally do not come up to the SEI, as they are designed to protect impact to the top of the head but not the back. Riding helmets do provide back of the head coverage, as well as height-falling and hoof-impact protection.