Do Protective Vests Really Work?

Charles Owen Protective Vest

After a rider dies from a rotational fall, one of the top questions is whether protective vests really work. When I first started riding after my accident, I pulled out my Charles Owen protective vest. Sometimes you want to have a little extra padding if you have an unscheduled dismount.

When I started eventing, back in the 1980s, protective vests didn’t exist. They became common in 1994 and mandatory for USEF recognized events in 1996. The original vests were foam and the

Protective vests became required for the cross-country phase of recognized events in 1996. The original style body protectors are still in use today. They are typically made of foam or gel, and they are designed to reduce the energy that could impact internal organs during a fall and reduce the chance of sharp projectiles entering the vests, thereby protecting key areas to the trunk of the body. Manufacturers are not allowed to use “safe” or “safety” when describing the vests, but data shows that wearing this type of vest can help reduce the risk of injury.

In a retrospective analysis, Andres and colleagues looked back at the 718 incidents reported between 2011 and 2017. They found that 91.6% (658) occurred while the individual was mounted on a horse; of those, 25% of riders were wearing a protective vest. The data was statistically insignificant as to whether a rider had a lower incidence of injury while on the flat and jumping in an arena when wearing a protective vest, as these types of riding activities traditionally have a lower associated risk of injury because they do not involve solid obstacles, she said.

Of incidents that occurred when riders were navigating cross-country obstacles, riders had a 56% reduction in the relative risk of injury compared to those not wearing a protective vest.

Andres looked specifically at injuries involving areas covered by a vest, such as the torso, collarbone, shoulders, ribs, chest, and tailbone. Of the 493 reported injuries in which the rider was not wearing a vest, 123 (24.9%) of the injuries were reported to involve the torso. Of the 165 injuries in which the rider was wearing a vest, 29 (17.6%) of the injuries involved the torso, suggesting that wearing body protection can prevent torso injuries. (The United States Pony Club Data)

The newest type of protective vest available is the air vest, which was introduced in 2012. These are lightweight shells with a compressed air cartridge attached to them. A gas canister, connected by a cord to the horse’s saddle, is discharged when the cord is pulled during a fall, inflating the jacket in a matter of seconds.

They deploy if a rider is separated from their horse (usually a fall, but people who dismount without untethering their air vest will also cause it to inflate). There has been a lot of publicity about air vests with many top level riders wearing them and crediting them with saving them from serious injury. In eventing, riders who wear a traditional vest under the air vest because there are situations — for example when the horse and rider fall together — where there isn’t time for the vest to activate. However, when schooling or foxhunting, many people wear only an air vest.

The theory is that air jackets disperse the force of impact in a fall and reduce compression of the chest. The question is, do the air vests offer enough protection? Compared to the traditional protective vests, they come down over the rider’s hips, protecting them from broken hips and pelvic fractures.

But, and this is a big but. There is not a lot of research that shows their efficacy. A 2016 study, was conducted with the help of British Eventing’s national safety officer. Researchers dropped a dead horse on a crash test dummy that was wearing both a body protector and an air vest. They compared the results to when a cadaver was dropped on a dummy with just a body protector. The results were presented at the International Research Council On The Biomechanics Of Injury Conference. The air jacket reduced the probability of a serious chest injury from 94% to 81% in the study. That’s an improvement, but not that significant.

A study published in 2019, Do riders who wear an air jacket in equestrian eventing have reduced
injury risk in falls? A retrospective data analysis revealed that between 2015 and 2017, 1819 riders fell wearing an air jacket and 1486 riders fell while not wearing an air jacket. Nylund categorised the injuries as either ‘no/slight injury’ (3203 riders) or ‘serious/fatal injury’ (102 riders). Statistical analysis of the data showed that the use of an air jacket was significantly associated with serious/fatal injuries in falls. Riders wearing an air jacket had 1.7 times (95%CI 1.14–2.64) increased odds of sustaining a serious or fatal injury in a fall compared to riders not wearing an air jacket.

The study concluded that riders wearing an air jacket were over represented in the percentage of serious or fatal injuries in falls compared to riders who only wore a standard body protector. Further research is needed to understand the reason(s) for this finding. It is recommended that additional data on injury outcomes, rider characteristics and the biomechanics of falls be examined in future analyses, and that air jacket and body protector characteristics be further investigated. The research was published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

What happened to the Woofwear EXO protector?

