Air Vests Are All the Rage—But Are They Truly Safe?

Photo © Carly Nasznic

The hunter jumper world is abuzz about air vests. Well-known professionals are wearing them, more are speaking out about buying their own, and amateur riders and parents are considering making the investment for themselves and their children.

The Plaid Horse is committed to researching all of the safety options available to riders, and we wholeheartedly applaud the trend toward added precautions. (You can see our September issue coverage of body protection here). And for those who aren’t familiar yet, air vests are worn by a rider and attach to the saddle by a tether. When a rider separates from their saddle, the vest inflates quickly in an effort to protect the rider upon landing.

In putting that article together, we learned that air vests do not have much research behind them. Search enough about air vests on the Internet, and you’ll read everything from “this vest saved my life” stories, to evidence that the use of air vests can actually make injuries worse. (Traditional body protectors promise less in the way of injury prevention, but have been tested more—there are multiple safety certifications for these vests.) Some research actually showed that more riders sustained a serious injury after falling in an air vest than without one—though that study made note of the fact that more research is needed to determine why. While riders wearing an air vest were more likely to fall, the disciplines that utilize air vests most frequently do result in more falls and have a higher opportunity for serious injury.

TPH spoke with Reed Ayers, a research scientist and a rider himself, for his thoughts on air vests. Ayers works in the Department of Orthopedics, Spine Division, University of Colorado, School of Medicine, and is a member of ASTM. 

“An issue with air vests from the perspective of safety is they are a FAIL DANGEROUS design. That is, if they don’t work they become dangerous, e.g. they may not inflate and keep the rider attached to the horse via the lanyard, thus possibly resulting in the rider being dragged,” said Ayers. “I know of four instances where this happened. Standard vests are FAIL SAFE. They work without any external mechanisms.”

Military studies examining injuries as the result of being thrown through the air show that the way the spine moves in an impact can be a predictor of injury, Ayers said. “They found that the more rigid the body was held on impact, e.g. thrown due to explosion, the greater the spine injuries. This is an issue with air vests. They can force the spine into a rigid frame, likely increasing the axial forces along the spine. Riders … are held rigid until the vest deflates (up to 2 minutes later). Thus, they are held in a rigid frame on impact, likely affecting spine injury.”

If air vests don’t have research behind them, but we have anecdotal evidence—success stories from riders—as a testament to their effectiveness, why isn’t that enough?

“Anecdotal evidence is simply observation with no quantification,” said Ayers. “This very unreliable. It is similar to the ‘blue car problem.’ If you deliberately look for blue cars on the road, your will notice a lot of blue cars to the exclusion of other colors. Thus, a person can claim there are a lot of blue cars being made without basis or qualification when the reality may be quite different.”

And while standard vests (also referred to as body protectors) are understood to provide protection to the ribs and vital organs since the foam disperses impact, proving that effectiveness with actual research is another story. “The standards established for any safety vest are really only based on puncture resistance. There is no efficient way to actually measure internal organ impact forces as is done for the brain with helmets.”

How do we get more research and testing done on air vests?

Ayers says this would be an expensive proposition that would require “independent people who are experts in biomechanics, device testing, materials, safety equipment, medicine, horses, as well as accident investigations to guide appropriate testing specific to horse sports.” 

Lynsey Whitacre chimed in on this topic in The Plaid Horse Adult Amateur Lounge as well. Whitacre, a rider, PhD, and a research and development manager at BioZyme, Inc, said, “the companies manufacturing the products, and foundations like USEF, need to fund the proper research and make available any data they collected during product development publicly available, which they have not done yet as far as I can tell.”

As Whitacre points out, USHJA has pledged $100,000 to the new helmet study. And with the increasing popularity of body protectors, it would be prudent to study those next. “As someone whose career has been in university and private research, I am sure it will not be cheap,” said Whitacre. “But it’s worth it.” 

So, what can we do now to work toward studying the safety and effectiveness of air vests? If you’ve purchased an air vest, we encourage you to copy and paste the form letter below, encouraging the manufacturer to invest in this much-needed research. You can also send the letter to our governing bodies and/or your local HJA to get involved. Helmet research has come a long way and continues to do so. The same needs to happen for body protection.

Dear [company name here]

I purchased a [brand name] air vest to protect myself while riding. But I understand that air vests in general do not have much research behind them. It is in all riders’ best interest to wear protective gear that has been formally researched to prove its effectiveness. Would you please take a portion of my sale, and all your sales, to fund peer-reviewed research? 

Thank you,
[your name]