By Kathy Carter

Inflatable air vests for the mainstream consumer horse riding market have been around for four years now, and are a staple of the eventing community, when worn in conjunction with a suitable body protector. Air jackets are seen by many as being a great addition to the equestrian safety market, and are becoming increasingly used at Pony Club events, in endurance rides, and even out hunting; there are now several reputable brands within the marketplace, offering a range of garments and price tags.

Jon Leigh, Registered Osteopath, says in correspondence with body protector and airbag manufacturer USG, that the usual landing position from a fall is on the rider’s back or side. “If no protection is being worn, the head, being at one end of the spinal column, continues to travel downwards until it strikes the ground and absorbs the impact. The sudden stopping of the downward movement causes the head to be bent backwards and then forwards, causing a whiplash effect. This in turn travels down the whole of the spine where the bony pelvis either absorbs the force, or the force is reflected back up the spine,” he states.

Preventing injury

The design of the air jacket originated from the motorcycling industry, and aims to make horse riding safer and to prevent serious injury if the horse rider falls. These garments are said to have meant the difference between life and death for several top riders.

Eventer Laura Collett, who fell at Tweseldown horse trials this year, suffered crush injuries to her lungs and liver, as well as minor fractures, and was placed in an induced coma during her recovery. She was wearing a Point Two air jacket. “The paramedics watched the video footage, and my jacket did ‘go off’ before the horse came down on me. I’m very thankful I had my air jacket on. A few years ago, no-one had heard of them. Now a lot of people wouldn’t ride without them,” Laura told the BBC after her fall.

Eventer Gemma Tattersall absolutely loves her Helite air jacket. “It is lightweight and so comfortable to ride, in I hardly notice it, yet I still have the reassurance of the garment’s proven trigger system to protect me. I have had a couple of falls when I know I would have been much worse off without the air jacket’s protection – I would now never compete without it.”

Eventer James Somerville rides in USG’s FlexiPlus EquiAirbag. “It is a combined body protector and air jacket in one, and has a rear air bag that protects the spine. I like it as it offers freedom of movement to roll and move out of the way in the event of a fall, as the inflation is at the back, protecting the spine.”

How do air jackets work? 

The jackets work thanks to a lanyard attached to the saddle that triggers the release of CO2 gas from a canister – this quickly inflates the jacket (in some cases, in just a fraction of a second), when the rider parts company from the saddle.

Air jackets are designed to provide a shock buffering and body stabilising system that slows down a rider’s fall, absorbing shock and helping to distribute pressure upon landing. They also aim to limit the extra torsion movements that can cause the rider’s body to naturally contract when hitting the ground.

Air jackets also give cushioning protection to areas of the body including the base of the neck, spine, collar bones, lower back, rib cage and vital organs when falling from a horse, helping to limit fractures and other internal injuries. (Each manufacturer’s garment is different in design however, and offers key benefits, inflation speeds, areas of protection, and immediate mobility once the garment has inflated.)

The neck protection provided by some air jacket is designed to decelerate the neck in the event of a fall, significantly reducing the possibility of hyper-extension and whiplash.

Air jackets can also help guard against crush injuries in the event of a rotational fall.

While air jackets are strongly advised to be used in conjunction with a body protector – see below – they are said to significantly reduce the risk factors for injury when worn alone, when compared to not wearing any form of protection.

Key points

According to the British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA), air jackets are not a replacement for a body protector, but an addition. A body protector offers permanent, static protection, both on and off the horse; meanwhile, an air vest provides temporary, dynamic protection once the garment is inflated.

It is important to note that stand-alone air jackets are not tested to the same standards as body protectors, the latter typically EN13158-2009. Air jackets are sometimes tested to lower motorcycle industry standards – the newest is EN1621-4. There are however two ‘air jacket and body protector hybrids’ on the market. The body protector components of these garments are approved to EN13158-2009 and BETA 2009 Level Three. They are Point Two’s ‘P2-RS’ and USG’s ‘FlexiPlus EquiAirbag’.

BETA currently sits on the motor cycle standard committee, and is discussing with companies how and whether this may be utilised to form an acceptable standard for air vests designed for horse riding.

Manufacturers of air jackets

First Published December 2013 Equi-Ads





Author: Features Editor

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