Body Protectors, Air Vests & and Other Safety Gear: What You Need to Know

Sable Hughes showed in a body protector for the first time in August. PHOTO Christine Cowan.

By Rennie Dyball

There’s nothing like a pandemic to get people thinking about their safety. In tack shops and in online groups alike, riders outside of the eventing world are talking about incorporating an extra safety precaution in the saddle.

But with so many choices and such a wide range of price points in equestrian PPE—not to mention a departure from the typical horse show look—where do you even begin?

The Plaid Horse spoke with Danielle Santos, director of sales and partnerships at Charles Owen Inc., to get started on our own education in body protection. “In times of uncertainty—recession, war, pandemic—people look for safety,” said Santos. Charles Owen and its sister brand Airowear offer several body protectors (designed to protect the vital organs and ribcage) as well as a newer air vest.

“What we push from a company perspective is going through the independent certifications,” said Santos. “There’s in-house testing, and then there’s certification from an outside body, testing the product to ensure it performs in equestrian accident-specific scenarios. That independent testing is scientific knowledge to have in your product.”

 Helmets, for example, must meet a minimum safety standard in the U.S. through such a certification. If a helmet has foreign certifications as well, that means it’s been through additional sets of testing. The same goes for body protectors; in the U.S., a body protector that’s been certified will be labeled SEI certified to ASTM F1937-04. Certain body protectors have additional certifications, like the like the BETA certification to European standard EN13158:2018.

Sandy Ferrell has been wearing a body protector in the show ring for years. PHOTO Irene Elise Powlick.

Earning a certification is “a rigorous process in place for a very good reason, which is protecting your body,” said Laura Qusen, director of operations for Tipperary. She added that different riders are increasingly taking an interest in body protectors. “Lots of hunter jumper riders are starting to understand that while falls are typically few and far between, it really only takes one fall for it to matter that you protected yourself.”

“Helmets have come such a long way over the years and are now mandatory in most disciplines, which has really helped everyone our sport accept them. We’re seeing some of this acceptance rub off onto vests now as well, and that’s a really good thing. Your head is of course so important to protect but your back and chest are a very, very close second.”

As far as air vests go, the industry is working to set up independent certifications for those in particular. At the moment, there is one standard for air vests, the SATRA M38. “Air vests are new technology, and in time, we hope to have as much science behind air vests as we do body protectors,” said Santos.

Deloise Noble-Strong, a professional rider and trainer in Maryland, began wearing a body protector after having heart surgery. “When I decided to return to riding horses, my doctors were a bit horrified, but I made a promise to take extra precautions,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “We all know the reality for a professional rider combined with young horses is, well… you are going to fall off, whether you like it or not. So, I said to myself, ‘No vest, no ride,’ and to this day, since those surgeries, I have not and will not put my body on a horse without one.”

“Am I still vulnerable to permanent damage from some bizarre riding accident? Of course. This isn’t a superpower shield, but it is a basic safety measure, like not wearing flip-flops around 1200 lb. animal and losing a toe. If there was ever a perfect time in our lives for increasing safety measures to keep us out of the hospital, now might be that time.” She adds that she feels “grateful to live in a time where we can take full advantage of the advancements in technology and safety which are provided for us right here, right now.”

Several years ago, top hunter rider Sandy Ferrell made a splash at the horse shows by wearing a body protector in the ring. Her decision came after a fall from a young horse left her with fractured vertebrae and a punctured lung, and she says she’s worn her vest ever since. “It feels like my seatbelt,” Ferrell told The Plaid Horse in 2017. “I won’t get on a horse without it. If I can inspire just one person, it would be worth it. I’ve been asked whether I think my vest has hurt my placings and I just look at them and say ‘Well, I just won a championship at Devon!’”

Since then, Ferrell has begun wearing a Horse Pilot Airbag, and is now sponsored by the company. And this summer, jumper rider Kaley Cuoco shared an unpaid endorsement for the Horse Pilot on Instagram.

EQU Lifestyle Boutique owner Monica Ward carries the Horse Pilot vest, and says it’s becoming more and more popular among her clientele. “It’s great to see how our sport evolves. I’m seeing a normalization of air vests and I love it.”

