It is becoming an existential question for show jumping competitors: should I or shouldn’t I?
Wear a safety vest, that is.
Injuries can be catastrophic when a rider comes off his horse. Ireland’s Kevin Babington suffered a spinal cord injury in a fall from his mount Shorapur in late August of 2019 at the Hampton Classic and continues to undergo intensive rehabilitation. (Some recent positive news about Kevin includes the ability to move his middle finger on his left hand slightly and gaining some slight sensation in his lower abdomen.)
The painful truth is that if you ride, at some point you will fall off.
For 35 years, body protector-style safety vests of various designs (such as Tipperary, Charles Owen and others) have been used in equestrian sport, primarily in the discipline of eventing. Riders who swear by vests say they make them feel safer because they protect tender ribs and internal organs and can possibly reduce the severity of injuries should they tumble off the horse.
The emergence of air vests around 2003 (Point Two, HitAir, etc.), which are triggered when horse and rider part company, are growing in popularity thanks to improving technology. Largely worn by eventers, foxhunters and steeplechasers, they deploys a CO2 air cartridge when a lanyard attached to the saddle is triggered when the rider part ways with the horse.
There are also hybrid vests which combine the air vest and body protector in one package and are considerably lighter than wearing both pieces. Racing vests are designed with a higher cut for galloping riders and gel foam are high-tech versions which offer top shock absorption with a material that molds to the rider’s body over time.
In short, there seems to be a good array of choices for the discerning rider and no shortage of companies willing to fill that need. A post on the Kevin Babington Foundation Facebook page entitled “A Safer Way to Do What You Love” highlights the different cutting-edge airbag vests that are currently available in the equestrian market.
A Dearth of Research
Research studies into safety vests ‒ especially the newer air vests ‒ are few and far between. According to a 2018 study by BMJ Open Sport Exercise Medicine in 2018, wearing a protective vest during cross-country reduced the relative risk of injury by 56%. However, the study did not include air vests.
Oddly, in an analysis of FEI data from 2015 to 2017 of falls in international eventing competitions, riders who were using an air jacket had 1.7 times increased odds of sustaining a serious or fatal injury in a fall compared with riders not wearing an air jacket. It noted, however, that future research is needed to clarify these unusual findings.
A more recent study, Head and Spinal Injuries in Equestrian Sports: Update on Epidemiology, Clinical Outcomes, and Injury Prevention, published in January 2020, noted that the neck is not protected by regular safety vests, leaving the cervical spine at risk for injuries. While air vests also include cervical collars which inflate upon impact to reduce neck hyperextension, there are currently no published studies indicating they reduce the incidence of cervical spinal cord trauma.
Getting Show Jumpers On Board
When it comes to show jumping, there is a) a reluctance to mess with tradition and appearances, and b) the abovementioned inconclusive data about the effectiveness of vests.
There is a debate brewing as to whether safety vests should be made mandatory at horse shows in Canada. Ian Allison, Spruce Meadows senior vice-president, Sport and Media Services, says there is nothing concrete on the horizon in terms of mandating vests, but that it wouldn’t surprise him if things head that way at some point.
“You always have to be mindful of implementing policy and then enforcing it properly,” Allison explained. “The wise choice is to grandfather those who have crafted their skills through the years without them. In this sport, health and safety has to be paramount. Vests have come a long way. For instance, in rodeo it’s virtually everybody [who wears one]. First it was the bull riders, then the bareback, then the saddle bronc guys. Legislating things is difficult to do, and what is the penalty going to be, and so on and so forth.
“But from an organizers’ standpoint for health and safety and further down the line, insurability, any measures that you can put in place that don’t dilute the spirit of the sport and protect those participating is a good idea.”
A former member of the FEI jumping committee, Allison pointed out that the IOC, which holds great sway in many sports, could at some point decide to introduce a vest mandate at their tournaments.
“For sure there have been discussions which have spawned out of eventing,” he said. “I think most certainly it will have its beta testing in the junior and amateur ranks for acceptance, the challenges, and that type of thing. It will have to be looked upon as beneficial for all as opposed to forced upon all. I’m sure at technical committee levels discussions are being undertaken, but to my knowledge nothing has been mandated or is on the docket to be.”
Playing by the Rules
Frances McAvity, chair of the EC National Rules Committee, explained some of the hurdles that rulemakers would face making safety vests compulsory in the show ring. “Mandatory vests in the jumper ring will clash on many fronts,” she warns. “Should it apply to all athletes jumping over fences both in the schooling/warm up arenas and the competition arena? How will this rule apply during a platinum competition where FEI a athletes are not required to wear a vest. Who is going to monitor such a rule, and what are the consequences for not wearing one?”
