With so many different safety vests on the market, it’s hard to know how each of them performs, who needs to wear one, how it’s supposed to fit, and what purpose they serve. Since this is often a common question, especially with new riders, or adults returning to the sport, let’s answer some of those questions.
Let’s face it if you ride horses, you’re going to have a fall at some point. If you’ve been riding long enough you know some falls will leave you giggling at your (or your horse's) foolishness, while others can leave you wondering what you could have done differently and where you went wrong. Sure sometimes it’s the horse’s fault, but most of the time it’s usually rider or communication error that causes an unexpected dismount. There are so many ways equestrians lovingly refer to these “educational moments”. Some fun ones I have used refer to buying real estate, adding some sky-miles to my air amatuer card, or my personal favorite - referring to a naughty green horse - becoming a lawn dart.
Falling off although part of riding is fairly uncommon. As a new rider in weekly lessons as a child, I think I had been riding for nearly 2 years before my first fall. I clearly remember this being my fault for not listening to what my trainer said. Like any sport, the higher the level of competing the higher the risk for injury. As such, equestrian safety vests are being seen more and more frequently on a variety of riders spanning many disciplines.
Also known as body protectors or cross country vests, currently, there are two different styles of safety vests available to riders right now. The classic impact absorption vest & the newer airbag style vest. Both vests are designed to do a similar job at absorbing shock in the event of a fall. Due to the potential of human error with the airbag vest, the only equestrian safety vest approved for competing in cross country is the classic style safety vest with uses a combination of dense foam, tactical materials & ballistic nylon. Notice the paneled styling of the material, this helps the vest move with you while providing maximum protection.
Shown below are styles of classic safety vests from Airowear & USG
The classic impact absorption vest is made up of a variety of materials depending on the manufacturer. The purpose of this style vest is to absorb the impact and concussion to the body in case of a fall. Similar to a bulletproof vest, the material is generally made of a heavy-duty proprietary dense foam. This vest is designed to support and cushion the body on impact, reducing the likelihood of injury to the rider. This style of vest is required for use for the cross-country phase of combined training/eventing.
Alternatively, you may also choose from an “airbag’ style vest. These vests were originally designed for motorcycle riders to provide some protection in the event of an accident. The technology was originally brought to the equestrian industry by Point 2 Air Vests and then improved by Hit-Air Safety Vests. You may wear an airbag vest over top of the classic vest on the cross country if you desire, but at this time the airbag vest may not be worn as a stand-alone when schooling or competing on cross country. Shown below is an example of the Hit Air air vest being worn for protection, worn over a classic style vest galloping cross country and, what it looks like after it has deployed.
These vests are worn at a slightly more relaxed fit than the classic vest and are designed to be worn with a small C02 removable air cartridge embedded in the vest. A coiled lanyard is attached from the vest to the ‘D’ located near your stirrup bar. In the event the rider parts company with the horse, the lanyard will deploy the airbag which inflates in .2 seconds. Upon deployment, the airbag inflates around the rider’s upper body absorbing the impact of the fall. In the original design by Point 2, the airbag forced the air towards the rider which many riders found uncomfortable, often leaving them with the wind knocked out of them. Hit air designed the vest to deploy the air away from the rider, making for a more comfortable experience. Let’s face it, having a fall is rarely a comfortable experience in the best of circumstances. Anything that can make it even slightly less uncomfortable is a no-brainer in my book.
In recent months, airbag style safety vests have also become popular with hunter/jumper riders. Specifically the Helite Zip' In 2 Vest because they are very discrete and can be worn without a hard safety vest underneath. When worn, the vests are minimally noticeable and still give a polished look for the show ring. The airbags deploy outwards for better rider comfort, and when activated gives superior protection to the neck, spine, and ribcage in the event on a fall. This vest can even be worn under a special show jackets that are designed to expand on deployment.
All safety vests are available in sizes for adults and children and are suitable for any style of equestrian riding, most fox hunting organizations prefer that you ask for proper vest protocol in advance. The only discipline that requires a safety vest for riding is the cross country phase of combined training also known as the sport of eventing. Combined training/eventing is a style of riding where you cross-train to compete in 3 different phases of riding, dressage highlighting the horse’s obedience, cross country highlighting the horse’s courage & stamina as well as showjumping which emphasizes accuracy & precision. These events are scored individually and then added together for the winner of each division. The goal is to have the lowest number of penalties. To learn more about this fun action-packed equestrian sport click HERE.
The fit of the vest will vary slightly by style. The classic vest is form-fitted and often uses either laces or heavy-duty velcro in multiple locations to achieve a second skin type fit. From the front, the classic style vest should cover your collarbone down to your first rib. The chest and shoulders should lie flat against your body. You will note the backside of the vest is longer. The rear of the vest should cover the base of your neck down and should stop 2-4” from your saddle when you are seated. If the vest touches your saddle, it is likely too long and will interfere with your ability to ride.
Speaking from my personal experience as a junior here, (long before I knew better). If the bottom of your vest hits the saddle while you are galloping cross country, it can - and will, slide up your back and bump the bottom of your helmet. No big deal right? - It’s a very big deal, as it bumps the bottom of your helmet at the back, it pushes the visor of your helmet down in the front making it difficult ( impossible) to see. Although now just a fun factoid to share, I 10/10 do not recommend this method of discovering your vest does not fit.
The air vest style fits similarly to the classic style covering and protecting the same areas, the only difference being that the air vest is not second-skin tight. It should be tight enough to not be flopping around while you are galloping and jumping
Both styles of the vest are reusable in the event of a fall. The classic vest requires no real maintenance other than making sure it is not ripped or torn and clean for your next event. The airbag style vest will need to be checked for rips or tears & then deflated. Once the air has been removed it can be repacked into the compartments in the vest. This style of vest requires a new C02 cartridge before it can be used again. Each C02 cartridge is good for one deployment. *It should be noted that the cartridges are considered a safety risk for shipping, therefore the cartridges cannot be shipped expedited as they are not permitted in the cargo hold of an airplane.
Care for both types of vests is very similar. Store your vest flat when not in use & avoid exposure to high heat. (like in your horse trailer all summer long) Exposure to extreme heat can compromise the integrity of the shock-absorbing properties in the vest. The classic style vest can be cleaned by simply rinsing in cold water and hang to air dry. Do not put it in the washing machine, dryer or have it dry cleaned. Care of the air vest is a bit simpler, it is machine washable, simply follow the steps on the label and hang to air dry. Do not machine wash or dry your safety vest.
With proper care, your safety vest should last between 5 and 7 years. It is important to check your vest frequently for rips, tears, or wear to maintain optimum protection. Similar to your helmet, manufacturers replacing your safety vest every 5-7 years. After which the integrity of the shock-absorbing materials begins to degrade and will no longer provide optimum impact absorption in the event of a fall.
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