Vested Interest: What Do We Really Know About Body Protectors And Air Vests?

Aug 26, 2019 - 2:05 PM

Equestrian safety vests have been around for 35 years, but according to Robert Leeder, president of Phoenix Performance Products, who owns safety vest pioneering company Tipperary, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

“The entire body protective category is all in 101,” said Leeder. “I don’t mean that to sound like the industry hasn’t advanced, nor have we with our products over the last 35 years, but it’s very difficult, like in any sport.”

Mandatory body protectors for the cross-country phase of eventing are a relatively recent phenomenon. The U.S. Equestrian Federation and U.S. Eventing Association only started recommending them for cross-country in 1994, and they became mandatory in 1996. In 2012, inflatable vests, more commonly known as air vests or air jackets, entered the USEF Rule Book, permitted only when used in conjunction with a traditional body protector in eventing. Air vests aren’t mentioned in other sections of the Rule Book.

So we asked: How safe are body protectors and air vests, and what do they do?

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Body protectors and air vests are ubiquitous in the sport of eventing and are making their way into other equestrian disciplines as well. Arnd Bronkhorst For Arnd.nl Photo

What are the rules for wearing a body protector? Do they need to be approved?

The USEF requires body protectors for cross-country and recommends, but does not require, that they meet the current American Standard for Testing and Materials standard. The Fédération Equestre Internationale only requires body protectors—without specifying any certification—while schooling and competing cross-country. ASTM does not have a standard for air vests.

There are two ASTM standards for body protectors, but sport horse enthusiasts should choose ASTM F1937-04-rated vests. There’s also a standard for racing, F2681-18, which offers less protection but is also lighter—essential for weight-conscious jockeys.

While there are plenty of models of vests on the market, only four—Charles Owen JL9, Ovation Comfort Flex for children, Ovation Comfort Flex for adults and Tipperary Eventer Pro—have been approved by the ASTM.

Still, the ASTM-approved body protectors are among the most popular.

“Five years ago I’d say that 80% [of riders buy] unapproved, but now I’d say it’s more like 10%,” said Roy Burek, the late head of Charles Owen, in an interview in 2018. “It’s been a big sea change.”

The British (BETA) and European (EN) standards are more popular and much more international. There’s not a huge difference between the ASTM, European and BETA standards. SATRA, a European testing house, has developed a standard for air vests, M38, that some vests on the market meet.

What exactly do body protectors protect?

Body protectors are designed to reduce the energy that will impact internal organs during a fall and reduce the chance of sharp projectiles entering the vests. Mindful of lawsuits, companies are careful about not overpromising what a vest can do.

“You cannot say ‘safety’ or the word ‘safe’ when describing the products,” said Leeder. “As in, you can’t say, ‘This [body protector] is safer than another.’ We can’t say, ‘You’re not going to break your ribs with this on.’ We can say that we reduce the impact energy to key areas of the trunk of the body. Those are the magic words.”

Without additional shoulder protection there’s little to help protect the collarbone.

“With air jackets, you can extend the coverage,” said Burek. “Some come down over the hips. Riders land on hips and get pelvic fractures. A body protector won’t address this, but the air vest can come down further.”

The CEO of Point Two Air Vests, Lee Middleton, pointed out that the combination of an air jacket and body protector shields more of the body.

“Traditional body protectors, which are fantastic, have been proven in racing to reduce rib fractures,” he said. “Certain areas, like your tailbone and neck, can’t really have protection from a traditional body protector but they do with an air vest. The two complement each other really well.”

Should you wear an air vest without the body protector?

Eventers must wear a traditional body protector along with an air vest on cross-country, but there’s nothing to stop a jumper or foxhunter from opting to don just an air vest.

“My kids [wear an air vest alone],” said Middleton. “They’re too small to wear two vests; it impedes their riding. The majority of our customers wear them on their own. We have a lot of riders who don’t wear traditional body protectors because they don’t like the restriction, but they’ll wear our air jacket. We have a lot of western riders who do.

“There’s always a chance that the jacket doesn’t go off and you have zero protection, so I’ve always said if you’re a person who normally wears a body protector, wear two,” he continued. “The only time I’d say wear an air jacket on its own is if you never wear a traditional body protector, either because you don’t find it comfortable or you just don’t wear it.”

According to Burek, you need both.

