The equestrian world, where emphasis is often placed on tradition and elegance, is not known for embracing new safety inventions. It took decades to persuade hunt followers to wear chinstraps and some still resist.
But within 5 years of coming on to the market, the air jacket has taken the eventing world by storm and its appeal to all riders seems to be increasing.
“When we first brought the product over from America we concentrated on eventers as the ‘at risk’ group,” said Rachael Faulkner from Hit Air.
“But we found that hackers were asking about the technology. When you think about it, 1 of the most dangerous things you can do is ride down the road. At a competition it’s a controlled environment, but on the road anything can happen.”
The other leading manufacturer in the United Kingdom, Point Two, has also seen its market diversify.
“When we started, 95% of our business was eventing, but now it only makes up 30%,” said Point Two’s Lee Middleton.
“Demand has grown across all the disciplines. The hunting market has been 1 of our big growth areas in the past couple of years, but I also had a grand prix dressage rider buy a jacket last week.”
British Dressage and British Showjumping both allow riders to compete in air jackets if they wish. The uptake in the showing community is thought to be less and air jackets are not mentioned in many leading societies’ rulebooks.
For the jacket to be suitable for all disciplines, different styles are now available, from fluorescent vests to hunting coats (news, 24 October).
One popular invention has been the Soft Shell air jacket, which looks like a normal gilet but has been fitted with Point Two technology. The company is also hoping to launch a showjumping jacket, into which an air jacket can be inserted, later this month.
Riders are using them at home as well as at competitions. A recent survey by Cambridge University found that 70% of accidents in which riders ended up in hospital happened out hacking or schooling rather than competing.
“I wear it every time I jump, whether this is in a lesson, riding club or competition,” said H&H reader Kate Nichols. “When I am wearing it I am much more confident and ride more positively into fences.”
Amy Bratt added: “You soon forget you have it on. It’s not big and bulky and doesn’t affect your riding, so why wouldn’t you put it on?”
The next generation
A number of parents are now also making their children wear them. Pony Club volunteers are seeing riders as young as 7 wearing air jackets.
Alison Keene is trying to persuade her daughter to wear a jacket.
“She won’t wear a traditional body protector to hack out in because she feels silly, but she will wear an air jacket,” said Alison.
“She will be moving on to a horse in September and it will be farther to fall. I want it to be second nature for her to wear a jacket by then.”
Lucy Moreton first bought an air jacket for her daughter to hunt and ride cross-country in when she was 10.
“It was expensive, but what price do you put on her neck and back?” Lucy pointed out.
“It is not only for the major falls — she has had none — but also to save bruises when out hunting. It can make the difference between a miserable child wanting to come home and one who can get up and go on.”
New rental scheme
Point Two is now offering customers the opportunity to rent rather than buy its Pro Air or Hunter Air jackets. With a £200 deposit and £10 postage fee, riders can hire the jacket for £30 a month. At the end of the hire term agreement, customers will be given a £50 voucher if they decide to buy one.
So far, more than 50 customers have used the service, ranging from amateur riders trying eventing to a customer heading off on a riding safari.
Always the best option?
Despite the rising popularity of air jackets, some riders are still concerned that they could actually cause problems. A particular worry is the noise the jacket makes when it goes off.
4-star eventer Phoebe Buckley had a rotational fall at Burnham Market last month (17 April) and was not wearing a jacket (pictured left).
“I wholeheartedly believe more harm than good would have been done by an air jacket,” she told H&H.
“I got away just with bruises. The mare that fell with me is incredibly sharp. In the video you can she has got 1 hindleg either side of my torso. If there had been a bang she would have taken my head off.
“People are too quick to credit the air jacket for being life saving.”
Some less experienced riders have also had problems.
“I fell off wearing [an air jacket] and it did soften the blow, but I found the noise terrified the horse,” said H&H reader Daryl Freeman. “As a result it sits in the wardrobe in the horsebox.”
But manufacturers argue that the sound is rarely an issue.
“Of course you can’t guarantee that every horse is going to be fine,” said Ms Faulkner. “But we have very few people complaining about the noise. The sound is like the pop of opening a can of a fizzy drink.”
With or without a body protector?
It is recommended that air jackets are always worn with a body protector, but many riders choose to wear just the jacket.
“The combination of the 2 gives the most protection, but many people find traditional body protectors quite restrictive,” said Ms Faulkner. “Riding in an air jacket on its own is better than riding in nothing.
“The main thing with the air jacket is there is always a chance it might not go off. There is room for human error because you might forget to clip it in or forget to put in a canister.”
Compulsory for eventing?
Although some riders still have their concerns, the popularity of the air jacket is undeniable. Point Two estimates it has sold more than 40,000 jackets and has seen sales increase by 50% in the past six months.
British Eventing has not ruled out the possibility of making the jackets compulsory for cross-country in the future, if there is a recognised British safety standard for them.
“We look forward to seeing a safety standard being developed for testing air jackets,” said a spokesman.
Ms Faulkner added: “It’s like a helmet. When I was riding 20 years ago, I didn’t ride in one. Now I wouldn’t leave the yard without a hat. I believe body protection will go the same way.”