She also explained the rule-making process, noting, “It would not need to be an FEI rule first, as EC can develop rules specific to EC competition.”
The process for rule changes is outlined on the website here; EC Sport Licence holders are also welcome to make suggestions on the Online Rule Change Suggestion Portal, or changes can be proposed by a committee.
Currently, the only sport where the vest is mandatory is FEI Eventing when jumping cross-country warm-up fences and in cross-country competition. They are not required for the show jumping warmup or competition.
McAvity is quick to point out, “I don’t disagree with the idea of wearing a safety vest. Before the word ‘mandatory’ can be introduced, I believe it will take great education, slow rollout and proof of success. We need to get trainers, coaches, professional riders, OCs and officials on board. Unless the FEI mandates that vests are mandatory, this will be an extremely difficult task to pull off as a purely national rule.”
She adds, “I would likely start with introducing vests into the younger children’s classes/divisions and carefully progressing into juniors and then perhaps amateurs and so on. I believe the motivation will be around how many injuries has/does this practice prevent. It will be on the lines of hard hats and breakaway safety cups. Both have proven track records for minimizing serious injuries. If vests can be proven to minimize concussion, for instance, we would have a better shot as the concussion protocols are now well established and mandated by Sport Canada.”
What About the Kids?
McAvity’s desire to see kids outfitted in safety vests may be s bit harder to expedite than it sounds, as there are currently few options for kid’s sizes in air vests. A quick check with a few of the leaders in the field – Helite, Freejump and Horse Pilot – found that Helite does have a model for children called Airjacket Child “specifically designed for children and has to be worn over the equipment.” However, “To guarantee that the system works properly, we recommend that the user should have a minimum weight of 35 kg (77 lbs).” (Note that Helite’s distributor in Canada is www.hansendistribution.com)
Horse Pilot does not currently produce a safety air vest for children; their smallest size is adult XS. A similar request for info regarding children’s sizes sent to FreeJump was not answered at the time of this writing.
Riders Weigh In
Canadian rider Brian Morton of Langley, BC, has some history with vests. “Back in the day I did three-day eventing, so I’m familiar with wearing one cross-country,” he related. “I’ve had my old cross-country vest for quite some time and there’s been times when riding a young horse or a fresh horse where I’ve decided to put it on.
“I’ve not personally played around with the modern [air] vests. But I’d certainly be open to it. We all have those moments where we feel like we’re taking on a calculated risk, whether it’s getting on a fresh horse, a young horse, going into a class that is right at the top of a horse’s scope. So certainly in a situation like that I could see myself trying to mitigate that risk by using every piece of safety equipment I could, including a vest.”
When safety is in play, people’s minds can be changed.
“Human nature is interesting,” noted Morton. “Every piece of safety equipment has initially been resisted by the population, whether it’s seat belts or air bags or helmets. Everyone initially balks and eventually becomes accustomed to them. I do suspect that’s the direction we’re going in with vests as well.
“What you see designed now is more sleek and subtle and blends in with typical hunter-jumper jackets a lot better, so I think it’s good to see the manufacturers putting time and resources into these vest to make a better product.”
Martin Fuchs of Switzerland, the second-ranked rider in the FEI standings, swears by his Freejump airbag vest. Allison pointed out, “If his influence can be recognized by young riders coming on, it’s a lot easier sell.”
And finally, Dianna Babington, Kevin’s wife, reported on social media in November that their daughter Gwyneth had recently suffered a serious fall in competition ‒ but was able to walk away because she was wearing an air vest.
“Today my daughter came off her horse in the High JR Jumper Classic. She was trying to win. When you try to win you take risks…. It happens. If you ride, you will fall. She was wearing an air vest.
“There is a lot of chatter about these vests. I’m surprised that there are people who are against them. As a mother, a rider, a trainer and the wife of an injured athlete, nobody will ever be able to convince me personally that riders are better off without them. I have seen the evidence. I have fallen myself. Students have fallen. My daughters have fallen. [The vests] are amazing. She wasn’t even winded. Got up and said, “Wow, it was like hitting a cloud.” She was tired and her knee was sore, but organs and spine were intact.
“Will it prevent all injury? Maybe not, but neither will your seat belt in your car. I support the technology.”