“The way we look at body protectors and air jackets is it’s a bit like a car with seatbelt and airbag,” he said. “When we had airbags put in the car, you didn’t say, ‘Well I’ll just leave my seatbelt off.’ If the air jacket doesn’t go off, if you haven’t changed the cylinder, haven’t adjusted it correctly, you’re in trouble.”

What Does The Science Say About Body Protectors?

Several studies on equestrian body protectors fail to prove they significantly reduce the chance of torso injury in case of a fall. That said, the studies generally didn’t distinguish between types of falls or activity. Someone who dons a safety vest because she’s schooling cross-country may have a better chance of a fall, or a more severe consequence of a fall, than someone who’s riding on the flat.

So in 2018 a group of scientists decided to compare apples to apples, analyzing 718 U.S. Pony Clubs accident reports filed from 2011 to 2017. They determined that wearing protective vests while riding on the flat or for show jumping didn’t correlate with a decrease in injuries, but wearing a body protector for cross-country did demonstrate a correlation and showed a trend toward a lower incident severity level. In fact, wearing a body protector on cross-country reduced the relative risk of injury by 56%. They published their findings in the BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine journal.

As a result of this study, as of Jan. 1, 2019, U.S. Pony Clubs officials amended their policy to require riders jumping solid obstacles or cross-country fences to wear body protectors. Previously USPC didn’t have a safety vest policy, only requiring vests for competition in conjunction with USEA and USEF rules.

“Everyone thinks, ‘Oh the competition rules say I have to wear my vest,’ but people might get lax when they’re schooling,” said Yvette Seger, the USPC Safety Committee chair and one of the authors of the study. “If you’re out schooling, if you’re doing anything at speed, anything with solid obstacles, it’s a pretty good idea to wear your vest.”

What Does The Science Say About Air Vests?

British Eventing’s national safety officer Jonathan Clissold helped with a 2016 study that measured the effectiveness of air vests. Researchers dropped a recently deceased 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.

“It helps slightly, but in a serious crush injury when the horse lands right onto a rider it won’t help,” said Clissold.

“When you come down to physics, when a half-ton horse coming down from height in a serious rotational fall falls onto a human, the chest is going to cave in, basically, whatever you’ve got on around it,” he continued. “And when you look at these falls a few inches either way make a big difference on what injuries we sustain, which is why we concentrate on trying to reduce the rotational falls.”

A 2019 Australian study published in the Journal Of Science And Medicine In Sport set out to investigate the association between injury severity and air vest usage in eventing competition falls between 2015 to 2017, using the FEI competition statistics and reports. They found that riders wearing air vests were over-represented in the percentage of serious or fatal injuries in competition compared to those who just wore a body protector, and they found no evidence that riders who wore an air jacket had a reduced injury outcome in falls.

The data used by the researchers contained falls from all three phases of competition.

“As air jacket usage and also serious injury outcomes are both more likely in cross-country, we suspect that the finding was heavily influenced by cross-country falls,” said Lindsay E. Nylund, one of the study’s authors. “However without further data we don’t know what effect this had on the finding.”

Outside of the study’s limitations—they weren’t able to separate out falls by level or phase—the authors suggested several reasons the falls with air vests have a higher rate of significant injury. One is the possibility that the force needed to deploy air vests alters the fall trajectory—independent testing showed that pull forces associated with triggering air vests to inflate ranged between 150 and 593 Newtons—which could increase the risk of landing closer to the horse. It’s also possible that the way air vests deploy may impede a rider’s ability to tuck and roll following ground impact. Additionally, the loud sound made by an inflating air vest may momentarily distract the rider from responding to the impending fall.

They also noted that the percentages of starters who fall increases as the level increases, and riders at greater risk of injury may be more likely to wear an air vest.

“It would be beneficial to include additional data on the relationship between air jacket usage and the level of competition, event, horse and rider characteristics, the biomechanics of falls, injury mechanisms and the exact nature of injuries sustained in future analyses,” reads the study.

Clissold wasn’t surprised by the results.

“Our own stats show the same,” he said. “[British Eventing] records all our falls, and of the falls that are serious injuries in the UK more of them are wearing air jackets than aren’t wearing them. I’d like to see more research; it could be that people who feel they’re most at risk are wearing them.

“I’d like to see more detailed work done and data that would significantly show us if the air jackets were causing a problem by immobilizing people when they land, taking away their ability to roll out the way,” he continued.


This article appeared in the August 19, 2019, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse as part of our Eventing issue.

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