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Safe in the Saddle: A Look at Protective Vests

When it comes to our horses’ welfare, we do everything that we can to keep them healthy and sound. From ice boots and protective wraps to therapeutic blankets and massages, our horses’ comfort and longevity is paramount.

What are you doing to keep yourself in top condition? Like it or not, horseback riding can be dangerous, especially in the event of a fall. Many equestrians utilize helmets to protect against traumatic brain injuries and other riding related injuries; however, helmets only protect the head and neck. Riders are now turning to protective riding vests to cushion their torsos. These vests have been specifically designed to shield your lungs, heart, liver, and other vital organs while cushioning your bones during impact.

Protective vests are required during United States Eventing Association (USEA) and United States Pony Club (USPC) competitions. Many equestrians also utilize them when starting young horses, and sometimes when schooling for an added layer of safety. They are even making their way onto the rodeo scene, with smart bull riders and bronc riders strapping a vest on before their eight second ride.

What’s Your Style?

While all protective vests have the same mission, to protect an equestrian in the event of a fall, there are two different main styles of vests.

The traditional protective vest, often referred to as a passive eventing vest, is manufactured from a dense foam or gel which insulates the rider and protects the bones, muscles, and vital organs when a rider is thrown from a horse. Many of these vests are functional and safe, being ASTM, SEI, and BETA approved, and therefore meeting body protector safety standards. The Charles Owen JL9 Protective Vest utilizes innovative gel that conforms to the shape of the rider. These vests remain the most popular type of vest among eventers and casual equestrians alike.

The other type of protective vest is the air vest. These vests attach to the saddle via a saddle strap, and then when the rider and the saddle become separated, the vest inflates. Much like the airbags in your car, these vests blow up in the blink of an eye and then slowly deflate over the course of a few minutes. These vests protect the rider in the event of a rotational fall, and they cushion the major upper abdominal organs, the spine, and the collar of the neck. Once an air vest canister has been deployed, a new cartridge must be installed in the vest. 

Fit for a King (or Queen)

When it comes to a protective vest, proper fit is essential for both safety and comfort. Enlist a friend or a member of our helpful sales staff to take careful measurements of your chest, waist, hips, and torso length. Carefully review size charts to determine which vests will fit your body appropriately. In addition to the wide range of sizing, many vests, like the AiroWear Outlyne Body Protector and the Tipperary Eventer Vest, are now offering Velcro and lacing adjustments for a custom fit.

Much like a helmet, a protective vest cannot perform as designed if it is too large or too small. A properly fitting vest should fit snugly, without impeding the rider’s movement or range or motion. A vest that is too large may shift, leaving vital areas unprotected. A vest that is too small will not only be uncomfortable, but it may also leave bones, muscles, and organs without ample padding and protection.

Pick Your Protection

Selecting the right protective vest is much like purchasing the perfect pair of running shoes. They may look wonderful and feel great out of the box, but it’s hard to know if they are right for you until you hit the ground running. We recommend that our customers spend a considerable amount of time in their protective vests before making their final decision, so plan to take a walk around the store or spend some time on the couch before finalizing your purchase. This is particularly important for traditional vests which are made of dense, protective foam which molds to your body when it warms up.

The type of vest that you choose to purchase will depend on the type of riding that you do. Equestrians looking for additional protection in the event of a fall will benefit from any vest. In this case, the most important piece of the puzzle is that it fits well and you feel comfortable riding. Many equestrians, from competitive hunter/jumper riders and reiners to trail riders and pleasure riders, have found that a protective vest allows them to feel safer and more confident in the saddle.

Event riders undergo a much stricter set of guidelines when purchasing a competition vest. In order for the vest to be legal, it must adhere to ASTM Equestrian Standard ASTM F1937-04 & SEI Certifications. These guidelines ensure that the safety vests provide well-rounded and ample protection for these riders. Only the passive foam protective vests are eligible for certification, as there are certain situations that an air vest may not deploy (for instance in the event of a fall of the horse and the rider). Many event riders choose to wear a passive foam protective vest underneath an air vest to comply with the rules while utilizing the technical advantages of the air vest. There are even hybrid vests that are entering the market which combine the benefits of both types of vests, in one easy-to-use and -wear vest that is legal for eventing competition. 

In the jumper ring, protective vests are not considered traditional attire, however they are legal for all levels of jumper competition. From the puddle-jumpers to the grand prix, a quality protective vest makes sense to prevent rider injury.

Add an extra layer of safety and confidence to your ride with a protective vest. Whether you are looking for a comfortable vest for schooling or the perfect vest to enter your next competition with, our experienced and friendly sales staff can help you find the ideal vest to fit your body type and budget.


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