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Charles Owen: A Year In Review

Wednesday 13th January 2016

Charles Owen saw leaps forward in research and the introduction of innovative safety technology in 2015. It was a year of evolving worldwide safety testing standards that the company was more than ready to meet.

Charles Owen also received two significant grants to embark on groundbreaking research into head trauma and how helmets can be made better to prevent even more types of injury. A look back at Charles Owen and Airowear's year in 2015 reveals a continued dedication to blending cutting edge safety technology and distinctive style to align with their mission of creating a safer world for equestrians.

Meeting Safety Standards In A Changing World

In 2015, the European standard of safety helmet testing was withdrawn, causing widespread debate across the industry regarding what might replace existing helmet styles and whether or not organizations would require their members change to the new standard immediately. In Britain alone, approximately 400,000 riders would have been affected had the latter come to pass. While some helmet manufacturers were forced to cease production entirely, Charles Owen was able to continue without breaking stride.

"Charles Owen has always said that we produce helmets to a higher level of safety, and that was borne out by the fact that 24 out of the 25 models that we had in our range automatically met the new safety requirements," said Charles Owen Managing Director Roy Burek. "Any of our riders that had trusted their safety to Charles Owen in prior years were not going to be affected by the rule change because they were not required to upgrade the level of safety of their helmets, because the helmets already had the level of safety built into them."

An ASTM International standard that was initially discussed in 2013 was also implemented at the start of 2016. In the past, ASTM tested helmets under the assumption that all heads weighed the same regardless of size. However, in 2015 the organization subscribed to the same premise that European and British standards have followed for years: that smaller heads weigh less than larger ones.

"So you might say, 'Well, why does that affect helmet design?'" said Burek. "Inside a helmet, we put microscopic bubble wrap, and the strength of those bubbles is dependent on the weight that's going to be falling on those bubbles. So if you have a small head, which is light, then you need to have soft bubbles because if you make the bubbles too strong, the weight doesn't have enough power to burst them. But conversely, for the big helmets, we have to make the helmets stiffer because with a heavy head, the bubbles could burst too easily and then you actually find you run out of protection too soon."

The change in ASTM's standard affected helmets size 6 1/2 and below, and 7 5/8 and above. Since the vast majority of helmets sold fall in between those sizes, the standard change didn't affect the majority of riders. While Charles Owen helmets were still in access of the new requirements in terms of safety, the standards change was a logistical challenge that the company dedicated much of its resources to meeting. However, the complexity of manufacturing helmets to meet the formerly different European and U.S. standards has been eliminated from the manufacturing process.

"Compared with many other companies, we've not had the same nightmare as they've had because our changes were ones of managing our logistics rather than actually re-creating a whole new family of helmets, which for some companies, they had no experience at producing to a higher level," explained Burek.

New Members Of The Charles Owen And Airowear Families

Airowear launched its exciting new AyrVest, the first inflatable body protector in its line. With Advanced UltraFlex™ technology and BETA Level 3 protection, the vest features a far more comprehensive protection in the event of a fall. When inflated, the vest additionally covers the hips and reduces neck motion. 

"It has outward inflation and it's self-adjusting; you haven't got to actually have straps to lock it onto you; it actually adjusts its size. The flexion technology is a patented technology that we've developed which creates a very drape-able interior that follows your body and doesn't create pressure points," said Burek. "I know Phillip Dutton's actually had a horse land on him, and the only place where he got bruised was where the AyrVest wasn't."

The YR8 Sparkly Helmet was launched in 2015.

Charles Owen also introduced their jR8 and YR8 Sparkly Helmets in 2015. Featuring an innovative method of heat-bonding the glitter to its base fabric so that none of the helmet's sparkle would be lost in the daily wear and tear of riding, the helmet was designed to be an affordably glamorous option for riders.

"We felt that this was an opportunity to add some fun into safety for that young teenage group," said Burek. "We saw that some of that teenage group are perhaps a little shy, and so therefore we came out with dark colors, like the black and the navy. Other young teenagers like to be the center of attention, so coming out with a silver glitter, which would replace the tiara that they would normally like to wear in their life, would mean that it was a very highly visible helmet."

That visibility also meant that riders would be safer when hacking on roads, a benefit that has helped to change the minds of parents who would rather their child wear a more traditional helmet.

Taking Steps Forward In Research

Charles Owen also took dynamic steps forward in research, an area that the company has dedicated significant resources and time.

"We'd identified that helmet standards were not progressing far enough to deal with some of the concerns that people now have on mild traumatic brain injuries," said Burek. "Therefore we'd undertaken, a number of years ago, to research into understanding how helmets could be developed to provide protection against more minor injuries."

The company's quest for knowledge of how to take a safe helmet and make it all the more protective resulted in a grant for €3.4 million from the European Commission to the consortium that Charles Owen belongs to. The group hired 13 PhD students to delve into a three-year investigation on head trauma and helmets.

Prior to the start of that research in September of 2015, Charles Owen brought a masters student from the University College Dublin to install their synthetic brain model at Charles Owen so that when new helmets are tested, researchers can analyze the injury done to the brain on a significantly deeper level than the helmet safety standards methods are capable of.

Charles Owen also installed a new helmet test rig in 2015 that can measure not only the direct forces on the brain, but also the tangential forces that can create shearing of the brain. Brain shearing, or diffuse brain injury, is caused when brain tissue rubs against other brain tissue and can result in severe and debilitating lesions. Charles Owen's interest lies in how helmets can reduce brain shearing in the event of a fall, and their newest equipment can show how a helmet performs in six dimensions and, with the incorporation of high-speed video technology, in slow motion.

In recognition of their commitment to understanding the challenges faced by their helmets, Charles Owen was selected as the recipient of the five first-round winners of the Head Challenge III Project, presented by the NFL, GE and Under Armour, which was created to develop the next generation of reactive materials to be used in helmets. The hope is that those materials will be more responsive to the type of fall by performing differently in the event of a soft impact versus a hard one.

"It's actually utilizing the art of origami, which is all about the study of folding and how solids can hinge and fold and compress," explained Burek. Charles Owen has collaborated with Cardiff University (Wales), Cambridge University (UK), and the High Performance Computing Center (Wales), and the research partners will have tangible results to look forward to within the next few years.

"Our mission is to make horseback riding a safe world because we feel that every young person should be able to experience the relationship with a horse and its connection with nature," said Burek. "If parents feel that horse-riding is too dangerous, that will actually prevent them from having that experience. We see many examples of how horses are used to rehabilitate people who come back from war, who are young criminals, and even who are leaders of industry; the horse can help them be better leaders, and to deny that experience to anybody because they feel that horseback riding is too unsafe is a real shame. So these research monies just allow us to continually improve horseback riding's safety record and make the horse much more a central part of everyday society."

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