EXO protective vest
WoofWear’s EXO protective vest created a protective exoskeleton. Unfortunately it is no longer available.

For all the talk about the need to protect riders from crushing injuries, it’s ironic that the only vest on the market that actually delivered on that promise was discontinued for lack of sales. The WoofWear EXO was a high-tech magnesium alloy frame that encompasses the rider’s upper body. Think of it as a “roll cage” for a rider.  The downside to the EXO, and the cause of its demise, was that it was heavy, bulky and difficult to remove (you needed to use an Allen key to undo the shoulder bolts) and not always comfortable. Different designs based on the EXO have been suggested, but so far none of them have come to market.

Maybe with the focus on safety someone will work on developing a vest that is both comfortable and crushproof.

Do you wear a protective vest when you ride? I should probably wear mine more often, not just when I jump cross country. We have a couple of hunt members who wear air vests over their hunt jackets. I haven’t tried that yet but if it’s comfortable then it might be a good idea.

For the record, I’m not going to jump on the air vest bandwagon until it’s proven that they are better than wearing the more traditional vest. Like with a helmet, most of the benefit comes from wearing the one you have, rather than the one you think might be better but don’t own.

4 thoughts on “Do Protective Vests Really Work?

  1. I have an older vest, kevlar I think and have fallen alot. I find it no big deal. I’m happy to have a protective vest and would love an air vest but they are not priced well yet. The idea of 2 layers of cordura (or whatever) for over $400, is really expensive. I know compared to my life cheep but its still price prohibitive here. They also don’t make them in any colors (I ride in hot pink and turquoise) so until I can get a hot pink one, pass. I think it would be good to own one as they are lighter than my older vest. Still expensive!

  2. Last September I attended Aspen Farms CC I don’t know how many stars competition. Two riders were hurt in falls on the cross country events…one quite seriously. I did not see those accidents but I did see a fall. It was wierd. The horse approached a fence, and refused at the very last second, sending his rider catapaulting over his left shoulder. She literally flipped and landed on her feet, unhurt…but then her air vest went POP! with a very loud sound, which spooked the horse, and he reacted by jumping FORWARD, shoving the rider into the solid upright of the jump and knocking her down. She lay there for several minutes, being attended by the medics, who finally picked her up and carried her off. I heard her say, I can’t get up…but it was because of her vest! Once they removed the vest and carried her to the aid tent, they found her unharmed.

    I ride using a Tipperary foam vest. I won’t ride without one, now. Two years ago I fell off of Raven and while I lay on the ground, sorting through my 65 year old bones to see if they were all in one piece (they were) I realized one, I was lucky, two, I didn’t want to push it any further. SO I bought a foam vest and am glad I did. Yes, the statistics stated above might indicate that a vest of any sort cannot protect you from injuries . That seems counter intuitive, but there’s something mechanical going on.

    For something similar, I used to ride motorcycles. I wore a helmet, as it was one, common sense and two, the law. I wore a helmet with a clear plastic face shield, the kind that could be flipped up, but had no lower bar circling the lower jaw and chin. It’s called a full face helmet. Studies of motorcycle accidents showed that riders wearing a wearing a full face helmet had more neck and spine injuries/ deaths because the helmet’s chin bar would catch on something while the rider was sliding face down, and snap a neck just like that.

    Much of the protective gear industry designs their stuff to as low a standard as they can get away with. It costs less. For instance, read the label / booklet that accompanies your helmet. It states, if you drop it, trash it. Motorcycle helmets have a label saying that they will only protect your head in crashes where the speed is no more than FIVE MILES PER HOUR. You can’t ride a motorcycle that slowly!

    But I wear a helmet. Because. And I won’t ride without a vest. Because I have old bones.

    Granted, a vest of any type might not be a significant means of protection, but I think that, given my choice of 100% guarantee of injuries/death without a vest, and 90% guarantee if I do wear one, I’ll take that 10% any day of the week. (the percentages I just typed are just as a means of example).

  3. I have to clarify a sentence about the motorcycle helmet. The type that has a lower bar, the type that full covers the head save for the mouth, nose, etc, is called a full face helmet, NOT the type I had, with just a plastic face shield and no lower bar.

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