The debate about the benefits of air vests rumbles on, following a recent study showing that they decrease the risk of severe chest injury by a small amount.

British Eventing (BE) recently published the findings of research it funded at the Transport Research Laboratory into the effectiveness of air vests in protecting riders from crush injuries.

A series of controlled tests were carried out, in which an equine cadaver was dropped on to a crash test dummy wearing a BETA 2009 Level 3 body and shoulder protector, and an air jacket. The cadaver was dropped from a height of 1.2m and chest deflection was measured.

The results showed that the air jacket reduced the compression on the dummy’s chest, and that the predicted risk of severe chest injury fell from 94% to 81%.

“This means that it could have a beneficial effect in reducing the likelihood of severe injury from a horse falling on a rider,” read a BE statement. “However, there is still a high probability of riders sustaining a severe injury.”

Rachel Ricci from Hit-Air welcomed the news.

“Hit-Air has long understood the limitations of both air and body protectors in a rotational fall,” she told H&H. “However, we believe that the 13% reduction in the risk of serious injury is significant when we are talking about what could be the difference between life and death.”

Restricted movement?

But detractors maintain that riders without air vests have more chance of rolling away from the horse, and therefore not being crushed in the first place.

Former four-star eventer Pepo Puch was one of the first riders to wear an air vest, but in 2008 he fell when his horse tripped, broke his neck and is now paraplegic.

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“A proper jacket should allow a rider to roll after he falls,” said Mr Puch, a London 2012 Paralympic gold medallist. “I was aware of what I should do to fall safely, but I could not move at all. My specialist was convinced that the accident would not have been as serious had it not been for the air jacket.”

Since air vests arrived on the eventing scene in 2008/9, when many top riders given freebies of this high-cost item wore them, opinions have diverged. None of the all-conquering German team uses them.

“Our riders have tried them, but individually have decided they are not for them,” German chef d’equipe Christopher Bartle told H&H. “I am sceptical about their value. I think they potentially restrict movement and the reflex to tuck and roll. I believe the possible positives are over-ridden by the negatives.”

Trainer Annabel Scrimgeour, too, says she is “not a fan”.

“I worry that they restrict the rider’s ability to tuck and roll to get out of the way,” she says. “I don’t see their value in rotational falls — the bit in the middle [of a rider’s body] still gets squashed.”

But Ms Ricci believes the rotational fall argument misses the point.

“Most riders don’t have time to think about rolling when they fall — you need to be trained like a jockey,” she said. “But one of the reasons for rolling is to dissipate the energy of the fall, and that’s what an air jacket does anyway.”

A ‘life’ jacket

The likes of Francis Whittington, Harry Meade and Andrew Nicholson don’t wear one; Pippa Funnell used to, but stopped after one horse spooked badly when a canister went off. But fellow four-star rider Laura Collett says she “wouldn’t dream of going cross-country without one”.

“My Point Two air jacket saved my life in a horrific fall I had in 2013,” she said, a sentiment mirrored by Oliver Townend after he was discharged from hospital the same day he had a rotational fall in 2010.
Irish team rider Camilla Speirs is also a fan, having been given one by Point Two.

“I think they’re great; I even go schooling in mine,” she told H&H. “Mine has a built-in body protector, so it’s compact, and my movement is not restricted.”

One aspect that has made it into the press due to high-profile cases is the vest inflating without the rider falling, as happened to Ellen Svennerstal at Burghley and Michael Owen (pictured, top) and Niklas Bschorer at Badminton this year.

Although Michael tried to continue, he retired a few fences later after a run-out.

“I would wear one again,” said Michael, who was only saved from falling by his horse’s head coming up and pushing him back into the saddle. “This was the first time it has gone off and the feeling of restriction wouldn’t bother me so much next time.”

Team chaser Christie Eaton-Evans’ vest inflated when she was leaning back over a drop, yet she was unfazed.

I carried on, giggling,” she said.

Ms Ricci says that impromptu inflations may be down to incorrect lanyard length.

“In those instances any ‘normal’ rider would have been off,” she says. “Riders need to adjust the length of their lanyard to what they would consider to be appropriate for them falling off the horse.”

Leisure market

Rotational falls are horrific, and arguably no safety device will ever protect riders sufficiently — although the Exo bodycage was designed for this, but is no longer in production. But mercifully rotationals are relatively rare in the broader realm of equestrianism and this is where air vests are flying off the shelves. Point Two reported earlier this year that just 30% of their sales are to eventers, down from 95%.

“Leisure riders are our target market,” agreed Ms Ricci, reporting growth of 20% year on year. “Riders wear them for all activities — like a seatbelt. Many of these riders never even leave the ground, but it gives them confidence and puts the joy back into their riding.”

Ref: 12/11/15