According to a USEF article from May of this year, “There are several manufacturers offering equestrian air vests today, and while the designs vary somewhat, the principle of how they work is the same. The vests have a lanyard that attaches to the saddle. When a rider parts ways with the saddle, the lanyard triggers the activation device, which punctures an air canister, instantly inflating the vest before the rider hits the ground.”

The article also notes one study conducted by the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, which reviewed cross-country falls at FEI events among riders who wore air vests and those who did not. “This study raised several unanswered questions and clearly points to the need for additional research,” Dr. Mark Hart, USEF’s Team Physician, said in the article.

Air vests are not the only new technology available to riders. Equestrians have also started to take note of Aexos, a company that produces a product called the Halo collar. A compression shirt with built in neck protection that hardens upon impact to act like a body protector, the Halo was originally designed for hockey, football, and lacrosse. “We are typically seeing a reduction in linear and rotational forces on the head by 35-48%. This has a dramatic effect on whiplash or acceleration/decelerations injuries of the head and neck,” says Aexos CEO Dr. Daryl Sherman. “The collar is made from a rate sensitive foam. This enables the rider to have a full range of motion during normal riding activities. When the head/neck are accelerated the collar stiffens to decelerate the head/neck and protect the rider, in a completely unobtrusive way, working seamlessly with existing protective equipment such as helmets and vests.”

Nilani Trent in the Aexos Halo collar under her show clothes. PHOTO Tricia Booker.

“As we began our retail launch, our thought process was that we would attract buyers from football, hockey, lacrosse, etc. We received a significant number of orders from these segments, but to our surprise we received a significant number of orders from cycling, martial arts, cheerleading, soccer, motocross, ski, waterskiing, among others. One of the largest segments we saw with orders came from equestrian sports.”

Amateur hunter and jumper rider Nilani Trent took notice of the products and has been a loyal wearer (and a collaborator with the brand) ever since. “I wanted something that could help prevent head injuries caused by whiplash,” said Trent. “There isn’t much on the market from equestrian brands specifically outside of air vests so I figured, why not look at other sports?” Trent now wears the Halo under her show shirt and jacket (see photo, left). “It’s very comfortable, supportive, and provides great compression. You can’t even tell I have it on under my show clothes.”

No matter what sort of protective gear a rider chooses beyond his or her helmet, there can be a psychological benefit to taking the extra precaution as well. On her episode of The Plaidcast with Sandy Ferrell, Plaidcast host and equestrian mental skills coach Tonya Johnston said that incorporating additional safety gear, “has the potential to impact a rider’s confidence in positive ways.”

In these uncertain times—and in a sport that will always have some level of unpredictability—a little more confidence can go a long way.

A Hunter Rider’s Maiden Voyage

In all my years of riding, I’ve never even tried on a body protector. But the more I read about them, the more I started thinking that if there’s an additional safety precaution I can take, I should take it. Full disclosure: I prefer the look of my hunt coats to the look of any safety vest. (I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a hunter rider who disagrees!) But for me personally, that wasn’t a good enough reason to not at least give body protectors a try.

First, I tried the Charles Owen JL9 (see lesson photo, far left). I expected to feel awkward and hot, as it was a humid day in the mid-80s. But to my pleasant surprise, I nearly forgot I was wearing it by the time we’d trotted a couple of laps. Body protectors mold to your body the warmer they get, and this absolutely proved true with the Charles Owen. Don’t mistake the way it feels in the store for the way it will feel after you start riding in it.

Next, I tried the Tipperary Eventer Pro for my first horse show back since the pandemic began (see photo, left). Just as with the Charles Owen, I felt an added element of security by taking this precaution. I found the Eventer Pro to have a sleeker look for showing, while the Charles Owen felt more ventilated. Though any vest is not my first fashion choice—and yes, you’ll sweat a lot underneath them in the summer—I believe those factors are well worth the added protection in case of a bad accident.

Originally from the September 2020 issue.

About the Author: Rennie Dyball is the author of several books, including The Plaid Horse’s middle grade novel series, Show Strides. She’s also a contributing writer for TPH and a ghostwriter for celebrity books. Rennie lives in Maryland and competes in hunters and equitation.

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