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?
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.